Over the years I’ve tried to turn the spotlight where possible on those films which I reckon have either been unfairly maligned or, more commonly, just fallen between the cracks and slipped off the radar of movie fans. As a lover of westerns, I’ve found that the genre provides an especially rich vein to mine with respect to neglected gems. This is partly down to the sheer volume of pictures made during the western’s heyday, and also the gradual decline in interest in the genre, not least from a critical perspective. In my own small way, I’ve looked to draw a little attention back towards westerns and maybe encourage others to explore a little deeper. I particularly like the more socially aware pictures of the early 50s, those movies which did their best to offer entertainment and simultaneously encourage thought on the part of their audience. George Sherman’s Tomahawk (1951) is one such film – it’s a handsome looking, well paced work that not only contains a potted history lesson but also approaches the Indian Wars in a mature and intelligent way.
The film is bookended by one of those strident, self-important and frankly grating narrations that became fashionable in the documentary-style noir pictures of the post-war years. In many ways this is an inauspicious opening and one that doesn’t really blend in with the rest of the film. The time and context are established but I feel that this could have been achieved just as well, and with a good deal less piety, via the more traditional method of using rolling captions. Anyway, it’s Wyoming in 1866, at the time the Bozeman Trail is drawing in settlers and prospectors. The fact that this route west passes through Sioux hunting grounds, and violates previous treaty pledges, has the potential to spark off a major conflict with Red Cloud’s warriors. The problem is exacerbated by the government’s decision to build Fort Phil Kearny as a garrison to house an army detachment and offer protection to travelers. The construction proved a sore point with the Sioux, and the film concentrates on a compressed version of the bloody events that ensued, namely the Fetterman Massacre and the Wagon Box Fight. It includes all the major players in those battles and gives the story a new twist by adding in a revenge aspect. Everything unfolds from the perspective of Jim Bridger (Van Heflin), a trapper and former scout who allows himself to be coaxed back into service for personal reasons. Bridger is disparagingly referred to by some as a “Squaw Man” – a man who has taken an Indian girl as his wife – and it’s this status that forms the basis for his decision to return to scouting duties. The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 is one of the most notorious atrocities to take place on the frontier, when Colonel Chivington led his irregular cavalry in a raid on a Cheyenne village, butchering and mutilating in the region of 150 of the inhabitants, the majority of whom were women and children. Bridger, who suffered a grievous loss in this massacre, has spent the intervening years hunting those responsible. When the young Cheyenne girl, Monahseetah (Susan Cabot), with whom he’s traveling believes she has recognized one of Chivington’s men among the troops detailed to the new fort, Bridger takes up the offer to scout for the army once again. At first, there exists an uneasy truce between the Sioux and the soldiers, Red Cloud being shown as a man willing to compromise so long as his people aren’t faced with aggression. However, the hotheaded hatred of the Indians by a young officer, Lieutenant Dancy (Alex Nicol), leads to an inevitable killing and matters start to spiral ever downward. The new fort soon finds itself under effective siege, with Dancy and Captain Fetterman (Arthur Space) seeking to discredit Bridger in the eyes of the garrison commander and downplay his estimate of the strength of Red Cloud’s forces. The movie covers the essentials concerning the build up to and aftermath of the Fetterman Massacre but alters some details for the purposes of storytelling – most notably by compressing the timeline and shifting some of the responsibility away from Fetterman himself.
George Sherman has never really got his due as a director; he worked in a variety of genres but his westerns for Universal in the 1950s in particular constitutes a strong body of work. His movies tend to be well paced and, more often than not, play around with interesting themes. Tomahawk packs a lot of story into its 80 minutes yet, despite moving at a fair clip, never sacrifices coherence. Aside from the standard cavalry versus Indians stand-off at the heart of the tale, there’s a revenge story and a commentary on the dubious treatment of the Indians blended in too. I think it’s a credit to Sherman’s skill that all these elements are handled well, and that the finished film is never less than entertaining. The majority of the action takes place outdoors, with Sherman and cameraman Charles P Boyle making the most of the Dakota locations. Sherman manages to convey the beauty and expansiveness of the landscape, leaving the viewer in no doubt why men like Red Cloud were prepared to fight and die if necessary to safeguard their ancestral lands. The film makes no bones about where its sympathies lie; the character of Bridger is as much of a guide for the viewer as he is for the army. It’s through his eyes that we’re invited to see things, and this allows us to experience the personal conflict of a man torn by his love for and understanding of the Indian way of life, and his sense of duty to the country of his birth. As such, the film never shies away from depicting the duplicity and inherent racism of Indian policy at the time, yet does its best to address the complexity of the situation too. I feel it slots nicely into that cycle of early 50s westerns that tried to come to terms with a particularly tumultuous period of US history.
Van Heflin’s stoic presence is the glue that holds the picture together. He had that lived in look that was just right for playing a toughened frontier scout, and the necessary physicality to make the action scenes seem authentic. I think one of his strengths as an actor was the thoughtful, introspective quality that he was able to bring to his roles, and the character of Bridger allowed him to explore that. You could argue that the revenge motif that runs throughout the movie was a tacked on extra, but it’s very important in helping to flesh out the character of Bridger and explain his motivation. Without the whole Sand Creek back story, Bridger would be just another westerner with a fondness for Indians. The scene where he explains his background to Yvonne De Carlo not only provides something for Van Heflin to get his teeth into, but it also makes it clear to the viewer where his passionate advocacy of the Indian stems from. Heflin rarely gave a poor performance in any movie, and Tomahawk saw him touch on grief, compassion, love and fury convincingly – a real three-dimensional figure rather than a caricature or stereotype. Yvonne De Carlo always brought a kind of tough glamour to whatever part she played, and some of the technicolor movies she made in the late 40s and 50s really highlighted her beauty. Although she was essentially playing the love interest in this film, her character’s real purpose was to draw out Heflin. Therefore, the romantic aspects never actually overwhelm the main focus of the story, serving to complement it instead. The chief villain of the piece was Alex Nicol as the sneering racist. He always seemed at his best playing the bad guy (check out The Man from Laramie for another performance that’s certainly interesting), and Tomahawk gave him the chance to indulge in some great rodent-like nastiness. The film boasts an extremely strong supporting cast, including a small part as a trooper for a young Rock Hudson. Susan Cabot met a very tragic end in real life but she was a very attractive screen presence in her time. I thought she brought a really sweet allure to the role of Monahseetah. In addition, there are well-judged turns from Jack Oakie, Preston Foster and Tom Tully.
Tomahawk is available on DVD in a number of territories, including the US (as part of Universal’s MOD programme) and the UK. Before those editions were released Mondo Entertainment in Germany put the title out as part of a licensing arrangement with Universal, and that’s the copy I have. I have to say that the transfer on that disc is fantastic – it’s sharp, clean and has the kind of eye-watering colours that show the cinematography off to great effect. The film is offered with a choice of the original audio or a German dub, and no subtitles of any kind are present. Extras are confined to text biographies of Yvonne De Carlo and Rock Hudson (Hudson’s name gets prominent billing on the cover too despite his minor role – no mention of Heflin at all) and advertisements for other titles in the range. All told, I feel Tomahawk is an excellent little film that rarely seems to get a mention. Sherman paints some lovely images, packs in the action, tackles tough themes, coaxes solid performances from his cast and entertains all the way. Frankly, this really ought to be better known and more widely seen. It’s definitely a movie to check out if you get the opportunity – I don’t think it will disappoint.