Broken Arrow (1950) Revisited

Broken Arrow (1950)I think this was one of my first James Stewart Westerns as I began to explore the genre, part of me thought it was another collaboration with   Anthony Mann when in fact it was   Delmer Daves who directed this rare pro-Native American film – Broken Arrow (1950). Of course this is all told from the perspective of the little known Apache sympathiser Tom Jeffords (Stewart) who I remember reading about in connection to Cochise. A prospector turned Indian Scout for the army, he was became a close friend of the Apache chief who became the reservation agent at his own request.

Of course you don’t get any of that in the 1950s it is too messy and complicated, a watered down version of the truth is more acceptable for and audience who in the same year’s being treated to some stimulating films, the audience is maturing but not enough to her the whole truth. It’s another page in the myth-making of the Wild West that’s tamed. Placing Stewart in the lead role was a clever move, one of a few actors who could be a mediator between the “savage” Apache who I have learned were more violent historically, so sadly receiving of their blurred on-screen personae. Here we don’t see Cochise and his nation picking up arms all the time. There are given screen-time and not in broken English. As Jeffords tells us –

This is the story of a land, of the people who lived on it in the year 1870, and of a man whose name was Cochise. He was an Indian – leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe. I was involved in the story and what I have to tell happened exactly as you’ll see it – the only change will be that when the Apaches speak, they will speak in our language. What took place is part of the history of Arizona and it began for me here where you see me riding.”

He’s presenting the story of the eventual downfall for a white audience in a white language, English so we can understand what is going on. We haven’t reached the sophistication of Dunbar (Kevin Costner). Of course for audiences attention the foreign language is eventually lost to allow us to fully engage with the characters, breaking down the language barrier. We also have another white actor playing a Native American, whose covered in make-up. Another selling point for the film having Jeff Chandler in the role, a familiar face. I could go into the racial depiction of the native American, but I’ve done that before, part of the fabric of the genre at the time to have non-natives playing leading roles. Is this however a question more of box-office more than anything else. Of course today this would never happen (unless your Johnny Depp) as this would cause offense.

Moving on from the casting of Cochise we see a condensed version of events that would ultimately lead to the land the Apache live on Chiricahua Mountains as their reservation. There is not actually any mention of that, but you can feel it in the background, another film dealing with the “Indian problem”. Jefford’s allows us to understand this watered down version as he wins the trust of Cochise and hopefully other Apache Nations who’re touched upon. Building up the presence of Geronimo who played a major role in the Apache wars. Depicted as defecting from the peaceful ways that Cochise is promoting, breaking away to fight the white man until his ultimate surrender.

Jeffords time with the Apache’s takes up most of the film, allowing us more of an insight into the “Others” culture that is typically war-paint, dances and bad medicine etc, all the cliché’s really. He’s not on his army mission, instead he is passing through their territory when he comes across a young man trying to survive on his own, a right of passage he must completed to become a man. He’s badly injured so receives medical treatment, the first gesture of goodwill from Jeffords. The white-washing begins here. Yet there is a need in him to learn about the culture, from an Apache who has lived among the civilised white men. His wanting to learn shows his wanting for peace, even if it earns him the name of “Indian Lover” back home.

My second viewing builds on a tame Western that is brought alive with Jame Stewart, our way into this foreign world of the other who usually treated as the other. Never again will they be treated so respectfully. You can see they want peace even in this still simplified world, we can see a culture that is clearly different but ultimately wanting peace. Otherwise we see the Nation as a dangerous savage in the background, who only engages to attack and kill before retreating or being killed. I found the relationship between Jeffords and Sonseeahray (Debra Paget) as just flimsy, however I admit she’s a reason for him to stay and make the peace work for her and himself who in the film wants to live as one of them. In reality he stays very much white and sympathetic to the Apache plights which mirrors so many others during that period of history.  The relationship also acts as a draw of the female audience into this very loose and educational biopic.


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