The Indian Fighter

Films like Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway broke new ground for the western by offering up portrayals of Indians which were more three-dimensional than had traditionally been the case. Andre de Toth’s The Indian Fighter (1955) treads a similarly sympathetic path, showing the Sioux in a generally positive light. Few of the white characters are shown to be particularly admirable, even the nominal hero is not without his faults, succumbing easily to prejudice and greed. In addition, the film has a pro-ecology subtext that’s blended into the story in a way that’s refreshing and unobtrusive. This is not as powerful a film as the examples by Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann which I mentioned, yet it still manages to get its message across without resorting to the po-faced piety of more recent revisionist pieces.

Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas) is the Indian fighter of the title, an army scout recently returned to the west after the Civil War. He’s been sent along to guide a wagon train bound for Oregon through potentially hostile country. Before he ever reaches his posting though, he’s distracted by two events that are to shape the story that follows. The first is a sighting of Onahti (Elsa Martinelli), the beautiful daughter of Sioux chief Red Cloud, bathing naked in a river. The second is when he stumbles upon a botched deal between two white men, Todd and Chivington (Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr), and a Sioux warrior exchanging whisky for gold. Both of these occurrences illustrate Hawks’ inherent sympathy for his old enemies. The former, naturally enough, arousing his romantic instincts, while the latter emphasises his willingness to side with the Sioux when confronted with the exploitative behaviour of his fellow whites. What draws Hawks to the Sioux is the respect he shares with them for the land which they occupy. Red Cloud’s principal objection to white men on his land is based on his belief that their greed for the gold it contains will wreak environmental havoc on the unspoiled paradise. Although Hawks doesn’t voice such fears specifically, there’s a telling moment later on when he confides in a photographer that the reason he doesn’t share his evangelical zeal to publicize the beauty of the frontier is his knowledge that attracting more settlers, and the trappings of civilization that they will inevitably bring in their wake, will spell the end of the west he loves. Even so, Hawks agrees to guide the wagon train through Sioux territory. However, the presence of Todd and Chivington among the settlers soon leads to trouble and puts the lives of everyone in jeopardy. While Hawks’ desire for Onahti drives him to neglect his duty, the equally strong desire of Todd and Chivington for the yellow metal sparks off a Sioux uprising. Faced with suspicion and hostility from both sides, Hawks is desperate to find some way of averting an impending massacre, and the terrible consequences it will have for the Sioux.

By the time he made The Indian Fighter, Andre de Toth had a string of westerns behind him (half a dozen starring Randolph Scott), and he’d developed into a highly competent genre director. He used the wide cinemascope lens to highlight the natural beauty of the Oregon landscapes where the picture was shot. These stunning images make it very easy to see why both Hawks and the Sioux want to do all in their power to preserve the land. The rich visuals are probably the biggest selling point for this picture, but de Toth was no slouch when it came to filming action scenes and his talent in this area is shown to great effect in the climactic Sioux attack on the besieged fort. Not only are the tactics employed innovative and surprising, but the way it’s shot gets across the excitement and danger too. Many of de Toth’s films display a matter of fact approach to physical violence and this one is no exception. Early on, we get to see two victims of Sioux justice strung up by the heels, though the camera mercifully avoids zooming in to focus on the exact nature of their demise. Then later, as the body of a cavalry officer is removed from the mount he’s been strapped to, his hat drops away to reveal the gory aftermath of his scalping.

The Indian Fighter came from Kirk Douglas’ own production company and, as was the case with Man Without a Star, he tends to overindulge himself a little. Generally though, Douglas manages to keep his vigor and enthusiasm within acceptable bounds this time. That is to say, he plays the role of Johnny Hawks with the level of energy that’s not unreasonable for the character. The outdoors nature of the shoot, and the degree of action involved, offered ample opportunity for him to show off his physical powers, which is just as well since Ben Hecht’s script never puts serious demands on his acting abilities. In the role of Onahti, Elsa Martinelli hasn’t a great deal to do beyond looking attractive, and she accomplishes that without too much effort; her introductory swimming scene is one of the more memorable openings for a western. Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr are moderately effective as the heavies, the former faring best, but never pose any direct threat to the hero. The nature of this pair’s villainy comes from the repercussions of their actions rather than the actual menace they generate. Matthau is now best known for his comedic roles but he did make a handful of westerns at the beginning of his film career. He uses that calculating, scheming quality which came so naturally to him, and which he built up in subsequent years, to compensate for the absence of any real physical threat. Chaney’s career, on the other hand, was in decline by this time, and the truth is he cuts a rather shambling figure.

