September 09, 2008

Blackfeet in The Naked Spur

The Naked Spur (1953)The Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart Westerns in the 1950s infused the genre with a psychological intensity and psychopathic edge. The brutal The Naked Spur, their third collaboration, is generally considered their best work together and one of the finest Westerns ever made. Stewart is a hard, angry bounty hunter tracking outlaw Robert Ryan in this lean five-character drama set in a deceptively beautiful mountain wilderness. Stewart finds himself saddled with two unwanted partners, sourdough prospector Millard Mitchell (his sidekick in the earlier Mann Western Winchester '73) and dishonorably discharged cavalry officer Ralph Meeker. Ryan's tomboyish sidekick Janet Leigh becomes increasingly torn between duty to her desperate guardian and her growing attraction to Stewart. The rugged landscape of jutting peaks, narrow passes, and torrential rivers is as gorgeous as it is dangerous: a well-protected plateau becomes a sniper's perch, an old mine turns from protective cave to dangerous cave-in. Stewart delivers the most ruthless performance of his career as a man haunted by betrayal, unwilling to trust and unable to love. Ryan's jovial banter and charm masks a cold-blooded savagery (he once remarked that it's his favorite performance). The tension stretches to the breaking point in this taut battle of wits, which culminates in a standoff next to the white water of a raging river, where Mann brilliantly uses the jagged landscape as a deadly battleground--nature itself becomes an enemy.The Naked SpurIn each of the five Westerns he made with Mann, Stewart plays essentially the same character: a hard-nosed loner (though often with an older male sidekick), either out to avenge a past wrong or to redeem himself after committing a wrong against others. ... In The Naked Spur, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a Civil War veteran who returns home to find that he has lost his land. To get his property back, Stewart decides to become a bounty hunter and he enters the Colorado territory in pursuit of outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Along the way, Stewart picks up two companions, played by Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell. Vandergroat is accompanied by the young and beautiful Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). In this physical and psychological journey, the five characters shift alliances and blur moral lines until, at last, Stewart's deeply buried humanity rises to the surface. But this is at the film's end. Throughout most of The Naked Spur, Stewart is as unsympathetic as the villain. In one scene, Stewart uses his gun to beat an Indian to death and his vengeful demons keep him beating the man until long after his death is apparent. Not until John Wayne's portrayal of Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers (1956), would audiences see a Western hero more tortured, more possessed of hatred.Comment:  Early on, the characters spot a dozen or so Blackfeet Indians on horseback. Someone notes that the Blackfeet are friendly and won't harm them. But Anderson the cavalry officer admits they're after him for abusing the chief's daughter. He adds that if the Indians catch him with the other whites, they'll do bad things to all of them.

Kemp forces Anderson to leave and watches him ride off. The characters continue on without Anderson. The Blackfeet approach and Kemp greets them. But Anderson, hiding behind a log, shoots at the Indians. Thinking they've been ambushed, the Indians fire back and a melee ensues.

On the plus side, the Indians are all wearing full buckskin outfits: shirts and pants. This makes sense since they're high in the mountains and it undoubtedly gets cold. And they all have rifles rather than bows and arrows or spears. On the minus side, they're led by a chief in full regalia. And the actors look as if they're non-Indians.

Let the killing begin

So the setup is decent. The only real flaw is the claim that the Indians will kill all the white people just because one is guilty. They're "friendly" in theory but cruel, savage, and unjust in reality.

But then the shooting begins and the Indians prove to be incredibly stupid. They ride straight at the men behind trees, and the men pick them off one by one. Twelve Indians on horseback vs. four white men on foot, but the outcome isn't in doubt. Soon 12 dead Indians lie sprawled on the ground. Other than Kemp's being shot in the leg, the whites come through unscathed.

Adding to the movie's inevitable attitude of superiority, the white folks gather up Anderson and ride away. No one is angry that Anderson betrayed them and instigated an unprovoked attack. No one feels guilty that they slaughtered 12 human beings who were only defending themselves. After all, the victims were only anonymous Indians.


Most critics seem to think The Naked Spur is the best of the Mann-Stewart collaborations. I'd say The Man from Laramie is a little better than The Naked Spur or Winchester '73. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

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