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Cowboys and Indians With a Conscience

The notion that “Dances With Wolves” is unique for its positive depiction of Native Americans does not stand the scrutiny of film history. There have been strongly pro-Indian Westerns since the silent era. Many are undercut by incongruous casting and many treat Indian culture in a shallow or formula-bound way. But each of the following films embodies social attitudes that form a direct line to “Dances With Wolves.” The Vanishing American (1925). This silent film, based on a novel by Zane Grey and directed by George Seitz, starred Richard Dix as a persecuted Navajo fighting for his rights. The location, later John Ford’s favorite, is Monument Valley, Utah, and though it’s been criticized for its descent into melodrama, it made an uncompromisingly strong stand for Indian rights. Massacre (1933). Alan Crosland’s movie cast Richard Barthelmess as a young Sioux rodeo star rebelling against inhuman conditions on his tribe’s reservation, battling a collection of corrupt and lecherous Indian Affairs agents. Potent stuff, little seen and all but forgotten today. Ramona (1936). Henry King’s version of the Helen Hunt Jackson tearjerker starred a miscast Don Ameche as the dashing but tender Indian chief, Allesandro, whose marriage to romantic half-breed Ramona (the equally miscast Loretta Young) results in bigotry and tragedy. Fort Apache (1948). The Navajos of Monument Valley played Cochise’s Apaches in the first of John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, a film that marked a key turning point in screen portrayals of the Indian wars. Though Ford sides with the Cavalry, he portrays their leader, Col. Thursday (Henry Fonda), as a neurotic martinet on a suicidal chase for glory. Broken Arrow (1950). This key post-war Western starred Jeff Chandler (nee Ira Grossel of Brooklyn) as the incongruously silver-haired but heroic Apache chief Cochise, whose friendship with Jimmy Stewart’s idealist settler Tom Jeffords withstands the onslaughts of treaty-breaking whites. Debra Paget was Jeffords’ comely Apache love, but the anti-prejudice arguments--from screenwriter and eventual blacklist victim Michael Blankfort and director Delmer Daves--are devastating. The Big Sky (1952). The Howard Hawks Western, based on the A. B. Guthrie Jr. novel of a Missouri River trapping expedition, has at its core a psychologically adventurous love triangle among two white trappers and a Blackfoot woman. Its theme is the purging of hatred and prejudice from one of the main characters (Dewey Martin’s obsessive racist Boone). In fact, in his generous, if non-historical, portrayal of the Blackfeet, Hawks may have been squaring accounts for the violent anti-Indian sequence in his classic “Red River.” Seminole (1953). Anthony Quinn is Seminole chief Osceola and Rock Hudson is his childhood friend Lieutenant Lance, assigned to a raiding party in the swamps. Richard Carlson is the vindictive major who wants to subdue the tribe to enhance his service record. In real life, the Carlsons of the era triumphed, but Budd Boetticher’s taut little “B,” framed by Lance’s court-martial, builds to an unflinching indictment of anti-Seminole policies that, unlike those in the movie, weren’t ameliorated. Apache (1954). This Robert Aldrich film, starring Burt Lancaster as an Apache who keeps fighting the white Army even after Geronimo has surrendered, is one of the quintessential left-wing Westerns of the ‘50s. Its message: revolt against corrupt authority is sometimes justified and certainly understandable. Run of the Arrow (1957). Sam Fuller’s super-tough B-movie centers on an unreconstructed Johnny Reb (Rod Steiger) who joins the Sioux, survives a murderous ritual and then, like Kevin Costner’s Lt. Dunbar in “Dances With Wolves,” finds himself opposed to the U. S. Cavalry. Charles Bronson and Jay C. Flippen, as Blue Buffalo and Walking Coyote, are among the improbable Sioux; the movie itself is unforgettably raw, violent and vigorous. Flaming Star (1960). Elvis Presley, in one of his favorite roles, plays Pacer, a half-breed victim of local prejudice, torn between his white family and his Kiowa tribe. As co-written by Nunnally Johnson and directed by Don Siegel, the movie is so obviously a pro-Civil Rights allegory, it makes one wonder about Presley’s current reputation among rap singers as a racist. Cheyenne Autumn (1964). John Ford’s last Western stirringly dramatizes the 1,500-mile trek of the remnants of the Cheyenne nation from a government reservation to their Wyoming homeland. It is “The Grapes of Wrath” revisited, with the Cheyennes filling in for the beleaguered Joads, embodying the perseverance of outsiders banded together to defy their fate. Shot in Monument Valley, it is one of Ford’s most physically beautiful films, but flawed by the implausible presence in key Cheyenne roles of Ricardo Montalban, Gilbert Roland and (especially) Sal Mineo. Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969). Abraham Polonsky’s neglected Western, about the real-life Willie Boy, whose killing of a rival triggered a vast, politically motivated manhunt. If you can get past Katharine Ross as Lola, the blue-eyed Paiute lass Willie kidnaps, the movie’s cold-eyed fervor, eloquent writing and relentless attack give it the fierce, stark flow of tragedy. Willie Boy (Robert Blake) represents every victim of social prejudice; Sheriff Coop (Robert Redford) is the decent American lawman, caught in a crazy vise of expediency and appearances. A Man Called Horse (1970). Notorious for its excruciating “Sun Vow” initiation ceremony scene, this surprise hit movie from director Elliot Silverstein is another “assimilation” Western. Richard Harris is the British lord who becomes a Sioux and learns to see through their eyes. The Native American cast includes the venerable Cherokee actor Iron Eyes Cody and the notable non-Cherokee Dame Judith Anderson. Little Big Man (1970). The direct antecedent of “Dances With Wolves,” and, in some ways, even more impressive. Dustin Hoffman is Jack Crabb, only white survivor of the Little Big Horn and blood brother to the Cheyenne braves who rescue him. Chief Dan George is his spiritual father, Chief Lodge Skins. Director Arthur Penn, working from a novel by Thomas Berger, brings out parallels between the Indian Wars and Vietnam. The film mixes tones eerily: from robust comedy to violent hysteria to a melancholy, intensely moving close.


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