Man alive, what must the audiences of 1950 have thought about this when it came out? Up to that point Native Americans were portrayed one way and one way only – alien and with hostile intent. Some speaking roles popped up from time to time but more usually indians served as a horseborne threat to wagon trains and nothing else. In Broken Arrow not only do the indians have decent fleshed out roles but we get long insights into their culture and crucially discover that, like everyone else they are fallible & conflicted, equally capable of honourable actions and also betrayal; both generous and capricious.
The film opens with that familiar trope of lone frontiersman panning for gold in what turns out to be Apache land…and at that time the expanding United States is engaged in a particularly bloody conflict with the Apache. An indian boy stumbles on the scene, visibly injured but instead of fighting him our frontiersman, played here by Jimmy Stewart, gives him water and tends to his wounds. A clever move as it turns out because a few days later an Apache hunting party happens upon them with an intent to kill. But since one good deed deserves another Jimmy’s life is spared and he gets on his way.
The problem is that when Stewart gets back to town he encounters a mob willing to match any indian bloodlust and ant reasoned argument for calm is met by contempt, accusations of him being an ‘injun-lover’ and even an attempted lynching. Fed up with the tit-for-tat violence that’s very close to becoming all out war he endeavours to learn the Apaches’ language and visit their main camp to make a lasting peace with their leader Cochise.
So, not in any way your usual western, in particular when Cochise’s word proves to be far more adamantine than the word of nearly all whites, something that shines especially in one fabulous scene when his Apache, at great risk to themselves, ride out to save a stranded stagecoach.
Admittedly the whole thing is slightly tarnished by the two main Indian roles being portrayed by white actors but hell, this was filmed in 1949 so you gotta take what you can get. The film rightly occupies a privileged place in cinema’s canon but at the time of release, at least when the film premiered in the town of Flagstaff (the nearest population centre to the filming locations) events offscreen mirrored those onscreen with many residents ready to boycott the picture on opening night and throughout its run.
Altogether a brave and fascinating film that is quite extraordinary for coming out when it did. It neither flinches in its depiction of the indian as something other than a simple savage, nor does it shy away from mixed race relations which really is quite a jaw-dropper for 1950.
Broken Arrow – directed by Delmer Daves (1950)
Refreshing take on frontier politics.
Delmer Daves provides perhaps the first three dimensional portrayal of Indians in a Western.
Jimmy Stewart as dependable as ever.