August 23, 2009

Mistakes and stereotypes in Westerns

Another excerpt from a fine article on Indians in Westerns:

Killing the white man's red manAs far as costuming went, the "Instant Indian Kit," as the Friars describe it, could be pulled from the stock costume shop of any film studio. They quote a New York Herald Tribune review of the 1965 spaghetti Western Finger on the Trigger: "You can just picture Wardrobe handing out the costumes: 'No, ain't no more Sioux costumes. Bring out the Apache gear; and any other redskin stuff—who's gonna know anyway!' So there it is—feather headdresses, loin skins, Roman sandals, jeans, and you name it."

Other misperceptions, reinterpretations, or downright lies invaded Indian country in the Western. Whether they were Apache or Comanche or Sioux or Cheyenne, these Indians never fought at night—which was convenient for Hollywood filmmakers, as it saved them the trouble of having to stage action scenes in the dark. (James Stewart explains in Winchester '73 that if the Indians get killed in the dark, their spirits will never find their way to Indian heaven.) In the movies, Indians also tied people to the stakes and set fire to them a lot. They took scalps—Randolph Scott in 1936's The Last of the Mohicans sadly notes that some of his dead neighbors were recently visited by Huron "barbers"—and they used smoke signals to declare war on the white man. They attacked forts (a rarity in real life) and always quit fighting when their chief—like Rock Hudson in Winchester '73—got shot off his horse. They often spoke in broken English or perfect English ("I studied with your people," explained a Sioux chief in 1956's 7th Cavalry) or grunted such phrases as "ugh" and "Me catchum." It wasn't just one suit fits all but one tribe fits all.

"As a young man, I remember the fact that it was a recognized attitude on the part of the general public that we were all Indians and probably knew one another from the way we spoke," Studi recalled with a laugh. "The Western has shaped not only the American public's but the world public's idea of who we are, and it's also hit on how badly the Indians were screwed—something you get tired of after a while."
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Hollywood Loves Dying Indians and The Best Indian Movies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Realistically, there's nothing we can do about the old trite western flicks. But in today's reality, as an Indian. I can always tell the next white guy that those classics were so phoney in every aspect including the "Injuns" themselves. But seriously, who really watches those old films? Many younger people don't hoot or much less about the older films. Just a lot of older generations. And I think the classical stereotypes will eventually die off as more recent and slightly accurate movies began to surface. Making the older ones look silly and laughable.