Devil’s Doorway is one of those movies about Indians that is not much fun, because the movie cares more about showing us the mistreatment of the Indians at the hands of white men than with entertaining us in the traditional manner, such as by having the Indians scalping, raping, and otherwise terrorizing white settlers.
Robert Taylor in redface plays Broken Lance, a Shoshone Indian who has just arrived back home in Wyoming after service in the Civil War fighting for the North, where he won the Medal of Honor. In other words, this movie lays it on pretty thick. He intends to return to his peaceful ways as a free range cattle rancher, but he finds he is beset by a bunch of white people that intend to homestead on his land and raise sheep.
This is an interesting twist. First, in most movies where there is a clash between men who want an open range for their cattle and families that want to homestead, it is the homesteaders that are good and the cattlemen that are evil, as in Shane (1953). Second, in most movies where sheepherders come into conflict with cattlemen, it is the sheepherders that are good and the cattlemen that are, once again, evil. Glenn Ford seems to show up in a lot of these movies. He is said by villain cattleman Rod Steiger to have the smell of sheep about him in Jubal (1956), is the title character in The Sheepman (1958), and intervenes as a pastor/gunslinger on the side of the good sheepherders (some of whom are Indians) against the bad cattlemen in Heaven with a Gun (1969). So, it is strange that the good guy in Devil’s Doorway is a free range cattleman pitted again evil homesteading sheepherders. In fact, if this good guy had not been an Indian at a time when audiences were ready for movies about how Indians were good and white people were bad, the reversal might not have worked. Actually, not much works in this movie in any event. It is tedious and boring, as are all moralistic, preachy movies. It is of value only to historians of the cinema.
As long as the movie was going to be about injustice toward Indians, I suppose the producers figured they might as well put in a word for gender equality as well, though they would hardly have termed it as such in 1950. And so, Lance’s lawyer ends up being a woman, who goes by the name of Masters (Paula Raymond). Actually, being a pretty white woman, her real function is tantalize the audience with a little unconsummated miscegenation.
When Lance finds out from Masters that the law does not allow Indians to homestead, he berates her for her faith in the law, as a kind of religion, saying that when you have the law, you don’t have to worry about your conscience. It tells you what is right and wrong and no more thinking is required. He sarcastically says he wishes he had something like that.
This is immediately followed by a scene in which a pubescent boy staggers and then crawls toward Lance’s house. It turns out that, like all boys, he had to go into the mountains with only a knife, no food or water, go above the snow line wearing only moccasins and a loin cloth, and come back with the talons of an eagle within three days, or he is not a man. When Masters says that this practice is cruel, Lance justifies this custom, saying it is necessary so that the tribe knows whether the boy can be depended on to fight.
Needless to say, a lot of boys probably die in making this attempt. I just knew Masters was going to say, “It looks as though I have faith in my laws, and you have faith in yours. Neither one of us has to bother about our conscience.” And Masters could also have noted that white men are pretty good at fighting, and they don’t do that to their children. Amazingly enough, she makes no such remarks. There is probably a kind of bigotry of low expectations at work here. White civilization is held to the higher standards of reason and justice, whereas there is a tendency to think of the customs of primitive peoples as too precious to subject to any serious criticism, the result being that the people who made this movie seem to be oblivious to the irony of these scenes, even though they put the one right after the other. Maybe they were being extra subtle, allowing us to have a laugh at Lance’s expense, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.
Before the movie is out, the chief villain, played by Louis Calhern, who was the one that instigated the sheepherders’ attempt to homestead, is killed off. And Lance is killed off too, in part to show that he is too manly to yield or compromise, and in part to keep him and Masters from exchanging bodily fluids across racial lines.