“I break the arrow. I will try the way of peace.”
It may not have been the first, but in the nearly 50-year history of the Western genre, Broken Arrow was probably the most prominent example of a film taking a decidedly sympathetic stance toward Native Americans. Like its principal hero—former soldier Tom Jeffords, played by James Stewart—Delmer Daves’ 1950 Fox release not only recognizes the sovereign existence of the Chiricahua Apache people in a way that imbues in them an atypical depth, but there is a genuine attempt at understanding. There remain a few minor relapses when it comes to Western clichés, like the Indians and their stilted dialogue or the perpetual notion (seen still today, in films and elsewhere) of the white Christian man being the harbinger of a purportedly cultivated civilization nobody asked for to begin with. But with its vibrant Technicolor cinematography, an earnest performance from the genial Stewart, and its evidently admirable intent, Broken Arrow is one of the most exceptional Westerns of the period, a sure sign of the genre’s evolving self-awareness and its historical conscious.
After Jeffords happens upon an injured 14-year-old brave, he tends to the boy’s wounds even though he knows the latent danger, offering him water and forming a mutually respectful bond; the Indian is appreciative and Jeffords admires his strength and endurance. This is but an isolated act of kindness, though, and it does little to appease the prevailing tensions between the hostile Native Americans and the encroaching white forces. Jeffords is enlisted to negotiate with the Chiricahua leader, Cochise (Jeff Chandler), hoping to secure the safe passage of mail through Apache territory. Not merely marching in with an air of inherent superiority, Jeffords takes time to learn the language and the culture. He precariously endears himself with certain members of the Apache tribe, particularly Cochise and an attractive young woman named Sonseeahray (Debra Paget), who quickly catches Jeffords’ love-struck eye. Though it may not end happily, the eventual marriage between Sonseeahray and Jeffords suggests, at least for a time, the personified potential of cultural unity. Not everyone is pleased with the idea of collaboration, however, from certain factions of the Native American populace, including the renegade Geronimo (Jay Silverheels), to some of Jeffords own associates, who view his tolerance as inexcusable treachery.
As Jeffords, Stewart is the amiable man for the peacemaking job. He’s more Elwood P. Dowd from Harvey than he is Lin McAdam from Winchester ’73 (these two films, as well as The Jackpot, were also released in 1950, and all four came out within a five-month span—it was a good year for Stewart fans). He has an unaffected decency, he is honest, even when it’s to his detriment, and because it’s a quintessential James Stewart role, he instantly elicits our sympathy, which makes the compassion his character conveys that much more sincere. As Jeffords’ dignitary counterpart, Chandler effectively plays two sides of Cochise—the fearless, stoic leader and the progressive pragmatist—though it seems hard to believe his performance was enough to garner an Oscar nomination. As Sonseeahray, Paget was a relative newcomer (she was just 16-years-old; Stewart was 42), but her role is imperative to the film’s romantic motivations. While Geronimo is a largely secondary character, until later in the film when his antagonism sets the multi-cultural pacification back a few steps, it’s worth noting that Silverheels was, refreshingly, unlike the Brooklyn-born Chandler, an actual Native Canadian Mohawk.
Daves went on to make other first-rate Westerns, Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957) among them, but none emphasize the prominence of the western landscape quite like Broken Arrow—the first shot of Stewart ensconced in the panoramic splendor of the Arizona desert establishes as much. To illustrate their rightful, natural place in the territory, Daves has the Indians appear to rise from the ground and the mountains. The Apaches blend into their surroundings, merging with the landscape; they are in and of the environment; their huts are outgrowths of the setting while their clothing is steeped in earth-toned harmony. Liberties are taken in terms of actual locations, which isn’t at all unusual (the picture was shot in northern Arizona, while the story of Cochise actually took place in the southern part of state), but the scenic worth is not only the cause of regional dispute in the narrative and in the legendary conflict, it is an awesome thematic and visual signifier.
Cinematographer Ernest Palmer, who had collaborated with everyone from F.W. Murnau to Frank Borzage and won an Oscar for his work on 1941’s Blood and Sand, also paints Broken Arrow in an array of primary colors. From an evening skirmish bathed in the blue of night (the strength of the imagery augmented by only the sound of chirping crickets) to the rainbow of colors adorning the Native Americans in their more festive attire, with bold blue-red-yellow makeup and headdresses, Palmer and Daves craft one beautiful Western. In that regard, though there is little to note in terms of supplemental features, the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Broken Arrow certainly looks fantastic.
Written by Albert Maltz, who used the front Michael Blankfort (a Communist since 1935, the blacklisted Maltz was a member of the “Hollywood 10”), Broken Arrow has an undeniable reverence for its subject matter. It is dramatized slice of southwest history, but it is also a symbolic statement on the timeless process of assimilation and cooperation. Like other “pro-Indian” films of the 1950s—Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (1950), which had its release delayed due to its controversial message, and Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957)—Broken Arrow has often been connected to other post-war problem films, similarly covert reactions against bigotry and intolerance across all sociopolitical spectrums. And it was enough to spark a continued examination in Western form. John Ford, who had a rather complex relationship with Native Americans—his best film, 1956’s The Searchers, features John Wayne as a bitterly racist anti-hero—made his final Western in 1964, Cheyenne Autumn, and it was seen by many as a sort of apology for previously dubious ethnic representations. The trend lasted through the following decades as well; 1970 alone saw the release of A Man Called Horse, with Richard Harris, Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman as a 121-year-old white man recounting his life growing up with the Cheyenne, and Soldier Blue, a film that would graphically depict one of the most infamous massacres in history, where a militia group slaughtered scores of defenseless Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians.
It is said at one point in Broken Arrow that if a “big wind comes, a tree must bend.” This spirit of deferential adaptation is at the heart of the picture, and it is essentially opposed to the predominantly uncompromising view of most traditional Westerns, which are beset by a cut-and-dry, us-versus-them, good-or-bad dichotomy. There is going to be conflict and hatred on both sides—there’s no getting around that. But even if it’s just allowing the mail to get through unimpeded, that’s at least a start.