Modest, respectful little Indian tale...lousy with Red Commie propaganda. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Hiawatha, the 1952 drama from "Poverty Row"'s Monogram Pictures--their last before morphing into Allied Artists--based on...um, well...no, it's not really based on Longfellow's epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, and starring Vince Edwards, Yvette Duguay, Keith Larsen, Morris Ankrum, Eugene Iglesias, Ian MacDonald, Stuart Randall, Katherine Emery, Stephen Chase, and Armando Silvestre. Intolerant P.C. dogma today would dismiss Hiawatha right off the bat for committing the 1950s Hollywood cardinal "sin" of casting White actors in Indian roles (heaven forbid), while no doubt celebrating Hiawatha's thinly-veiled Cold War attack on America's super power nuclear status...when really the opposite should prevail: Hiawatha's pacifist element sounds nice but doesn't work (it never does...), while its quiet, positive view of Indian life that couldn't possibly exist in a "racist" 1952 Hollywood Indian picture, plays quite well, giving the viewer an admittedly simplified but considered view of pre-European Indian life in North America. No extras for this acceptable Cinecolor fullscreen release.
Ojibway brave Hiawatha (Vince Edwards), hunting deer with Pau PukKeewis (Keith Larsen), Chibiabos (Eugene Iglesias), Kwasind (Armando Silvestre), and others, encounters an Illinois hunting party on Ojibway land. Hiawatha councils a peaceful overture of friendship, which seems to be mirrored by the opposing party's leader, but hate-filled warrior Pau PukKeewis (Keith Larsen), unprovoked, sinks an arrow into an Illinois brave and a deadly fight ensues. Back at camp, Pau PukKeewis addresses the Chiefs' Council, telling them that the Ojibway's peaceful isolation has endangered them, and that Chief Megissogwon (Ian MacDonald) should let him scout the strength of their enemies, the Illinois and the Dakotah. Hiawatha disagrees, calling Pau PukKeewis' account of the battle a lie, and urging a scouting party to see if the Ojibway's enemies could be their friends, instead. Both are given their heads, with Pau PukKeewis going to Illinois territory, and Hiawatha to the Dakotah. Before he leaves, Hiawatha is threatened with death by Pau PukKeewis, while Hiawatha's grandmother, Nokomis (Katherine Emery), tells Hiawatha the story of his mother's demise: she married a brave from another tribe, whom abandoned her with child. Hiawatha splits up his scouting party, only to be mauled by a bear and rescued by Dakotah arrow maker, Lakku (Stephen Chase). Lakku looks kindly on this lost enemy, even though his headstrong daughter, Minnehaha (Yvette Duguay), wishes to kill Hiawatha. As his wounds heal, the kindly, romantic Hiawatha breaks through Minnehaha's anger and they fall in love. Hiawatha's wish to marry her is granted by Chief Megissogwon, but is resented by many in the tribe, particularly scheming Pau PukKeewis, who plans on scuttling Hiawatha's latest mission of peace: asking the Dakotah for winter food when the corn crop fails...rather than killing for it, as Pau PukKeewis suggests.
I'm certainly no expert on pre-European Native Americans, nor on Hiawatha, but from what little I remember from school (and a brief scan on the net), no one seems to know, exactly, who Hiawatha was, or what he did...or even in what century he lived. So whatever liberties Monogram took with his biography can be forgiven in the license of dramatic art: Hiawatha is no more egregious, in the strictest terms of biography, to the real Hiawatha's legacy than when Longfellow lilted about the shores of Gitche Gumee (despite some critics who frequently go off the rails when a cinematic biography jumbles the "facts"--and when has a Hollywood biopic ever not done that--most viewers, far smarter than elitist critics any day, know they're just movies). In this B-picture take on the legendary Indian leader (there have been numerous cinematic adaptations of his life, particularly during the silent era), then-contemporary 1950s politics lie not so subtly beneath the so-called biographical surface, with the real Hiawatha's purported role as a peacemaker and tribe-uniter used as a framework for some thinly veiled jabs at American military might, courtesy of Red Channels alumnus, screenwriter Arthur Strawn (Hiawatha was his last official credit, no doubt before he was blacklisted). Reportedly, Monogram repeatedly delayed a biopic on Hiawatha immediately after WWII out of fear that his story could be somehow seen as pro-communist...a concern that either apparently waned, or was somehow assuaged at the front office, when one sees how clearly screenwriter Strawn (with an assist by Dan Ullman) grafts Red-tinged Daily Worker pacifist carps about American muscle onto Hiawatha's efforts to unite his fellow tribesmen.
