Posted by Susan Doll on May 3, 2010
This month on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, TCM will offer “Race in Hollywood: Native American Images on Film,” a series that has culled the archives to spotlight both positive and negative images of American Indians. The films will be hosted by Robert Osborne and Professor Hanay Geiogamah, the director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA and the editor of American Indian Culture and Research Journal, among other accomplishments. The series begins tomorrow, May 4, with “The Westerns of John Ford,” continues throughout the month, and then concludes on May 27, with “Films about Native Americans from Outside Hollywood.” Much like a museum exhibition of photographic stills or fine art, the series offers a window into American history and culture as well as a showcase of craftsmanship and artistry. To support this unique, well-curated series, the Movie Morlocks will blog this week on topics related to American Indians on film. Please check back each day this week for a thoughtful, engaging article by my knowledgeable and insightful colleagues.
On May 20, three films are scheduled to illustrate “Indians Dealing with Racism.” The evening opens with one of my favorite westerns, Devil’s Doorway, a 1950 black-and-white western directed by Anthony Mann starring Robert Taylor as a Shoshone who loses everything because of the racism inherent in the coming of civilization. Taylor plays Broken Lance, whose white name is Lance Poole; his dual name signifies his status as a man stuck between two worlds. Lance has returned to his home near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, after serving honorably in the Civil War and earning the Congressional Medal of Honor. Lance finds that civilization has been encroaching on Medicine Bow in his absence, with lawyers settling in town, homesteaders looking to stake claims, and residents working to make Wyoming a territory. Based on his experiences back East, Lance also has progressive ideas to bring to the territory, particularly in regard to his family’s land, which is the richest in the region. But, with civilization comes laws and social institutions designed to protect and reward the dominant culture, which is that of white men. The new laws have made Lance’s land vulnerable to homesteading, because his father didn’t have a deed to the land, like most of the original generation of ranchers who settled the West. He seeks the help of a woman lawyer to work within the system to obtain a legal right to his own land, but the laws were not designed to help him. Instead, the new laws designate Indians to be wards of the government and, therefore, non-citizens with no rights.
As white society brings more laws and social conventions, it forces the war hero to adjust his identity step by step from Lance Poole, former U.S. veteran, to Broken Lance, renegade Shoshone. His attempts to assimilate into white society are completely thwarted. The more he is prevented from assimilating, the more he adopts the look of an Indian. He lets his hair grow long, he begins to wear buckskin, and he dons a turquoise medallion, which adorns his chest like the Congressional Medal of Honor had earlier. When Lance realizes that the white man’s law is only working against him, he digs in to protect his land. An oily lawyer urges sheep ranchers to stake claims to Lance’s land, resulting in violent confrontations and the interference of the U.S. army.
When I first saw Devil’s Doorway, Robert Taylor was the last actor I expected to see in the role of Broken Lance. The casting of white actors as Indians was an accepted convention in earlier eras, but it does not fit with modern sensibilities, and I can understand why some find it offensive or insulting. Aside from the awkward casting convention, Taylor does not seem natural or entirely comfortable in the role. Often criticized in retrospect for his stiff demeanor, too-handsome looks, and lack of range, Taylor has lost some of his star power; he lacks the iconic status of other Golden Age actors. However, during the 1950s, he managed to star in several interesting but nearly forgotten films that made effective use of a more mature look in which his still-handsome face carried the lines and crevices of a veteran of war—and of life. Films like The Bribe (1949), Westward the Women (1952), Rogue Cop (1954), Tip on a Dead Jockey (1957), and Ride, Vaquero (1953), which Moirafinnie so elegantly examined in her last post, found Taylor playing hardened, edgier characters, which expanded his star image, if not his range. Offering Taylor the role of a Shoshone Indian in Devil’s Doorway was not the most inspired casting, and the dark makeup did little to make him look like an Indian, but his toughened image and star charisma lent the character a strength and magnetism necessary to suggest a bona fide war hero—an important part of Lance’s identity.
Robert Taylor is not the only odd casting choice in Devil’s Doorway. James Mitchell costars in a secondary role as Lance’s close friend, Red Rock. Mitchell was a well-respected dancer who had been part of the American Ballet Theatre, worked closely with Agnes DeMille, and danced in major musicals on Broadway. He appeared in secondary roles in many films during the 1940s and 1950s, including The Bandwagon, Oklahoma, and, oddly enough, several westerns, before turning to television work in the 1960s, ending his career with a 31-year stint as Palmer Cortlandt on the soap opera All My Children.
Oddball casting aside, Devil’s Doorway is a well-directed western remarkable for its sympathetic depiction of Indians. The film was released in 1950, a watershed year for westerns in which the genre rose to new levels of depth and seriousness. That year also saw the release of Broken Arrow, directed by Delmer Daves, which offered a sensitive portrayal of the tragic plight of the Apache people and their way of life. A handful of silent films had depicted Native Americans sympathetically, but Broken Arrow may have been the first major studio western in the Golden Age to present Indians as something other than bloodthirsty savages or two-dimensional representatives of a wilderness that must be tamed. According to western historian Philip French, American Indians were the only race or ethnic group not protected by the Hays Office in their onscreen depiction. Throughout the sound era, Indians were little more than a faceless stereotype, a symbol of the wilderness to be conquered in the name of the pioneer spirit or Manifest Destiny. Broken Arrow’s alternative view was both critically and financially successful, earning three Academy Award nominations. While Devil’s Doorway also depicts the Indians’ point of view, and shows the corrupt side of white civilization, its bleak, bitter ending may have doomed it at the box office.
