Mildly engrossing '50s B oater has some interesting twists...in an uninteresting approach. Sony Pictures' Choice Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The White Squaw, the 1956 Western from Columbia Pictures starring David Brian, May Wynn, William Bishop, Nancy Hale, Myron Healey, Frank DeKova, George Keymas, Roy Roberts, Paul Birch, and Grant Withers. In The White Squaw, displaced Indians are the ones pushing White settlers out of the way...but don't expect too much psychology married to mise-en-scene when we're talking about "Quick Draw McGraw" Ray Nazarro at the helm. Still...Western fans looking for a competent if unremarkable oater will probably enjoy it. No extras for this nice-looking anamorphically-enhanced widescreen black and white transfer.
Against the wishes of his son, Knute (Robert C. Ross), cattleman Sigrod Swanson (David Brian) again poisons the water source for the Sioux Indian reservation. Swanson, who settled all of the nearby territory with his own two hands, is enraged that the U.S. government has chosen "his" land to relocate the Black Hills Sioux, based on a technicality: Swanson never filed an official claim on the land, and now he's s.o.l.. Hidden in the scrub, watching Swanson commit the crime, is White-hating Sioux brave Yotah (George Keymas) and Eetay-O-Wahnee (May Wynn), the "White squaw," who offered to help Bureau of Indian Affairs agent Edward Purvis (Roy Roberts) find the poisoner. When fellow rancher Thad Arnold (Paul Birch) arrives to stop Swanson, he's mistakenly hit by an enraged Yotah. Back in town, Arnold hovers near death, and asks his daughter, Kerry (Nancy Hale), and friend Swanson, to hear his final confession: he has another daughter--"White squaw" Eetay-O-Wahnee--and to make up for the shame of his abandoning her, he wants half of his vast estate to go to her when he dies...which he promptly does. Kerry is outraged at this discovery, as is Swanson, who warns Kerry that should the poor, starving Sioux get this money, they'll be able to stay on the reservation and push all the Whites out. They both agree to keep silent about Thad's confession. However, Chief Yellow Elk (Frank DeKova), who knew Thad's secret and who kept money for Eetay-O-Wahnee sent by Thad, tells Eetay-O-Wahnee who her father was, and that starts a whole magilla between White-hating Indians and Indian-hating Whites, with Eetay-O-Wahnee and cattle drover Bob Garth (William Bishop) caught in the middle.
I've come across pulp Western writer Les Savage, Jr.'s name before--the screenwriter of The White Squaw, working off his own novel, which was credited to "Larabie Sutter," Savage's pseudonym--but I'm not familiar with his work. Apparently, from the few brief entries I could find on him, his Western fiction was often concerned with the friction between cultures that was commonplace on the frontier. In The White Squaw, Savage comes up with several interesting twists on the culture clash storyline that was increasingly standard in more and more culturally-sensitive Westerns--even B Westerns--by the mid-to-late 50s. Here, contrary to countless other Westerns, the rich, powerful White land owner is being shoved aside by the penniless, starving Indians. Savage is careful to ground Swanson's rage in a believable betrayal: how was he supposed to file claims for his lands at first, when there wasn't even a town to go to? Of course, once there was a town--White "civilization" he brought to the land--he could have pursued legal recognition for his claims (he lamely asserts he was too busy), but he didn't. In The White Squaw, his lawless hubris and defiance against the federal government--a big no-no back in 1950s filmland--is his ultimate sin, not racism. Interestingly, the displaced Indians that now threaten to take "his" land aren't native to the area; they have no sacred interest or vested claim to the territory. They have no "higher" moral ground in keeping this offered land; they only wish to survive on what the government has given them (ironically: land that apparently doesn't provide sustenance). Savage balances out Swanson's villainy with Yotah, the Sioux brave who calls Yellow Elk's and Eetay-O-Wahnee's sensible pursuit of peaceful coexistence with the Whites "weak" (if not "sensible," then perhaps more accurately: the only remaining option for the starving tribe) His blind hatred of Whites causes him to kill and then lie about the murders, letting Eetay-O-Wahnee take the blame for them.
All of which sounds pretty interesting, right? And it is...when you read about it, and think of the possibilities, had those ideas been handled by a director eager to exploit them. However, watching The White Squaw, these intriguing subtexts aren't expanded upon in any meaningful way; they're merely used as plot points to keep the eventful story rolling along at a crisp pace. Sure, it's disappointing to see lightning-fast director Ray Nazarro pay more attention to the clock than to integrating Savage's ideas in a visually evocative, or at the very least a dramatically challenging, manner (The White Squaw was shot in a blistering 10 days). However...Nazarro at least deserves credit for keeping everything moving. The potentially stimulating thematic currents may be flatten out, but at least you're never bored in The White Squaw (Brian's final assault on the Indian village in particular, is pulpy stuff, with him jabbing a torch at teepees and Indians alike, screaming, "Get off my land!" with maniacal rage). That efficiency-over-content method extends to the performances here, too (one suspects that Nazarro didn't exactly spend a lot of time inbetween takes, discussing character motivations). David Brian, always good playing a cocky bastard, affects a quasi-Scandinavian accent that somehow doesn't seem to fit him (was he dubbed by someone else?), while May Wynn and Frank DeKova (F-Troop's Chief Wild Eagle) are laughably stiff as Eetay-O-Wahnee ("Girl Who Sings to Moon") and Yellow Elk. Easy-going, bland William Bishop disappears for long stretches of the movie (probably for the best), while movie heavies Myron Healey (as Brian's rapist son) and George Keymas at least have the decency to overact (old pros like Roy Roberts, Paul Birch, and Grant Withers acquit themselves exactly as they always did: flawlessly). In the hands of another director (and certainly with more money and time), maybe The White Squaw's script could have been fashioned into a more challenging dramatic piece. Perhaps. As it stands now, it's merely entertaining...at a most basic, undemanding level.
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.