Posted by Moira Finnie on May 5, 2010
Jim Thorpe, All American (1951) is a biopic that is too easily dismissed as a mass of clichés about race, sports, and the elusive nature of the American Dream for Native Americans. Some might argue that it was old fashioned, even in its day. You can’t help cringing at lines such as “Indian boy got much to learn,” illnesses that are foreshadowed by a beloved character’s mild cough, and trouble in paradise being signaled by a wife who shrinks away when her hubby tries to steal a kiss, but the child-like broken heart at this movie’s center somehow still ticks away on a visceral level, evoking some complex feelings of guilt, empathy and even vicarious pride as a viewer gets caught up in this version of the great Native American athlete’s simultaneously triumphant and troubled life.
The film, which airs on TCM at 2:30 AM EDT on May 21st, was directed by the Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz as his career wound down, though he had helped to set the house style for Warner Brothers’ popular entertainments in the previous two decades. In telling the tidied-up story of the man justly named the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century by sportswriters in 1950, this Burt Lancaster vehicle was one of the last biopics done in the classic Warner Brothers-style–full of sometimes hackneyed devices like the montages that goose the story along with swirling headlines and one of the legendary Max Steiner’s more annoying scores–but it also has an artless, sincere desire to try to tell about injustices of the recent past as well as the remarkable achievements of Jim Thorpe. Based on a popular biography by Russell Birdwell, the screenplay was credited to Doug Morrow, a writer who also crafted what a friend likes to term “male weepies,” the deeply effective, sports savvy stories of The Stratton Story and Trouble Along the Way. The filmmakers stretched the template created for Depression-era audiences looking for hope in Knute Rockne, All American, Juarez, and The Life of Emile Zola to accommodate the postwar era’s growing acknowledgment that underlying racism and superficial values, as well as bad luck and human weakness could also help to determine the sustainability of any individual success story.
The sympathetic Delmer Daves’ film, Broken Arrow (1950) was a major breakthrough when it suggested that a North American Native culture in a respectful light, after years of largely simplistic characterizations of American Indians had flourished in Western films. In Broken Arrow, both Whites and Native Americans were shown to have members who were ignorant and bigoted people, and kind and respectful characters also presented among the Native Americans, exemplified by Jeff Chandler‘s Cochise and the decent White character, played, naturally, by James Stewart. Subsequent films sought to copy this success, with some imitations, such as Taza, Son of Cochise, featuring Rock Hudson delivering his dialogue in halting, ungrammatical sentences, and a few, such as Across the Wide Missouri (1950), and this film, filled with a desire to make amends, however imperfectly. Perhaps one significant moment was reached in American movies when a Native American character studying history comments drily in Jim Thorpe, All American that “White man lick Indian: he win great battle. Indian lick white man: massacre.” Despite the recognition of such ironies, the film shortchanged the cultural heritage of Thorpe‘s background, inevitably emphasizing a successful adaptation of the central character to White society, albeit with a subversive melancholy strain running through that tale, especially evident in a rather feeble, but hopeful ending.
If Damon Runyon thought that “more lies have been told about Jim Thorpe than about any other athlete,” he probably would have found some evidence for that here, though I suspect that the writer would have responded to the spirit of the film, which is buoyed by its creators, who opted for emotional truths. Some of the facts were fudged, with the elimination of two marriages other than Thorpe’s first one to non-Native American Margaret Miller, (an underwritten role played by Phyllis Thaxter as a chronic worrier). The movie also ignores the birth of the athlete’s seven later children, his film career, and most significantly, some of the complexity of the flawed hero. The movie also soft pedals the situation of Native Americans, many of whom were not American citizens when Thorpe grew up, subject to paternalistic and sometimes malicious treatment by the administrators of their affairs. Many Native Americans were literally wards of the state, even as adults, until 1924, when the Snyder Act established their long overdue recognition as American citizens. The dramatization of these aspects of Thorpe‘s life might have made the movie considerably richer, though the difficulty of encapsulating them also might have made a dramatically unwieldy movie that only the critics and social scientists might have loved.
As it is, the first part of this engaging film followed the phenomenal Thorpe‘s road to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he became the first and only athlete to win gold medals in both the pentathlon and the decathlon, shocking the other nations in the Olympics and leading the King of Sweden, Gustave V to comment as he awarded him two of his Gold Medals, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” While in the movie, Jim replies respectfully “Thank you, your majesty,” in real life the athlete replied with the far more democratically amusing “Thanks, King.” When Thorpe and his fellow Olympians returned home, he was a celebrated hero on an international scale, feted with a ticker-tape parade in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Caught up in the whirlwinds of these events, Thorpe seemed to have a bright future. The 26-year old was a bit overwhelmed, commenting that “I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends.”
