It’s been a few years since I caught Nevada Smith (1966), then a few months ago we it was on as background, I had completely forgotten what the Western was actually about. Meaning it was time for a revisit. I’m doing quite a few in recent months, parts because I want to understand the films more, and there’s little to watch, this was a little of both really. I originally found the film to be about a mixed race half white/Kia whose out for revenge for the death of his parents at the hands of gold thieves meeting people along the way as he tracks down the three men responsible for the deaths. Which essentially the film is.
What else is this take on the other in the Wild West? Again the other’s played by a popular White actor Steve McQueen who is able to play the naive young man (white, Kiowa or mixed race) and draw in the audience which it clearly does. However as time has proven the draw if money takes away a decent representation of the Native American on film. Usually employing them in films more as extra’s, if on-screen they are not their for more than a few seconds, or pushed to the background to allowing the box-office draws or foreign English speaking actors caked in make-up to the fore. Its not practiced today in Hollywood (one lesson they have learned from except for Johnny Depp).
Nevada Smith begins being reminiscent of The Searchers (1956) (yes I know I keep returning to that film) but only briefly, where I wonder about the direction of the rest of the film. Instead of the white man being attacked the mixed race are attacked, leaving the often forgotten Native to fend for himself. Here we follow him after returning to the family home, complete with inset shot of the massacre in low light. Where we were once kept away believing the image would be too much for the audience to take in. We are still not given much information, even ten years later. We we are given a bleak description of how his parents were killed later on. Ford doesn’t like to linger with the images, the horrors of the Comanche are too much to accept. When it’s a white man inflicting the violence we can take more.
Moving away from that striking connection to the older film which it doesn’t try to replicate, instead it moves on making its own narrative. Instead of burying himself in hate for the killers of his family. Can this illiterate young man who can’t eve defend himself be a match for this killers who have not just skill but the edge of life experience on their side, whilst Smith has to learn all of this from scratch or die in the process.
In that process he is ready and pretty much willing to ignore his mixed heritage, adopting or assuming the ways of the White gunslinger. The preferred image of the Western. I don’t thin it would be the same film if he went around the film wearing his Native dress, the film would not have the same appeal, and would probably not one McQueen’s better films. It would lean more towards Burt Lancaster‘s role in Apache (1954) which is laughable (as straight as he may play the part) today.
Smith learns to draw and fire a gun, does his mixed heritage work to his advantage. However he also has to learn to read in order to pass himself as a white man, live in a white mans world that demands to be civilised not living as a savage Indian that may not understand, held back by these differences. If Smith accepted his Kiowa this would be a very different film, becoming in the eyes of a white audience a savage, played by a white man, he could be a more dangerous man to watch and fear also.
Moving away from the Native American themes (that dominate my own thinking at the moment) I can see a decent revenge film with the added texture. Looking at it today, it’s innocent but that doesn’t take away from the journey that Smith goes on to track his families killers, one by one he finds them and kills them as justice allows him. The deaths slowly reach Tom Fitch (Karl Malden) who begins to fear him. It takes the rest of the film for us to catch up with him, building him up to a dangerous man. Along the way Smith allows himself to be humiliated by others if it allows him to get to the next man. He does however use his skills and Kiowa knowledge to stay ahead of everyone (most of the time), right up to the end. helped with the christian intervention of Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) who introduces him to the bible. Allowing him to leave his Kiowa heritage for the white christian that was apparently waiting to come out. Or is it a combination of the two spiritual sides coming out and together, giving him a perspective on life that leads to the final showdown where violence is no substitute for forgiveness.
My thinking on the film has greatly improved or even deepened you might say, not the strongest of films exploring the Native American. The standard white cast and lead who we are supposed to accept as the other (without as much make as Lancaster). It was Hollywood of its day so what are we to know. We do have a decent revenge film which is entertaining which what you want at the end of the day, which I had the first time round, now its a richer experience.