White Feather (1955)
I didn’t think I’d even be watching White Feather (1955) thinking it would be a piece of fluff. I was partially right but what had me sitting up right with interest was the prologue, much the same as we find in Broken Arrow (1950) which stated that this stories based on fact, the only difference being that the “Indians” speak in English so we can understand. I could go over old ground and explain that this was to make the film easier for the majority White audience to understand. However it seems that this is not just a line used to make it easier but also allows the film to be white-washed. Sorry for being so negative, the more I read about the Indian Wars the more cynical I become. I recently had a conversation in the studio about a written language for a Native American nation, which is nonsense as it would not have ever been written down. Like the stories of that and other nations it would’ve been passed down verbally. I surmised that the language would have been recorded by a White man in order to better understand them, in hopes of eventually forcing them to relocate. My view has really changed over the past year or so.
Moving on from my cynical introduction I move into the film itself, is indeed loosely based on fact. As talks were going on with Crow and Arapaho who as we see over the course of the Western have agreed to leave the plains in order for gold to be dug for and eventually developed by settlers. Sounds pretty standard on the face of it, there is a historical context to place a white Indian sympathiser within. In 1950 we have Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) now we have Josh Tanner (Robert Wagner) who I am trying to place historically with the actual events. He could just be a culmination of people at the time or a vehicle for these events to be told. This is a character that owes a lot to its predecessor, if anything this rare film wouldn’t have been made without Delmer Daves who directed the previous film, now writing for this one which shows more depth.
A little bit of research later show the event of the relocation took place is the only truth of the entire film. That has left a bitter taste in my mouth, maybe I was taken in by the characters who appear to dramatise a history that never took place beyond the prologue. It is a chance to see Native American’s even with broken English. We see relationships between father and children, and white and Cheyenne, more importantly on the whole these are positive relationships in a time of great upheaval and change for a those nations. They aren’t simply savages who kill and scalp, which if anything both sides took part in the brutal act. Some Nations even frowned upon scalping, so much for the myth of conquest when you read the facts behind the pulp that blurs it.
I can even start to forgive that the two braves Little Dog and American Horse (Jeffrey Hunter and Hugh O’Brian) are creations of Daves who was plucking from history and writing his own page of the myth for the silver screen. White Feather is if anything more sympathetic (for the 1950’s) than Broken Arrow which had a white man leading the eventual surrender of the Apache’s. In both films the Apache and Cheyenne make the ultimate decision that sees them relocate. There is however more power to the later film as we see whole nations moving on horseback and buckboard. It precedes the later Cheyenne Autumn (1964) that catches up with them on the reservation. The treaty signed by Broken-Hand (Eduard Franz) is broken on a barren land that forces them to return to their home – Monument Valley in John Ford‘s West. But that’s a different part of their history.
As much as there is a sense of respect for the Cheyenne you can see where compromises have been made. The love interests in Appearing Day (Debra Paget) who is actually willing to relinquish her culture to live with white Americans. Placing love above her heritage, her culture can easily be swapped which is scary, but reflects the desires of the government for the Native American to be assimilated into the growing white majority. Lastly there is a respectful attempt at a battle between the U.S. Army and the Cheyenne, the treaty has just been signed the ink is barely even dry when Little Dog and American Horse invite the army to fight them both. A bald move indeed.
The last ten minutes of this skewed history and beautifully filmed are really something, it’s not all guns blazing, there’s a mass gathering of two sides, each now having put those difference aside. Its quite cinematic to see so much choreography for mid-budget Western to pull off such a feat with respect for the other. Only a few shots are in-fact fired, as if this is cautiousness as if they are trying their best to ensure peace. Reflecting an earlier cold war state of not being the first to fire the first shot, it all has to be legal even in the era of the Indian wars when in reality it’s mostly kill on sight.
These Westerns are really re-shaping my opinion of American history, Westerns are helping me to explore that more so, they work hand in hand as I unpick the myth and it’s power. Part of my wider practice, these films are just watched for the thrill, they are an education making them a richer experience.