James Stewart Stars in Humanitarian Historical Western
DIRECTED BY DELMER DAVES/1950
STREET DATE: APRIL 18, 2017/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Those who prefer to get their history from movies (not recommend) should know that Broken Arrow carries, among other things, the elusive honor of being a Hollywood film that gets its central facts straight.
If you’re wondering how a mid-90’s whackadoodle desert shoot ’em up starring John Travolta and Christian Slater chasing a stolen nuclear warhead could be so factual, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a review of 1950’s Broken Arrow, an entertaining Western of impressive elegance and tact, not to mention a right-headed dose or two of classic social justice and humanitarian faith-driven empathy.
James Stewart stars as Tom Jeffords, a former Union soldier and the original trusted white man to Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler, Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance). Weary of the ten-plus years of death, suffering, and lack of mail delivery, Jeffords, as his very first action in the film, while riding alone in 1870 Arizona territory, opts to help a mortally wounded Apache boy. This simple act of decency snowballs into an eventual relationship with the initially dubious but also levelheaded Cochise.
Back on the home front, Jeffords finds an ally in General Oliver Howard, known as “The Christian General”. (“The Bible I read preaches brotherhood for all of God’s children… [it] says nothing about the pigmentation of their skin.”) It’s a compelling inroad to new amends, although laying down arms after so many years of fighting is a tough order for both sides. The film plays this especially well.
Under the direction of Delmer Daves (the spot-on 3:10 to Yuma), James Stewart is note-perfect as Jeffords, his raw earnestness plowing right over any possible condescension towards the audience and the Indians whom he interacting with for so much of the film, as well as any pronounced “white savior” pretension, an especially glaring sensitivity/target in today’s 2017 cultural and political landscape.
This is not the stammering “aw shucks” Stewart of pre-World War II. With films such as this one, shot before but released after the first of his landmark team-ups with director Anthony Mann, Winchester ’73, Stewart as an actor advanced into the greyed realm of the nuanced, the psychological. His work with Mann and Hitchcock, among others, would be an essential component to so much of the cinema that marks the 1950s as the art form’s greatest decade.
My only previous experience with Broken Arrow is a good one, if not ideal in the purist sense. (So few childhood viewings are.) My younger brother and I stumbled across it as it aired one night on local television. Fascinated by Native American culture (to a point, anyhow), we’d read a kids book about the life of Cochise, and were part of the YMCA’s Indian Guides, a sort of father/son alternative to the Boy Scouts. Maybe we didn’t know who James Stewart was, but we most certainly recognized the name Cochise. That caught our attention; the rest of the film drew us in. I hadn’t seen it since, and could not have recalled the storyline or plot, but I do faintly recall having to repeatedly tell my little brother which Indian is Cochise. I also remember my parents telling us we needed to get in the car and go somewhere, and successfully dallying enough to see the whole movie on our failing, static ridden television set.
Broken Arrow gets off to an extended great start, complete with an introductory brief voice over by Stewart’s Jeffords:
“…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.”
Even by 1950, an upfront promise that a historically based film – particularly one prominently featuring native Americans – won’t be malarkey is an immediately dubious one. That is, even as the appreciated (if not necessary) disclaimer about the Apache speaking “our language” functions as a kind of narrative trust builder. Screenwriter Albert Maltz is shooting straighter and more direct with his audience than so many films of its type that preceded it.
Of course, as a persecuted “member” of the infamously blacklisted Hollywood Ten, Maltz had precious little to lose. For Broken Arrow, a film for which he too was Oscar nominated, he had to hide behind the name “Michael Blankfort”. Alas, it should not go unnoticed that even as Maltz, in adapting Elliot Arnold’s novel Blood Brother, does his part to develop a then-new level of honest and humane discourse and representation on film, his very opening title card was a baldfaced lie courtesy of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and their hideously skewed methods of rooting out domestic Communism. (Thankfully, this Blu-Ray and it’s 2K restoration utilize a later-corrected print, proudly displaying Maltz’s real name.) Only a couple of years later, the iconic Western High Noon, among other works, would take on this scourge more directly, if still appropriately metaphorically.
For the first twenty or so minutes, Broken Arrow trucks along beautifully, embracing its exquisitely turbulent Arizona terrain (“The last primitive Western locales!”, as the film’s trailer touts). Appropriately, “Best Cinematography, Color” was the final of its three Academy Award nominations.
The film, however, lulls once Jeffords reaches the Apache encampment, and inevitably falls for the much younger maiden Sonseeahray, played by a beaming Deborah Paget. For a spell, Broken Arrow gets too caught up in its love story, even if it all pays off in the end.
Those who’s hackles go up at the notion of white actors playing Native Americans are likely to have a hard time, even as Daves, Maltz and company blaze new inroads regarding Indian characterization in a turbulent and rapidly changing Hollywood. All Indian characters herein are actually caucasian actors, except for Jay Silverheels, uncredited as Geronimo; best known in his career for playing Tonto. Broken Arrow works out to be a really good movie anyway.
Unfortunately, this Kino Lorber Blu-Ray presentation of Broken Arrow features sadly little in the way of bonus features. We get its trailer, a few other trailers, and about thirty seconds of vintage Fox newsreel footage that vaguely relates to the original release of the movie. But don’t look for any of the factual information relayed in this review to appear on this disc. If ever a Blu-Ray were begging for an informative historian’s commentary track, it would be this one. And yet, this, of all KL Studio Classics’ output, is the commentary opportunity that got away. Stryker? Commentary. Astro Zombies? Three commentaries. Broken Arrow? Desert silence. Indeed, if communism boils down to, as the political right has asserted, “equally distributed misery”, then in some small way those asserters could just imagine Albert Maltz approving of such a balancing of the Blu-Ray supplemental scales. Though I doubt it.
Happily though, the dearth of additional content is no deal breaker. For those whom desire it, there’s no shortage of resources and considerations about Broken Arrow elsewhere – unlike the previously mentioned heretofore uncontextualized movies Stryker and Astro Zombies. The image quality is simply stunning; needless to say a quantum leap beyond my washed-out and static-ridden previous viewing all those years ago. The mono soundtrack is excellent as well.
Broken Arrow is an essential title for fans of the Western genre, and Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ Blu-Ray is now the go-to release for home viewing.
The images used in this review are used only as a reference to the film and do not necessarily reflect the visual quality of the Blu-ray.