The tragic aspect of this story began for Thorpe personally and for America began some six months later, when Thorpe was stripped of the Olympic medals after the Worcester Telegram revealed that he had played bush league baseball one summer for as little as $35 a week. Btw, Jim Thorpe, All American also glosses over the fact that even after the Olympics, Thorpe had continued to lead his storied Carlisle School football team to victories against much bigger Ivy League schools with an unprecedented 25 touchdowns by him and a remarkable total of 198 points in one season.
Much of the detail of these years is conveyed in the film through the narration of the character actor Charles Bickford, who must have felt like an old hand at this sports biopic stuff, since he also appeared as a priestly mentor to Babe Ruth (William Bendix) in the laughably outlandish but engaging The Babe Ruth Story (1948). In this film Bickford, an actor whose intelligence, authenticity and grizzled humanity radiates through each of his performances in his later years, plays Glenn S. “Pop” Warner, the legendary coach primarily associated with football, whose gruff tough love approach to his work was “teaching the Indians what I knew about the White man’s game…” The real Warner may have been one of the best coaches, but he was also a shrewd promoter of the game and his players, drawing the best players to Carlisle through his contacts at Indian Agencies throughout the country and, by necessity, subsidizing their living expenses with the profits made from their games with bigger, more well known universities. Under Warner’s guidance and his promotion, with particular emphasis on his skills as a singular athlete and a positive representative of Native Americans, Jim Thorpe may have adopted his coach’s broader interpretation of the meaning of “amateur standing,” a concept rooted in class concepts of exclusivity as well as fair play. He also may have been “simply an Indian schoolboy [who] did not know all about such things,” as he wrote–with Warner’s help–in his letter to the Amateur Athletic Union, following the charges that he had violated his amateur standing when he played ball for the Rocky Mount Railroaders in East Carolina for what amounted to room and board in 1909.
As suggested by the film, much of the drive for Thorpe‘s Olympic achievements had been his hope for a career emulating Warner by becoming a coach, but he was passed over, perhaps in part because of his race, as well as his single-minded approach to football, leading him to keep a team mate in the game after an injury.
Bickford‘s canny and caring presence grounds the film, providing a caring and believable face in the crowd near Burt Lancaster‘s Jim Thorpe. Lancaster‘s performance is at the heart of what works best in this imperfect film. A man whose dazzling good looks and fierce gaze might have allowed him to coast through movies at this stage, instead he uses his physical presence and beautifully modulated voice to build a believable portrait of a shy character who struggles to articulate his feelings of longing, love, frustration and rage. One particularly apt scene shows him simply giving up the struggle to understand himself and the world around him. Tossing a book aside, Lancaster commences running–or is it floating?–through the campus of Carlisle, with a blissfully happy expression on his face. Is this an actor’s narcissism or eye candy to keep the audience occupied while some of them go out for popcorn? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect that Lancaster was looking for a way to convey the joy that Thorpe may have felt when he was liberated from self-doubt and self-consciousness, heartened by the release he may have felt when engaged in sport.
The assertive and socially aware star of the film was Anglo-Irish, without a drop of Native American blood, but, as his biographer Kate Buford pointed out, he cherished a “belief that the declamatory persuasion of live drama, theater, could change the world.” His instinctive sympathy for individuals who had not been treated fairly probably made this role most appealing to him. Clearly, his interest in Native American depictions on screen went beyond the superficial. He would choose to play an Apache (1954-Robert Aldrich) again later in his career, (even with blazing blue eyes in Technicolor in that film!). Lancaster would return to the theme of racial attitudes in The Unforgiven (1960-John Huston), both of which are scheduled for this month’s event. At a later point in his career, the actor collaborated once again with director Robert Aldrich in Ulzana’s Raid (1972), an excellent, far too little known and fresh examination of the role of prejudice in a nuanced Cowboy and Indians tale that features Lancaster in role as a world weary scout leading a young Bruce Davison on a sortie to find an Apache renegade.
Burt Lancaster, whose commitment to free speech, fair play and assisting the forgotten in his private life also led him to make certain movies, was soon to become convinced that the power of persuasion might also extend to the cinema, as he demonstrated for five decades in films that alternately entertained and illuminated audiences. Born and raised in East Harlem, a former circus performer and jack of all trades who had seen the Great Depression from the street level, Lancaster brought a lifetime of experience to acting, seemingly becoming a movie star from the moment the camera found him shrouded in darkness and waiting for fate in 1946′s The Killers.