The Indian Fighter is widely available on DVD from MGM. I have the UK release, which I understand is a step up in terms of picture quality from the lacklustre US version. Although the disc offers nothing in terms of extra features, the image is quite pleasing. The anamorphic scope transfer is acceptably sharp, without noticeable damage, and represents the colours very nicely. A film that relies as heavily on its scenic views as this one does needs to look good, and I have no complaints about the presentation. Generally, this is a good and well-intentioned movie, although the villains are a little weak. Having said that, the action and the cinematography make up for such deficiencies. It’s interesting to note that with the exception of Douglas’ skittish lead and the thoughtful cavalry commander, the whites are portrayed as either grasping, prejudiced or duplicitous. The only truly honourable figures are the environmentally aware Sioux. which gives the movie a strangely contemporary feel. I liked it.


22 thoughts on “The Indian Fighter

  1. It’s a highly enjoyable one, alright. I almost always got a kick out of watching Kirk Douglas in a western. Few were ever like him in the roles he played. Fine review, Colin.

    • Thanks Michael.
      Douglas was indeed very good in westerns (and lots more besides) and seemed to return to the genre regularly. His role in this movie was what I’d term a good fit for him, and he looked like he was enjoying himself.

  2. I have not seen this one in such a long time that I really feel like I should go oput, buy the DVD, and then get back to you. Doe seem strange, given de Toth’s sterling work in the late 40s and thrioughout the 50s (love CRIME WAVE in particular) that his career petered out to the extent that it did after his TV work in the 60s

    • Hi Sergio. Yes it is odd; it’s not like he was churning out duds or anything. Crime Wave is pure class and Day of the Outlaw is damn near a masterpiece that’s criminally underrated. Of course he did make the very cool Play Dirty late in his career, so he didn’t completely drop out of sight.
      Mind you, those seven wives (including Veronica Lake) and nineteen children must have kept him fairly busy too.

      • I kind of hate films like PLAY DIRTY and TOO LATE THE HERO to be honest – I don’t mean they are not well made, just that I find them so incredibly depressing. I find that with a lot of Aldrich, who in many ways was probably more of a producer than a director – whereas DeToth had a bit more finesse. On the other hand, great directors like Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis and Boetticher all had their careers basically peter out by the late 60s apart from some TV work and it can’t be a coincidence. And yeah, what an incredible private life … makes Elizabeth Taylor look like a maiden aunt!

        • Yes, there is that depressing aspect, although I prefer to think of it as bleak. I think you’re right about it being a quality that’s apparent in the work of Aldrich too. It’s something I’m actually quite fond of – and I have a lot time for Aldrich’s films in general – but I’ll admit you have to be in the right mood for that kind of fatalistic, hard-edged cynicism.

  3. Thanks for an interesting review, Colin. As in films such as Broken Arrow (1950), the white male lead is caught between “two worlds”. The situation for Kirk Doulgas is similiar to when the Jimmy Stewart scout-character in Broken Arrow is accused of not knowing “what side he’s on.”

    The film is definitely reflective of 1950s Hollywood casting – i.e. the lead Indigenous roles are played not by Indigenous actors but by white ones (unless there is Indigenous background to Eduard Franz of which I’m unaware). From my perspective, this is problematic as any sympathy toward Indigenous people is undercut by casting that excludes Indigenous actors and thus Indigenous peoples themselves. Many reasons were given for such casting – e.g. that the audience needed a “star” to draw them into the theatre – but to my mind, Hollywood still had some growing up to do to realize that Indigenous actors should play Indigenous roles.Doing so strenghtens any cinematic expression of support for Indigenous issues.

    That said, if Cinemascope can help North Americans appreciate the beauty of this continent, that remains a good thing!


    • Thanks Chad. The 50s saw the beginnings of Hollywood starting to examine the whole racial question, and that involved the western for obvious reasons. The casting issue doesn’t trouble me too greatly in all honesty, partly because I just accept it as the way things were done at the time. If you view the western as an evolving genre, and it’s a theory I do subscribe to, then the changing nature of casting decisions, and how appropriate they were perceived to be, can be seen as part of that process.

    • That bit about indigenous casting doesn’t make any sense at all. Certainly not as a rule of thumb. It means by extension that only a group of French actors can play The Musketeers. Personal feelings of guilt are out of place in this context.

  4. I would agree, Colin….and I as I try to share with my students, one view of the Western is not “the” view of the Western. For example, I find much of John Ford’s work problematic in its treatment of Indigenous people and yet he is also a master of dealing with issues of social class – Westerns, like human beings, are a mix of postive and negative constructions. We need to deconstruct both aspects.