In Hiawatha, Hiawatha is portrayed as a soft-spoken proponent of peace at any cost, constantly counseling for talk rather than war. In the movie's opening scene, his hunting party finds enemy raiders on his land, but he instinctively trusts them, and councils friendship with them. He's also later willing to meet his enemies unarmed, to prove his convictions of non-violence. His nemesis, Pau PukKeewis, is a murderous, scheming warmonger who will lie and cheat and dishonor his own tribe to satisfy his bloodlust--a one-dimensional bloodlust that the screenwriters never attempt to explain. When Hiawatha defeats Pau PukKeewis in their first death match, Hiawatha refuses to kill him, which the movie takes as another positive sign of the innate "rightness" of Hiawatha's pacifism. Of course what the movie doesn't comment on is the price of Hiawatha's pacifism: had Hiawatha killed the clearly evil, troublemaking Pau PukKeewis when he first had the chance, the many subsequent deaths caused by Pau PukKeewis's continued duplicitous war campaign, would not have happened.
You can take this generalized pacifist streak in Hiawatha as merely a pro forma dramatic device to set up the movie's conventional conflict between Hiawatha and Pau PukKeewis, but the "peace at any cost" trend gains weight as political mouthpiece theatre when coupled with Strawn's veiled, anachronistic jabs at America's super-power status. As Hiawatha and Minnehaha begin to communicate, they wonder at how they were brought up to unreasonably distrust each other, because of predetermined prejudice instilled in them by their tribes/government (a reoccurring, frequently expressed--and naive--lament in the 1950s from those who couldn't separate the Soviet people from their threatening, abusive, murderous government). When the Ojibway tribe suffer a devastating corn crop failure, Hiawatha is positive their enemies will just give them what they need (did he ever think they only just enough for themselves?), just as the Ojibway will give their enemies food when the Ojibway are flush (all Hiawatha had to add here would be, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,"). Most glaring of all, when the War council Chief Iagoo (Morris Ankrum), mortally wounded, sees the carnage of his latest battle, he magically renounces his honorable, brave warrior heritage and gravely intones, "If we don't make our enemies fear us, we, in turn, will not need to fear," a liberal rap popular with the Fifth Column back in the 50s when attacking nuclear America's "peace through strength" military/foreign policy (...a rap, tragically, we keep hearing today, right up to our present political abominations). You can debate till the Soviet farm tractors come home whether or not any of this stealth indoctrination is valid (here's a hint, dumbski: it's not); the real problem in Hiawatha is how poorly and ham-handedly this feel-good drivel is integrated into the narrative, with Hiawatha sounding not like a fierce, savvy Native American warrior testing the waters of tribal unification, but rather a CUNY poly-sci student earnestly holding court at a Party meeting.
All of which is a shame, because when Hiawatha drops the Party line, it's a simple but rather enjoyable "Western," if you will, with the then-unfamiliar time line context of having no White men yet on the scene. All the familiar conventions we auto-pilot associate with cowboy and Indian Westerns--most obviously, the clash of Native American and White cultures--are absent here. Whether or not Hiawatha's portrayal of Indians in this pre-European America is ethno-sociologically correct is a matter for a historian, but in comparison to some other less-enlightened Westerns that were in theaters and on television at the time, Hiawatha's Native Americans are shown to be cognizant, thoughtful, characters, capable of kindness and cruelty, acceptance and distrust (racism among different Indian tribes would rarely be portrayed at this time), and speech that transcends monosyllabic grunts and pigeon English. Director Kurt Neumann (Tarzan and the Amazons, Rocketship X-M, Kronos, The Fly) achieves several quite lyrical montages of the Indians going about their daily lives, as well as several well-choreographed action scenes (just skip the silly fake bear attack). The Bass Lake, California scenery is beautiful and a reasonable facsimile of primordial Algonquian forest (most welcome for a Monogram opus: everything is shot outside), while composer Marlin Skiles contributes a lovely score unexpected in this kind of cheapie. As for the performances; the old pros do fine; Larsen is necessarily one-note as the evil Pau PukKeewis; Duguay is utterly hopeless as the famed Minnehaha (she plays this storied, mythical creature like a petulant, snotty American teen), and muscular Vince Edwards looks and sounds right as the soft-spoken, determined Hiawatha. Had Monogram and company stuck with this relatively realistic look at Indian life before the White man came, and ditched all the phony Cold War platitudes, Hiawatha might have turned out to be a minor little gem.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.