For the role of a great athlete, Lancaster, who trained hard for months prior to filming, could not have been a better choice, since he possessed a muscular edginess, and a sense of danger as well as sensitivity and grace to his films. Running, jumping, or tossing a ball, a shotput, a javelin, or a ferocious glare, Lancaster seems a natural for the part. Demonstrating a truly Olympic capacity for brooding, and understandable frustration, his Jim Thorpe is convincingly embittered by his treatment and battling depression, even after he turns pro, thanks to lingering sorrow over his treatment at the hands of the Olympic committee and the death of his first born son in the influenza epidemic of 1919. Among the most effective scenes is when Lancaster quietly portrays his character’s diminished hopes and degrading jobs, even appearing in buckskins and a feathered head dress at a 1930s dance marathon. The affectless tone and blank gaze of the man wounded by life made me think of John Cheever’s description of Lancaster‘s expressive face after seeing him in The Swimmer (1968) as both “majestic and tearful.”
The real Jim Thorpe, who had reportedly sold the rights to his life story to MGM as far back as 1931 for $1,500, had also been hired as an adviser on the film. “I get a funny feeling,” Thorpe said, “sitting there watching Burt doing the things I did…I don’t think I was ever that handsome.”
The real Jim Thorpe‘s birth name, Wa-Tho-Huk, has been translated as “a path lighted by a great flash of lightning” or, more concisely, “Bright Path,” a title that is evoked in this movie as an initial indication of the central character’s potential. The real Thorpe was born in 1887 in what is now Prague, Oklahoma to a subsistence farming couple of Sac and Fox, Kickapoo, and Pottawatomi tribal descent, as well as Irish and French ancestry. The naturally gifted athlete and his twin brother Charlie (who died as a child–possibly of malnutrition–and who is never mentioned in the movie) grew up close to the earth, as illustrated by an exhilarating opening sequence showing the youthful Jim running “only” 12 miles over the hills to escape elementary school and return to his family land. His amazed Dad, who had traveled the distance with a horse, struggles to find a way to teach the boy to do “what he has to do”–not just what he wants to do. Thorpe as a boy is played by child actor Billy Gray wearing dark makeup and hair, apparently in between his appearance making friends with Gort and going on to a certain tv glory as Bud. Soon the onscreen father of Jim Thorpe is sending the grown up lad, (now played by a 37 year old Burt Lancaster) away from home to an Indian school, urging the boy to “Let the White man teach you his ways; make your people proud of you.”
His next destination is the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in central Pennsylvania, which the movie depicts as though the cast of the musical Good News (1947) might be gathering just around the next quad, (no doubt singing “Pass That Peace Pipe”). Leading the collegiate cliché crew in this quasi-bucolic setting is upperclassman Steve Cochran, wearing his best Big Man on Campus manner, along with a varsity sweater with that giant C emblazoned on the front. Since Cochran seems to be majoring in clueless obnoxiousness, he confronts the dazed and confused Lancaster with his attempts to harass a Frosh in time-honored blustering style, and introduces the naïf to the concept of football by tackling him, only to have Thorpe return the greeting by handily rushing and knocking down Cochran and his cohorts. Among Lancaster‘s classmates the viewer can see the first Native American actors with speaking parts in the film, including Jack Big Head and Sonny Chore, (credited as Suni Warcloud).
While the film does presents Thorpe’s struggle to fit into the college world, becoming enamored of track and field as well as of team sports, it excels in presenting the Olympic experience through documentary footage, particularly of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, reluctantly attended by a down and out Thorpe in the company of Pop Warner, the movie telescopes much of the athletes considerable record as a pro. Even after Jim Thorpe’s college and amateur career were ended, he set new standards of excellence. He was one of only six men who ever played both major-league baseball and football, and even played basketball briefly in the ’20s. He was a key figure in NFL football, being elected the first president of the National Football League. He also excelled at billiards, bowling, golf, swimming, gymnastics, rowing, hockey, figure skating, horseback riding, and dancing. According to Jim Thorpe, it was hunting and fishing,that he really loved, but there was less press and reporting of competition in those more solitary fields, so those were largely private pleasures. After his athletic career ended, as the movie indicates, he sought work wherever he could find it, though issues such as alcohol abuse and a generous heart kept the money running through his fingers all his life.
