Friday, September 28, 2012


If this western drama starring James Stewart had been re-released theatrically during the second term of President George W. Bush, it would have felt so contemporary and a had an echo of modern times to it.  The 1950 western is Broken Arrow.  I watched it for the first time just last week and was really wowed  by its political frankness that still feels relevant.  I thought of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the creation of Homeland Security and even some of today's comments from Conservatives and "Teabaggers" as we gear up for another presidential election.  Cochise, the Indian leader, says "We fight for our land against Americans who try to take it."  That's not a Conservative holding up a sign reading "Time To Take Our Country Back."  That's Cochise, a Native American.  Broken Arrow is worth a look.  This stars the post-war Jimmy Stewart, the Stewart who returned from active duty in WWII and got to a  deeper, often darker, layer of his All-American Guy persona.  We saw this in his George Bailey of Capra's It's A Wonderful Life.  In Broken Arrow, he's not the "Aw shucks" sheriff of his 1939 classic, Destry Rides Again.  He's a white man who's been taught to hate the Apaches.  He questions that lesson.
Tom Jeffords:  " never struck me that an Apache woman would cry over her son like any other woman.  'Apaches are wild animals' we all said."  It's 1870 in Arizona.  One lone figure on horseback is seen as the story opens.  He's Tom Jeffords, an army veteran who is sick and tired of war.  He spots a wounded Apache youth and tends to his wounds.  Whites and Apaches Indians have been at war for ten years.  In nursing the 14 year old Apache back to health, Jeffords learns about his culture.  The youth learns about Jeffords'.  The boy has been away from home for days.  He's sure his mother cries for him.  He's her only child now.  His brother and sister were killed in the battle of Big Creek.
Protective tribesmen appear and jump Jeffords.  The Apache boy saves his new friend.
He tells them of the white man's kindness.  As first, they are suspicious.  Jeffords can understand that.  As he tells us, there was "terrible cruelty on both sides."  They don't harm him.  Then a party of 10 to 12 white miners trespass and gets beaten by the five Apaches.  However, when the survivors get back to town, it's reported that they were ambushed by a war party of 50 savages.  Jeffords, now in town, hears of the story and calls out the lie.  Because he was there.  He saw the ambush.  He aided a wounded Apache youth.  In a cultural job for baby boomer  TV viewers, Will Geer plays the ultimate right-winger who accuses Jeffords of being disloyal to his race by not killing the Apache teen.  Apaches burned his frontier home.  His wife was inside and she died.  Jeffords verbally fires back, "At Big Creek, we murdered Indian women and kids."  He goes to inform him that Cochise didn't start this war. "A snooty little lieutenant" from out East did.
Geer became beloved by television audiences as the gentle grandpa on CBS' heartwarming series, The Waltons.  Here, he wants to kill people of another color.  Jeffords will come to meet and seek peace with Cochise.  He's the tough, wise and brilliant Apache leader.  A broken arrow means a truce.  Jeff Chandler stars as Cochise.
Cochise will teach Jeffords many things about Apache culture as they establish a special bond.  He'll even give him a moisturizing tip one night after dinner.  Unlike white soldiers who see themselves as bringing civilization to the land, Jeffords respects the Indians.  Soldiers have orders to "clean out Cochise and his Apaches." The colonel has fresh troops coming in from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  He believes they can whip the Indians quickly because the Apaches are uneducated and live in the woods.  Army vet Tom Jeffords states, "Cochise can't even read a map, but he and his men know every gulley, every mountain, every waterhole in Arizona...He can't write his name but his intelligence service knows when you got to Fort Grant and how many men you've got...He stopped the U.S. Mails from going through..."  In his personal war against violence and hatred, Jeffords has also has to contend with Christian men manipulating the Bible as an excuse for racism and killing.  Broken Arrow is quite a strong, compact story.  It runs only minutes.  This came out in 1950.  In those days, Hollywood still had to give audiences a love story to hook them into social commentary.  If the movie sags a bit, it's in the love-at-first-sight romance with the shy Indian maiden played by beautiful Debra Paget.
It's obvious that he's older than she by many, many moons.  Paget looks like an Apache Gidget and Stewart could be her high school guidance counselor.  But this relationship brings home the message of racism's uselessness and the importance of peace.
Jeff Chandler, who rose to major movie stardom in the 1950s, earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his Broken Arrow performance.
The tall talented actor and singer who played Cochise, the Native American Indian leader in Arizona, was really a big butch hunk o' Jewish beefcake from Brooklyn.
After Broken Arrow, Chandler was paired with top movie queens like Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Kim Novak and, pictured, Joan Crawford in 1955's Female on the Beach.
Chandler's signature look was his salt-and-pepper hair.  The premature grey started in his late teens and worked for him as an adult when he got before the movie cameras.
If you grew up watching the totally cool weekly animated action series on the ABC network, Jonny Quest, you remember Jonny's silver-haried bodyguard, Race Bannon.
Race Bannon, sort of the unofficial domestic partner to widower Dr. Benton Quest -- a buffed, well-groomed scientist and devoted dad -- was inspired by Jeff Chandler.
Besides Chandler's Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, Broken Arrow received two other well-deserved nominations.  The 20th Century Fox release was nominated in the Best Color Cinematography and Best Screenplay categories.  Screenwriter Albert Maltz did not see him name in the opening credits because he was a victim of blacklisting.  Senator Joseph McCarthy, with his House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings, was at war with the Broadway and Hollywood community.
The studio's heavyweight champ in the 1950 Academy Award nominations, victories and rave reviews was All About Eve starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter.  Broken Arrow director, Delmer Daves, guided Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall through the imaginative Dark Passage (1947).  That's the one with Bogart's face entirely bandaged for the first half of the film.  Later in the 1950s, Daves gave us another classic western, one that has since been remade -- 3:10 to Yuma starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin.  In the canon of Jimmy Stewart films, Broken Arrow doesn't get a lot of attention.  Also, a John Travolta nuclear warhead action thriller came out with the same title in 1996.  The 1950 James Stewart western is on DVD and worth renting.  Seriously, it could've been released theatrically fifty-five years later and felt significant to our times.  It holds up.
Cochise:  "To talk of peace is not hard.  To live it is very hard."

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