«Broken Arrow», the first western movie by Delmer Daves, was released in july 1950. In september came «Devil's Doorway», the first western by Anthony Mann.
Something was in the air and the genre was ready for a new approach of the Amerindians.
D. Daves had already made 11 movies (remember Dark Passage?). He had lived with the native Americans when he was 22 and with his new film he wanted to change the audience's opinion about them.
He chose James Stewart, a very popular actor, who had never played in a western before.
The scene is set in Arizona where most of the movie was shot. Tom Jeffords, a former soldier fed up with the war is meant to promote peace between the US cavalry and the Apaches, led by Cochise. A very trivial plot : a conflict between the whites and the Indians. But this time, the story is seen from an Indian point of view. Daves wants to show the Indians, not as the stereotype portrayed them (blood-thirsty savages), but as a people with a culture, traditions and a vision of the world.
Tom, during his mission, falls for Sonseeaharay, an Indian girl.
Symbollically, the movie starts with the discovery of a young Indian, wounded. The Amerindians were at that time in a « bad shape » indeed : acculturated, plagued by alcoholism, disease, lacking education and jobs. They were litterally a dying people.
Tom doesn't like the Indians but he cures the boy. To his surprise, he discovers he has a mother who is crying out of anxiety. After all these people could be human ! On his way to the boy's tribe he meets a bunch of them, on an avenging raid against cowboys.
Throughout the first part of the movie, through Tom's look, we discover a way of life, rituals, a whole culture, a language. Like him the spectator can feel empathy for these people and when Tom falls in love, like many Americans, we think of John Smith and Pocahontas. Dave's tone is lyrical, the characters are sincere, the sceneries are beautiful and enhance the love story. Beauty is always contagious.
At the center of the story, the topic of trust and of the word given. A classic in many westerns : the treaty, which is quite ironical when you know that 400 treaties were signed in the 19th century... and the white man didn't respect ANY OF THEM (source:Howard Zinn).
We discover that the Indians fight but not out of savagery. Just to defend their land and a cause. The savages are the whites who want to lynch Tom, who speak of treason and betrayal, out of sheer hatred and who eventually kill love.
Cochise, for his part is the figure of the wise man.
We can notice that in the 50's (great period of segregation), a love story between a white man and an Indian woman was tolerated. But we must add that the story only works...if the Indian girl dies. We can see this in « Distant Drums », by R. Walsh, « Across the Wild Missouri », by W. Wellman and « Last Train from Gunhill », by J. Sturges, among others.
Dave manages to show the Indians people with dignity, pride, and humane values.
The movie was a great success and Daves shot quite a few other westerns (remember 3:10 to Yuma?).
- Delmer Daves
Indian scout Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is sent out to stem the war between the Whites and Apaches in the late 1870s. He learns (through an uncomfortably close encounter) that the Indians kill only to protect themselves, or out of retaliation for white atrocities.