I was particularly taken by the approach to the Thorpe story by Michael Curtiz, whose mobile but unobtrusive camera may have told more time-tested classic stories of the studio era than 95% of his contemporaries. The director is too often an overlooked figure, perhaps because he doesn’t easily fit into the auteur formula, as well as the sheer, unclassifiable variety of movies he made. Perhaps it is the loneliness of the immigrant director at work, but he seems to have sympathy for stories in which isolated individuals find themselves disoriented by their unexpected presence in a world seemingly beyond their control and understanding. They often struggle to realize elusive, idealistic goals of self-respect, love, justice and acceptance despite the odds. The characters’ reactions to circumstance vary, from the defiant but waifish Ida Lupino in The Sea Wolf (1941), moving on to Humphrey Bogart’s masterful Rick in Casablanca and mutating into the survivor mentality of Rosalind Russell in Roughly Speaking (1945), as well as the ruthless Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road (1949). Their ultimate fate remains somewhat dark, but their struggle shapes their life in the movie as we journey with them. Complementing this aspect of Curtiz’s work is a pessimistic streak in his films’ characters as well. Some feel “beaten before they start,” like the John Garfield character in Four Daughters (1938), and their suffering sometimes overwhelms their desire to survive, as it did Kirk Douglas’ Bix Beiderbecke-like musician in Young Man With a Horn (1950)–an impression that lingers despite studio imposed resurrections of these characters. Others, such as Cagney’s iconic Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) find transcendence by rising above defeat through the force of will and an acceptance of their fate. Even a fanciful version of Cole Porter in the svelte form of Cary Grant in Night and Day (1945) found himself almost defeated by his own ambition and physical frailty, until a momentary reprieve from pain wound up the story in a reconciliation embrace with Alexis Smith. Another aspect of the Curtiz “canon” that I’ve always found interesting is his gift for conveying his protagonists’ awareness of the worm in the apple even when they are successful. Ruth Chatterton’s high powered exec in Female (1933) finds herself bedeviled by her biology despite her power. Edmund Gwenn has a few qualms about his own actions after literally raising the dead (Boris Karloff at his most mutely eloquent) in the eerie The Walking Dead (1936). Most splendidly evoked is the hollowness discovered by Joan Crawford when Mildred Pierce (1945) finds that worldly success can’t buy her a moment’s peace or her daughter a conscience.
All these threads of Curtiz‘s storytelling patterns are present in Jim Thorpe, All American with the central character’s poignant hope to find an identity and a place in American society thwarted by forces he cannot control. With his outsider’s eye, Curtiz recognized that Americans may harbor an ambivalence about success, whether on the athletic field or on the factory floor, even though our society enshrines it at the same time. In telling Thorpe’s story, the filmmaker dramatized the despair and longing for solitude and peace within his character’s journey through life. While telegraphing the erosion of his considerable gifts through the character’s internalization of the disappointments and sorrows he experiences, there is a wonderfully tentative way that Curtiz shows Thorpe’s possible future near the end of the film. In a seemingly incidental scene, when, the viewer sees a tired-looking Jim driving a truck to make a living, having become just another part of a banal, shabby reality.
Thorpe accidentally runs over a football belonging to a pack of ragamuffins playing football in a rough section of Los Angeles. Returning later with a new football, Jim shows the surprised and delighted boys how to hold the ball and block properly. In the single best-filmed scene of the film by Curtiz and cinematographer Ernest Haller, you can feel the rebirth of Thorpe‘s spirit as being called “coach” by the boys electrifies his soul. The camera pulls back as Max Steiner‘s strings lay it on thick, he kicks the ball toward the boys and then soars above with the ball and back to a closeup of Lancaster’s serene and reflective face. This moment is the the emotional conclusion of the film, though for whatever reason, a banquet honoring Thorpe brackets the movie.
The movie also overlooks the fact that Thorpe appeared in some 64 movies, mostly uncredited, and was a prominent spokesman for a group of Native American movie actors in the 1930s who sought to bring pressure Hollywood to employ more of his accomplished colleagues at a higher wage. Btw, if you have seen a particularly burly pirate in Captain Blood (1935), a baleful captain of the guard in She (1935), convict in San Quentin (1937), or a prison guard in White Heat (1949), you may have caught sight of Jim Thorpe on screen for a brief moment. His last appearance on film was in John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950), as a broad-beamed Navajo who appears at a dance in the same frame as Ward Bond, who is dwarfed next to him. The real Jim Thorpe died penniless at home in 1953 after reportedly being cheated out of the money he earned from Jim Thorpe, All American. Thanks in large part to decades of campaigning by sports figures and the family and friends of Jim Thorpe, in 1973 the Amateur Athletic Union restored Thorpe’s status as amateur for the years between 1909-1912. The IOC (International Olympic Committee) finally restored Thorpe’s Olympic records and returned his gold medals to his family in 1982. His daughter Gail Thorpe commented at the time that “He is the only person who had to win those medals twice.”
Please note: Kate Buford, the author of the biography of Burt Lancaster, will be publishing Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe in October 2010 through Random House.
In addition to the scheduled broadcast of Jim Thorpe, All American (1951) on TCM in May, the film is also available on DVD and is currently on youtube in twelve parts, beginning here.
Aleiss, Angela, Making the White Man’s Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies, Praeger, 2005.
Buford, Kate, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Da Capo Press, 2000.
Price, John A.,The Stereotyping of North American Indians in Motion Pictures, Ethnohistory, Vol. 20, No. 2, Duke Univ. Press, Spring, 1973.
Robertson, James C., The Casablanca Man, Routledge, 1994.
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