July 06, 2009

Revisionist Indians in the 1950s

Beginning in the late 1940s and blossoming in the 1950s, Hollywood began to revise its portrayals of Indians. The Indian characters were still badly stereotypical, but at least they were recognizably human. Writers and directors were finally questioning the dominant paradigm of Indians as predatory, beast-like savages.

In movies, Broken Arrow (1950) probably was the biggest breakthrough. Other milestones along the path to authenticity were Fort Apache (1948), The Man from Laramie (1955), The Searchers (1956), The Tin Star (1957), The Light in the Forest (1958), McLintock! (1963), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

On television, The Lone Ranger (1949) undoubtedly was the biggest breakthrough. I haven't seen most of the '50s TV Westerns, so I can't speak for them, but Northwest Passage (1958) had a semi-positive attitude toward Indians and Bonanza (1959) was largely positive.

The typical '50s Indians

McLintock!, which I recently reviewed, includes several of the transitional elements in the portrayal of Indians:

  • Major Indian characters are still played by ethnic-looking non-Indians, but real Indians appear in background roles.

  • The Plains stereotypes persist, but many of the Indians are generic. Braids and headbands with feathers are common, but the people tend to wear Western clothes or buckskins. The half-naked warriors begin to disappear.

  • The Indians are more likely to be noble than ignoble savages. They have pride and dignity but no real indicators of depth. I.e., no language, culture, or religion.

  • "Regular" Indians, including women and children, start to appear. Not every Indian is a weapon-wielding warrior.

  • The Indians are no longer pure villains. Any villains are likely to be "renegades," "half-breeds," or outlaws emulating Indians.

  • The "plight" of the Indian becomes evident. Indians are forced to give up their way of life, march to and live on reservations, scrounge for dwindling land and game, deal with corrupt Indian agents, convert to Western ways, etc. It's all very tragic.

  • Guilt-free history

    The '50s movies and TV shows began to challenge the idea of Indians as aggressors attacking the innocent white settlers. They began to acknowledge that Indians were the victims of the "taming" of the West. But the shows didn't go any deeper than that.

    In particular, they rarely questioned why the Indians were suffering. Although the middle-aged protagonists played by John Wayne, James Stewart, et al. lived through the Indian Wars, no one was ever responsible for breaking a treaty, defeating an Indian, or establishing a reservation. Somehow these things just happened and became the status quo.

    So the people in these shows began accepting and dealing with the "plight" of the Indian. What they didn't do was acknowledge their part in causing the plight of the Indian. That wouldn't happen until the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

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


    Anonymous said...

    What I think has more happened is that the Sioux have done a collective heel face turn (to borrow a term from professional wrestling) in Hollywood, while the Pawnee have done a collective face heel turn. At least judging by Dances with Wolves. But yeah, I think it began in the 50s, when Indians were finally showed as having a complex culture, with all the intrigue of European nobility. Which is amazing, since Europeans often used aristocratic metaphors for Indians: Erikson was fond of "the knights of the open plains". (One notable exception: Nobody from the Enlightenment compared Indians to nobility. In Enlightenment literature, Indians are basically communist atheists.)

    The Sioux at least today are never the bad guys; if anything, we're portrayed as a utopia, leading to my pun "Mary Sioux". The Indians are still sometimes half-naked (or in non-visual media, even fully naked), but it's more of a Heinlein "Why does modesty exist?" thing. And in romance novels, it's pure author appeal. (Granted, everything in a romance novel is.)

    Anonymous said...

    I'd be interested in your opinions on the film FLAP (Nobody Loves Flapping Eagle, in the U.S.) with Anthony Quinn? It came out in 1970 and may be too late for the period you talk about, beginning in the '50s. But I remember watching it and thinking how different it was from the usual portrayal of Indians in film.

    Rob said...

    By 1970, there were movies such as Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse. So I'd say the revisionism was well under way by then.

    I haven't heard of Flap. I'll add it to my list of Native-themed movies. But I won't be able to see it unless it comes out on DVD.