In september 1950, «Devil's Doorway», the first western by Anthony Mann came out. «Broken Arrow», the first western movie by Delmer Daves, had been released in july.
Something was in the air and the genre was ready for a new approach of the Amerindians.
When Anthony Mann was given the script of the movie, he said it was the best he had ever read. He had already shot numbers of films noirs, nervous, violent and efficient. « Devil's Doorway » was his first western, shot in black & white.
Robert Taylor, a great star of that time, embodied Lance Poole, a Shoshone Indian. After having gained the « medal of honor », the highest distinction in the US cavalry, Lance comes back to Wyoming (which in 1868 had just joined the Union). He is an idealist who dreams of expending his ranch, Sweet Meadows, and living in peace and harmony, helping his tribe.
When he meets his father, they speakke Shoshone (contrary to the Indians in « Broken Arrow, by D . Daves). Then he meets Coolan in a saloon. This latter is filmed in the first ground, which is symbolic of racism as the first obstacle. In Mann's movies, antagonisms are immediate, violent. He hates Indians because « they stink » and have nothing to do in the army. He will do everything to disposess Lance of his ranch, using legal means.
For, the « superiority » of Mann's movie, compared to Dave's, is that while Daves sets the problem in sentimental terms (The love of Tom Jeffords for Sonseeharay), Mann shows the problem lies in the law itself. Discrimination doesn't depend on people (the good or bad ones) but is imbedded in mentalities and is even one of the basis of the foundation of the nation. In Dave's « Broken Arrow », it's the white who is an idealist. In « Devil's doorway, it's the Indian who naively believes in the spirit of justice of white people. In Daves later movies homesteaders fight Indians for a piece of land. In Mann's movies, they fight them because they're inferior. Period !
In a wonderful and powerful scene, Mann's evokes life in the reservations and shows a dying people, locked, neglected, forgotten and killed.
Lance has to defend himself and chooses a lawyer...who happens to be a woman. It's a brilliant idea which shows that a discrimination can hide another : sexism and racism walk hand in hand !
An untold, budding love story unfolds, but of course is never achieved. It is an inverted picture of « Broken Arrow »'s love story and is really thrilling because it is so subversive. Indeed, if Tom can hug, kiss Sonseeharay in the open and get married, the love between Lance and Orrie Masters(what a name!) can't be tolerated or even imagined and told because it is the supreme taboo : « Don't touch the white woman ! » For she is the symbol of the « purity » of the white race. Orries says ; « In a hundred years, it could have worked. ». It's far too optimistic and Mann knows this well. Let's just remind that, nowadays, the rate of « mixed marriages » in the U.S.A doesn't exceed 3% !!
Orrie and Lance will be powerless against the law and Lance will have to fight and to die to keep what is his, while Coolan, the racist bastard will be helped by the US army, in the name of the law and of « The Manifest Destiny ». What is legal is not always fair !
« We're all gone ! » says Lance while dying. A bitter and lucid statement.
Mann's movie is shocking, disturbing and powerful. No wonder it met with little success. The audience preferred « Broken Arrow », a good optimistic movie which left their conscience at peace.
The Devil's Doorway is clearly for the Indians. The Sweet Meadows, the stolen land is for the whites, if they can forget, which they did in no time.
And when, in the 60's western movies « Soldier Blue » or « Little Big Man ») (began to really describe what conquest was like, the genre nearly died because nobody wanted to see and hear the truth.
As a coincidence, an other movie set In Wyoming, dealt with a doorway or rather a gate. « Heaven's gate », this masterpiece by M. Cimino showed this time white people slaughtering other whites, for the sake of profit which was even more shocking than just slaughtering the Indians out of racism. Of course the movie was an even bigger failure.