March 05, 2014

Assimilation in 1950s movies

I watched three old 1950s Westerns recently. As usual, they had some authentic elements but were mostly inauthentic.

Together they spun a clear message of assimilation. America's "Indian problem" would go away if only the Indians joined the mainstream and became good white Christians.

The Far HorizonsPlot

An ambitious, historic attempt to explore and document an untamed American frontier unfolds in this rousing adventure drama. In 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, with President Thomas Jefferson's blessing, embarked on the government-sponsored Lewis & Clark Expedition–an attempt to discover a water route connecting St. Louis, Missouri, with the Pacific Ocean. Their trek takes them through the magnificent, danger-filled territory of the Pacific Northwest, with guidance from the Shoshone maiden Sacagawea.


In 2011, Time Magazine rated The Far Horizons as one of the top ten most historically misleading films, in part due to its casting of Caucasian Donna Reed as Native American Sacagawea, and the creation of a romantic subplot between her character and William Clark despite the fact that Sacagawea's husband, French-Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau, was in real life also a member of the expedition.

The explorers' first encounter with a tribe is reasonably accurate. The white man approach the Indians in full dress uniforms, present them with medals and other trinkets, and declare they're now subjects of the Great Father in Washington. The Indians pretend to go along, but after the white men leave, the chief throws down his medals and declares his opposition. No one can own the land, he says.

So far, so good...but then the angry Indians stalk the explorers and try to kill them. Uh, no. Lewis and Clark encountered several friendly tribes and stayed with them for a couple of winters. No one made a concerted effort to kill them.

The unavoidable message is white men good, Indians bad. The noble explorers are just innocently surveying the land. The evil savages can't stand the idea of sharing the country, so they go into a murderous rage. They don't plan intelligent counteroffensives like Tecumseh's confederation of tribes, which happened only a few years later. They lash out like wild beasts threatened with captivity.

The whole love subplot is ridiculous too. And it contributes to the overall message. Sacagawea journeys to Washington DC with Clark, but she can't fit into white society, so she leaves. Although you could take that as advocating separatism, I didn't. I took it to mean Indians can't be part of the mainstream unless they eliminate what makes them unique and become plain-vanilla Americans.

Walk the Proud LandPlot

This is the true story of Indian agent John Philip Clum (Audie Murphy) as told by Clum's son in the 1936 biography Apache Agent. The film begins in 1874, as Clum, an Eastern government representative, arrives in San Carlos, Arizona. He is sent to try a new approach to peace with Apaches based on respect for autonomy rather than submission to Army. He faces suspicions from the white settlers, the Army and the Indians, especially Geronimo.


The film was not a success at the box office, something attributed to the fact that Murphy played a pacifist rather than an action hero. This ended Murphy's plans to make his dream project, a biopic of painter Charles Marion Russell.

I saw only the final half of this, but I think I got the idea.

Clum plays the usual role of the white savior who knows what's best for the Indians. His "new approach" is to tell them to stop fighting and settle down as farmers. Many of the Apache agree, but Geronimo (Jay Silverheels!) and his renegades say they'll never give up their independence.

Needless to say, this isn't exactly a pro-Indian message. It's "pacifist" only in the sense that Clum isn't the one hold a gun to the Apaches' heads. But an implied threat is there. If the Indians don't do it Clum's way, the Army will enforce it their way.

Clum manages to trick Geronimo into submission. He approaches Geronimo with a small number of men and puts them in Geronimo's hands. But other men in the hills fire their guns, and the echoes make it seem as if Geronimo is outnumbered and surrounded. He finally surrenders.

So it's not Clum's pacifist message that carries the day. It's more of the white man's deception. The "bad" Indians are forced to accept the white man's way as the best and only possible existence.

ApacheApache was based on Paul I. Wellman's novel Broncho Apache, which in turn was inspired by a true story. Burt Lancaster plays Massai, a lieutenant of the great Apache warrior Geronimo (here depicted as an old man, played by Monte Blue). Though his tribe has signed surrender terms with the conquering whites, Massai refuses to do so. He escapes from a prison train and conducts a one-man war against the white intruders-and against some of his own people. Along the way, he claims Nalinle (Jean Peters), whom he previously regarded as a traitor to his cause, as his wife.

John McIntire plays famed Indian scout Al Sieber, who-in this film, if not in real life-is sympathetic to the Indians' plight and Massai's single-purposed cause. The real-life counterpart to Massai was killed by Sieber's minions after agreeing to call off the hostilities; United Artists objected to this, forcing producer/star Burt Lancaster to shoot an unconvincingly happy ending. --Hal Erickson, Rovi

Lancaster looks silly as an Indian, and initially sounds silly too. I guess he eventually grows into the role. But that's neither here nor there.

Apache shows what happened to Geronimo and his men when they surrendered to "pacifist" white men. They were sent to a prison camp in Florida and never saw their homeland again. So much for peace and reconciliation.

Massai escapes and, on the way home, meets a Cherokee farmer who touts the value of settling down and growing corn. Massai is scornful, but the man insists he hasn't given up his Cherokee identity. Massai takes some corn with him when he leaves.

When he reaches his own people, the weak-willed appeaser of a chief turns him in to the white men. He escapes and begins his one-man battle to remain free. Nalinle tries to help him and eventually they hole up in a remote cabin, where he angrily tosses the corn away.

The next spring, he's surprised to find a corn crop growing near the cabin. The white men track him down, and he and Sieber play a silly cat-and-mouse game in the corn patch while the others surround it. The white men have scorned the idea that wild savages could become tame farmers, but Sieber sees the corn patch as proof that they can. Amazingly, he lets Massai return to his cabin and live as a newly minted man of the soil.


So the implied assimilationist message of The Far Horizons becomes explicit in Apache. Become a farmer or go to prison and die. Even the boldest and most independent warrior must bend to this inevitable outcome. There's no place for Indians in America unless they give up their old ways and become good Christian workers.

True, these movies didn't come out in this order. But in different ways, white filmmakers were trying to present the same message. They each came up with pieces of the puzzle.

Put them together and you can see the whole assimilationist narrative. Indians were wild and savage. Americans just wanted to live with them in peace. Eventually the Indians agreed and gave up their uncivilized ways.

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

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