    I think what sometimes turns people off to the genre is that they take, for example, the Fordian view of the West in the 1950s as the only view because its mid-20th century dominance – that view is not the most inclusive of the non-White population nor reflective toward US expansion. However, given that the West in 1900 was home to the highest per capita of non-white population in the US, there still is much work to be done to reflect that and thus I hope that as you say, the genre continues to evolve….so as to be inclusive of that historical reality.


  5. Hmm, the whole racial aspect of casting is the kind of minefield I don’t particularly want to venture too far into. I certainly appreciate Chad’s point about contemporary viewers being negatively affected by portrayals of various groups in the past. However, I also believe Barry has a valid point too – a competent actor should theoretically be able to play any part coming their way.

    I don’t think Ford was as hard on native Americans as some would have us believe, and I say that with the knowledge that he admitted the making of Cheyenne Autumn was his attempt to redress the balance. His best known movies don’t really demonise the Indians – Fort Apache, for example, lays the blame for the tragedy it depicts quite squarely at Thursday’s door.

  6. Well, Mr. Lane, while I respect your right to an opinion, I personally would not equate the exclusion of Indigenous peoples in North American culture and society to non-French white actors playing French white roles. The casting of white actors in Indigenous roles, I believe, has been reflective of a larger historical framework and cultural disposition – one only need to ask the question….why would not the major Indigenous roles be played by Indigenous actors at any point in time? As a non-Indigenous North American, I think not to do so is problematic on a number of levels and impairs the effectiveness of any Western sympathetic to Indigenous issues.

    Further to this discussion, I would recommend that those interested view a documentary entitled, “Reel Injun” (2009). It was made by an Indigenous filmmaker and chronicles the portrayal of Indigenous peoples in cinema/Hollywood. Here is a link to the trailer:

    Thanks for the feedback/comments.

    • You could not be more wrong by equating…Many indigenous actors played appropriate parts. I will not take time to name all, but Chief Thundercloud, Jay Silverheels come to mind. How about black actors playing non-black parts in productions of St. Joan, Hamlet, etc. This argument is specious and counter-productive. While it may be true the U.S. government did not honor their treaties, those are the same or similar people who built a great country for the rest of us, so that we can collectively criticize those who have come before. I am not going to exercise that privilege.

  7. Well, Mr. Lane, I continue to respect your right to your view and I am aware of the Indigenous actors that did indeed act in cinema/Westerns prior say, to the 1970s, but I personally find it problematic to have for example, an actor like Chuck Connors play an important figure like Geronimo. Geronimo is representative of Indigenous resistance to US expansionism and to have an non-Indigenous actor be representative of resistance is both ironic and reinforcing a form of
    cultural colonization. I am much more appreciative of Wes Studi’s portrayal in Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) – that appreciation is for both his acting talent and connection to Indigenous culture and history. Studi won a Western Heritage Award in 1994 for that role.

    In the end, I will respectfully disagree with you on this issue but agree with you that free debate remains important.


  8. Guys, can I first say that I really do appreciate the feedback and discussion that anything I write may generate. However, I would prefer discussions not become too political or too far removed from the spirit of movie appreciation.

  9. Oh dear. After the nature of the comments above I feel a bit embarrassed about admitting that Elsa Martinelli looks like a more than good reason to see this one. Oh well. Only human. Like Sergio, I haven’t seen it, but just like him I’ll add it to the list. I loved Kirk Douglas in Last Train from Gun Hill and if this is anything like as good…

    • Cheers Mike. Listen, don’t expect anything like the intensity of Last Train from Gun Hill – it’s not that kind of psychologically charged movie. It’s more of the outdoors adventure type, albeit with an interesting theme and slant. And yes, Elsa Martinelli looks great in this – a good enough reason to see it.
      A really interesting Kirk Douglas western that may have passed you by and is worth seeking out is Along the Great Divide.

  10. Well said, Colin. I caught this one for the 3rd time just last month and enjoyed the hell out of it. A nice looking duster that gets the job done. Walter Matthau is always a hoot when he plays the baddie.

  11. Revisited this post while researching my commentary for Kino Lorber, As you’d imagine, I’ve been wallowing in this movie quite a bit, and I think you really got to the heart of this one.

    While some of its multicultural stuff is a little dated — and Douglas dragging Martinelli around by her hair would never fly today, much of it still rings true. It doesn’t deliver its message(s) with a sledgehammer, which I certainly appreciate — and the Indians are the nobler characters here.

    De Toth works some real wonders with the action stuff — the horse stunts are incredible — the the early Scope is terrific. I love the absence of real close-ups.

    This is for sure a picture where you find more to appreciate each time you go through it. A good one.

    • I’m looking forward to hearing that commentary track at some point in the future, and here’s hoping there’s more work of that type ahead of you.
      The film, like the best of the decade’s westerns, does offer plenty to enjoy and think about, and as such repays repeat viewings.

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