In July 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ended racial segregation within the ranks of the United States military forces, an undertaking that marked an important step toward integration that eventually included schools, public arenas, theaters, etc. The tensions and turmoil created by this monumental social change played out directly on the front pages of newspapers and magazines across the country and was reflected indirectly in the era’s popular culture. Given that the western genre functions as America’s origins myth, and is therefore a potent vehicle for reflecting ideology, it’s appropriate that it would echo the issues and problems related to integration.
Devil’s Doorway was released just two years after Truman signed Order 9981, when the process of integrating the armed forces was still in progress. America was just out of World War II, and African American soldiers, who made up 11% of the military during the war, had difficulties readjusting to the realities of life at home. Defeating the Axis Powers in the name of freedom propagated a sense that the participation and sacrifice of black Americans should not be “rewarded” with a return to pre-war segregation and racist policies. Likewise, in Devil’s Doorway, the country had just survived the Civil War, and Lance is a decorated veteran discharged with the rank of sergeant major. When he returns home with big plans for Sweet Meadows, his family’s land, his father warns him that now that he is home, he is an Indian again. Lance counters by explaining how the country has changed, or had “grown up,” because of the ideals over which the war was fought. Lance proudly tells his father how the army made him a sergeant major “without testing my blood.” He argues, “I led a squad of whites—slept in the same blankets, ate from the same pans.” This echoes the position of African Americans who had battled the same enemy in World War II as white soldiers and would now fight alongside whites in the newly integrated military.
Unfortunately, Lance was too full of ideas and ideals upon his arrival home, and he is too excited by the “country’s changes” to consider the taunts of racist lawyer Verne Coolan as any real threat. As Lance celebrates his homecoming by downing a drink with his father’s old friend, Zeke, and the bartender in the local saloon, Coolan snidely remarks that when he was in the army, they were more particular about whom they served with, and after Lance leaves, Coolan, comments, “Can you notice how clear the air got. You can always smell them,” a common remark by racists against nonwhites. Coolan’s future impact on Lance’s world is telegraphed through the composition of that scene. As Lance, Zeke, and the bartender drink and make merry, Lance is centered in the composition with his old friends filling out the right side of the wide frame. The oily lawyer, coolly played by Louis Calhern, holds down the left corner of the frame, with his face partly in shadow—a hint of the menace that is to come.
While Lance takes the high road against individuals who hold racist views, he cannot hold his own when those prejudices are institutionalized through laws, social customs, and social institutions. New laws are enacted because Wyoming has become an important territory politically, including a law prohibiting Indians from drinking alcohol. Old Zeke, who was appointed sheriff so Medicine Bow can be protected by law and order, has to enforce the alcohol edict against Lance in a scene that visually recalls the earlier saloon sequence. The earlier camaraderie between Zeke, Lance, and the bartender is replaced by embarrassment for Zeke and humiliation for Lance and Red Rock; the lone racist from the first scene has multiplied to a saloon full of hate-mongers and cowards in the later one.
Lance’s father warned him that his newfound optimism blinded him to the truth that “the white man knows great hate for us.” Before his death, he advises Lance that the only way for Indians to become part of Medicine Bow is to hold onto their land and raise cattle. In other words, they must participate in the economic growth of the region: Economic power leads to social acceptance, which leads to equality. Again, this echoes the clarion call in the African American community for the establishment of black-owned businesses as a way to gain acceptance and advancement through economic opportunity.
One of the best devices in Devil’s Doorway for making a point is the character of Orrie Masters, Lance’s female lawyer (Paula Raymond), who has problems attracting clients because she is a woman. In a very telling scene, Lance charges through the door of lawyer O. Masters to hire “him” to help obtain legal ownership of his land. When he discovers that O. Masters is a woman, he quickly exits her office. But, he realizes that he is treating her with the same prejudice and ignorance that the locals are using against him, and he returns and hires her to represent his interests. Lance recognizes prejudice in himself but strives to overcome it. Later, the territory’s new unjust laws purposefully prevent Lance from taking part in the local economy and enterprise, destroying his chances for assimilation and equality. Orrie explains that there is nothing she can do because it is the law. Lance’s response is a reminder of the unjust “Jim Crow” laws enacted to prevent the integration of blacks and whites and to stifle the efforts of minorities to participate in economic opportunities. Orrie is lucky, according to Lance, because the law offers her a structure or system to follow in the face of adversity so that she does not have to follow her conscience. Laws and social institutions are designed to protect and propagate the interests of the dominant culture—which is a white patriarchy—and Orrie’s willingness to support the law and other institutions that could also work against her is ironic.
If you plan to catch Devil’s Doorway, and I would like to hear from those who do, skip this paragraph, because I can’t help but discuss the film’s powerful conclusion. Even knowing the final scene, I am still moved by it. By the end, Lance has been thwarted by representatives of most of mainstream society’s institutions: The doctor doesn’t come in time to prevent his father’s passing; the federal government enacts laws that result in the loss of his land; lawyers Coolan and Orrie either use the law against him or fail to protect his interests; Zeke the sheriff protects the interests of a racist community over those of his lifelong friend; the U.S. military—of which he is a veteran—is called out to force him off his land; and the promise of marriage to Orrie is impossible because of racial and ideological differences. Lance’s people are either dead by the end or returned to the reservation. Mortally wounded, he puts on his uniform with the Congressional Medal of Honor, marches across his land, and surrenders to the lieutenant of the cavalry, saluting him. Lance Poole was good enough to serve in the army and make sacrifices for the freedoms and ideals of America, but Broken Lance is not good enough to enjoy those freedoms. The image of the dying veteran in his uniform and medal is a slap in the face to the country, which is not living up to the ideals Lance fought to protect. That the same idea could be applied to African Americans and the struggle for integration after WWII makes a disturbing subtext for Devil’s Doorway—but compelling viewing.
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