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The Indian Fighter

The Indian Fighter
MGM Home Entertainment
1955 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9, and 1:33 pan'n scan / 88 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Kirk Douglas, Elsa Martinelli, Walter Matthau, Diana Douglas, Walter Abel, Lon Chaney Jr., Eduard Franz, Alan Hale Jr., Elisha Cook Jr., Ray Teal, Frank Cady, Michael Winkelman, William Phipps
Cinematography Wilfrid M. Cline
Production Designer
Art Direction Wiard Ihnen
Film Editor Richard Cahoon
Original Music Irving Gordon, Franz Waxman
Written by Robert L. Richards, Frank Davis and Ben Hecht
Produced by William Schorr
Directed by André De Toth

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

1955 was the year a lot of independent stars launched their own production companies, and Kirk Douglas opened his Bryna Productions with this mainstream wagon train Western. It's the usual set of misunderstandings and hostilities between red and white men, with renegade whites taking the blame for instigating bloodshed in what should be a happy coexistence. Oh, and European import Elsa Martinelli is on hand to sex up the picture.


Scout Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas), a loner known as an 'Indian Fighter', actually has an excellent relationship with the tribe of Red Cloud (Eduard Franz), especially after he sees Indian maid Onahti (Elsa Martinelli) bathing in a mountain stream. Red Cloud's preparing for war to defend his people against the crimes of renegades Wes Todd (Walter Matthau) and Chivington (Lon Chaney), two louts who kill Indians to get access to hidden gold resources. Hawks plays hooky from his responsibilities to visit Onahti, which allows the gold hunters to start more trouble; and the Wagon train flees back to the fort to fend off a major Indian attack.

About as close as The Indian Fighter comes to reality is the idea that some Indian tribes objected to whites searching for gold on their lands. This apparently was one of the main problems in the Dakota territory, where rumors of gold strikes were purposely planted to induce whites to enter forbidden Indian lands. When violence broke out, the Army moved in, wiped out the Indians, allowing the speculators to steal their real estate. This ploy, in various disguises, was repeated again and again in the winning of the West.

The Indian Fighter keeps the politics at a basic level. There's a nice scene where Kirk says that photographer Elisha Cook Jr.'s pictures will bring more whites to the territories, and spoil them. It isn't exactly an ecological statement, because it telegraphs the idea that the ruining of the wilderness is a foregone conclusion.

Most of the movie shows Kirk interacting with the cornball members of the wagon train. Little Tommy Rogers (Michael Winkelman) is a loudmouthed 50s Dennis the Menace type who goes around fantasizing killing redskins like Johnny Hawks. His mother Susan (Diana Douglas, Kirk's ex wife - !) tries to snag Kirk as a husband, but gives up and settles for dull tree grower Will Crabtree (Alan Hale Jr., ten years from Gilligan's Island). This part of the show plays out like a dull TV program.

Baddie Lon Chaney is a big nothing, but it's fun to see Walter Matthau playing an intelligent villain again. His conniving gold hunter is as interesting as his Snidely Whiplash character in Burt Lancaster's The Kentuckian of the same year. Matthau struggled as a character actor for years before getting his deserved attention as a comedian.

The Army officers are suspicious types who distrust Kirk's assurances that the Indians only want peace. It's rather frustrating when both the authorities and Douglas allow the obvious villains to run free and cause havoc, especially after Douglas established their crimes early on. For their part, the settlers are a bunch of trigger-happy racists who try to lynch Douglas when it looks like he's defected to the Indian side of the conflict. Why Douglas doesn't do just that is a big mystery.

The central-casting Indians are an okay lot, liberalized into being more civilized than the whites in many respects. Kirk fights a duel-like contest with the main brave for an okay action centerpiece. The big battle at the end is exciting but rather generic. It reminded me of the plastic Fort Apache playset I got for Christmas around that time.

The Indians are real liberal when it comes to woo-bait Onahti, whose name sounds like 'oh, naughty,' and who speaks with a definite Italian accent, for obvious casting reasons. She's a less interesting but sexier version of the Indian maid from Kirk's earlier, superior The Big Sky. The Indians have no problem at all with Kirk and Onahti stepping out together behind the nearest tree. Their lovemaking starts as a virtual rape, when he tackles her in a mountain stream. Naturally, it's what she wanted all along ("Women!'), thereby making The Indian Fighter a very un-P.C. show by today's standards.

Douglas nudged the sex barrier in this one. Some reviewers talked about Elsa Martinelli's nude bathing scene as if it had real nudity instead of the peek-a-boo nonsense we're used to seeing even in family films. Well, in MGM's enhanced, clear transfer, we can see that the reviewers were right, at least technically. Maybe the 50s censors didn't know what a naked female looked like from some angles, because in the very first scene, Douglas and director Andre de Toth get away with a brief topless shot of Elsa in shallow water. Audiences unaware of 50s film conventions may not even notice it. I don't remember hearing about any big scandal from this, so maybe release prints were trimmed, or 1955 guys were too busy staring at Playboy to pay attention. Martinelli walked the baby elephants in Hatari!, and had some hot European roles (Blood and Roses, for one) but never became a big star.

Also returning from The Big Sky is familiar actor Hank Worden. He plays his familiar addled Indian, this time an alcoholic named Crazy Bear, and doubles in a bit as a Cavalry guardhouse jailer. The ever-present William Phipps (Philips?) shows up as a suspicious officer. Richard Farnsworth and Z-movie director Ted V. Mikels are said to be among the stuntmen.


The slightly optimistic ending has the Wagon train proceeding without the help of the intrepid Johnny Hawks, who we last see again playing footsie with his Italian-model Indian maid in another mountain stream. Are we to assume that the decimated remnants of her tribe are sitting defeated over the next hill? This happy finale has the great frontiersman settling for sex, while the nation-builders move on. Except for the boost for Kirk's love life (why else become a producer?), the ending doesn't have a whole lot of resonance.

MGM's DVD of The Indian Fighter has a near-perfect element to work from, and has been given a very nice transfer. The only visual gripe comes from Douglas' cost-cutting use of day-for-night photography, which doesn't read well on video. The sound is also clear and undistorted.

An extra pan'n scan transfer is included, for those who need an even closer look at ... for those who don't like widescreen. The only extra is a hyped trailer, that conveys Douglas' wish that this mostly-conventional oater be taken as a major motion picture.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Indian Fighter rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 18, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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