June 29, 2009

Indians in McLintock!

The 1963 movie McLintock! is another of those transitional films that, from the 1950s to the 1970s, started doing Indians justice. As such, it's an odd mishmash of good and bad moments.

Here's the story:

McLintock!George Washington McLintock (John Wayne) has a saddlebag full of trouble. The owner of the largest ranch in the territory, which also includes a mine and a lumber mill that he built up himself, should be a happy, fulfilled man, but he isn't. His wife, Katherine (Maureen O'Hara), walked out on him two years ago without a word of explanation and has been living back east and running in very fancy circles. He's getting older, a fact of which he's constantly reminded as friends around him decline in health. He's being challenged by their sons, eager to make their mark on the territory, and by the homesteaders who are pouring in with the support of the government, hoping to farm on land that's just barely adequate for cattle to graze on; he's got government officials underfoot, including an inept Indian agent (Strother Martin) and a corrupt land agent (Gordon Jones); the thick-headed, longwinded territorial governor, the honorable Cuthbert H. Humphrey (Robert Lowery), and the government back east are trying to push the Indians--whose chiefs are some of McLintock's oldest enemies and his best and most honored friends--by shipping them off to a reservation, where they'll be cared for like old women; and to top it all off, Katherine is coming back to secure a divorce and take custody of their 17-year-old daughter, Rebecca (Stefanie Powers), who's been at school back east and no longer likes anything to do with the West, any more than her mother does. All of that--plus the presence of a young hired hand (Patrick Wayne) who's interested romantically in McLintock's daughter--is the setup for a sprawling comedy Western with serious overtones, part battle-of-the-sexes and part political tract. --Bruce Eder, All Movie GuideNative aspects

Here are the key Indian bits in McLintock!:

The first Indian we meet is Davey Elk, who has short hair and is dressed as a gentleman. As he notes, he's college-educated, the fastest runner in town, and the telegraph operator. Unfortunately, he's played by Latino actor Perry Lopez, who was the Indian scientist in The Time Tunnel and Esteban Rodriguez in the Star Trek episode Shore Leave.

Indians led by Running Buffalo come to town to meet the chiefs returning from Washington. They look like Plains Indians, which is okay if the movie is set in Oklahoma. They appear to be real Indians, not actors of other ethnicities.

The Indian agent objects to their leaving the reservation without permission. When a white woman disappears, the townspeople think the Indians kidnapped her. They prepare to hang Running Buffalo.

McLintock intervenes, leading to the famous fight scene in the quarry. Running Buffalo walks through the fighters without being touched. Other Indians stand on sidelines and watch the crazy white men. They decide to leave the "party" because there's no whiskey.

Davey wants to ask Rebecca for a dance. Some men accost him for this, leading to a brawl.

Led by Chief Puma, the chiefs return from Washington on a train. They've secured the release of the Indians--probably Comanches--held at Ft. Sill. Unfortunately, Puma is played by Australian actor Michael Pate.

Puma greets his friend McLintock, whom he once rescued, with a Navajo "yah ta hey." Nearby, Indians in a circle perform a powwow-style drum song. Neither one is appropriate for a 19th-century Oklahoma setting.

Note: It's unclear where McLintock! is supposed to be set. If it's in Arizona rather than Oklahoma, the movie's got more problems than I thought. Comanches or Plains Indians in Arizona? Not.

McLintock speaks for Indians

Puma asks McLintock to speak for the Comanches at a hearing with the governor. McLintock does in this scene. The Indians are few but proud, says McLintock. They'd rather die as men than live as captives.

As usual in a John Ford-style film, Wayne's character blames the government for treating the Indians badly:Agard, if you knew anything about Indians, you'd know that they're doing their level best to put up with our so-called 'benevolent patronage' in spite of the nincompoops that've been put in charge of it!It's plausible that the Indians might ask a "great white father" to speak for them. But it's also plausible that they could've spoken for themselves--perhaps through a translator. There's a bit of paternalism going on here.

McLintock makes a good case for them, but he doesn't address the underlying issues. How did he become such a huge landowner on what was formerly Indian territory? Who broke the treaties and forced the Indians onto reservations in poor locations? If "nincompoops" and other bad people can corrupt the reservation system, is the system any good?

McLintock/Wayne never questions US policy. He assumes the land is his and the Indians have gotten what they deserve. The only question is whether the government treats them fairly or unfairly as conquered subjects.

Alas, the governor is unmoved and orders the Indians to Ft. Sill. But McLintock concocts a plan. One of his confederates gives them guns, and they ride through the streets shooting and causing mayhem.

And...that's it for the Indians.

This display of wildness is supposed to distract the governor from sending them off, or something. In reality, it would bring a swift reprisal from the military. If anyone was thinking of letting the Indians remain free, it's no longer an option.


McClintock! is definitely a mixed bag when it comes to Indians. Could've been better, could've been worse. I guess that's all you can expect from a John Wayne movie.

As for the rest of the movie, the critics are right that it's a broad comedy, fun but sexist, not Wayne's best but watchable. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the story takes place on the mesa verde in colorado.the plains indians were driven further west by the settlers who were given land by the U.S.goverenment land that had previously been given to the native americans in "treatys".The plains indians were driven off their land for trying to keep it and so were forced westward. Check out the reservations in arizona,utah and New Mexico all "garden spots"It's amazing that they survived at all.