Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)

If you’ve seen one revisionist western, you’ve seen them all. It’s always the same old thing. The heroes are actually unheroic. That’s it. That’s the whole point, and we already knew that. To make matters worse, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson is directed by Robert Altman, who keeps running his MASH style of movie making into the ground: people talking over one another, lots of silliness, quirky characters. It worked great in MASH, but it won’t make silk out of a cow’s ear. This movie ranges from boring to irritating.

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Duel at Diablo (1966)

Duel at Diablo is one of the last movies in which Indians still scalp men, rape women, and subject their prisoners to cruel tortures, although some of the white men are portrayed in a pretty bad light too. One raped woman, Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson), who ends up with a papoose, is married to Willard Grange (Dennis Weaver), who regards her as defiled. That’s fine with her, because she’d rather live with the Indian that raped her anyway.  She might as well, because now that she is regarded as an outcast, some white men try to rape her as well.

James Garner’s character, Jess Remsberg, is a squaw man whose wife was scalped by a white man, and he is out for revenge.  That man turns out to be Willard, who wanted to get even for what had happened to his wife.

Sydney Poitier is also in this movie.  Since race plays such a large role in this movie, we expect his race to also be a factor, but no one mentions it or reacts to it. Other than that, it’s the cavalry versus the Apaches, and what a slaughter! Not only do men die left and right, but many are wounded and crippled. Even the horses get killed.

Perhaps as a step toward the apologist Westerns of the seventies, there is reference to the way the Apaches are mistreated on the reservation at San Carlos. As the Apache prisoners are led away by the cavalry at the end of the movie, Jess makes a remark to the effect that the Apaches will probably go off the reservation again, because they have no reason not to.

Angel and the Badman (1947)

Of all things the Bible says we are supposed to do, the injunction of pacifism found in Matthew 5:38-39 is the most problematic:  “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  It hardly needs to be said that most people who call themselves Christian do not follow Jesus in this regard.  But there have always been a few who do so.  Typically, such people retreat from the world, say, by entering a monastery.  There they can hide out from the world, hoping to be left alone.

In American Westerns, however, such people cannot hide, for by its very nature, the setting of a Western is fraught with danger.  If there is any place where pacifism seems to be wholly out of place it is in the American West, especially as depicted in the movies.  In some cases, the pacifist capitulates, taking up arms in the end, as in Destry Rides Again (1939) or High Noon (1952).  In other cases, there is a community of pacifists, and they are able to remain true to their ideals by piggybacking off others who kill all the bad guys for them, as in Wagon Master (1950).  In Friendly Persuasion (1956), results are mixed.  There is some resistance to evil, but it is kept to a minimum, and the central characters (the Birdwell family) seem to survive mostly by luck with their ideals mostly intact.  Angel and the Badman falls into the same category as Wagon Master, except that in the latter, the religious community consists of Mormons, whereas in the former, the community consists of Quakers.

The “badman” in this movie is Quirt Evans.  Since he is played by John Wayne, we wonder, “Just how bad can he be?”  I mean, has John Wayne ever played a badman in the movies?  It turns out, much as we suspected, that for all the talk about his being a badman, it seems to be just that, talk.  Apparently, he once worked as a lawman for Wyatt Earp.  Then he became a cattleman for a while.  But one day, Wall Ennis, the man who raised Quirt like a father, was shot down by Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot) while another man grabbed his hand as he was going for his gun.  That’s when Quirt sold his herd and began plaguing Laredo, hoping to goad him into a gunfight in front of witnesses.  For example, when Laredo and his gang rustle some cattle, killing all the cowboys who were herding them, Quirt and his boys bonk Laredo’s gang over the head, knocking them off their horses.  Then Quirt’s gang takes off with the cattle and presumably sells them.  I guess the idea is that the cattle were already stolen, so what Quirt did was not really so bad.

Before that however, at the beginning of the movie, Quirt beats Laredo to some land he wanted.  Laredo’s gang chases him until he collapses from exhaustion and a gunshot wound.  A couple of Quakers help him get to a telegraph station to make the claim and then take him in so that he can convalesce.  One Quaker in particular, Penny (Gail Russell), is the “angel” in this movie.

Dr. Mangram (Tom Powers) comes over to take the bullet out.  He makes a snide remark about the way the wicked always seem to be able to survive gunshot wounds while the godly succumb to infection, and Penny’s father chastises him, saying, “You so-called atheists.  You always feel so compelled to stretch your godlessness.”  With this brief exchange, the movie expresses its attitude toward atheists.  First, the atheist is rude and churlish, entering the house of a family he knows to be devout and mocking their religion. For a long time in the movies, atheists were never allowed to be congenial and easygoing, as in reality, many of them are.  Movie atheists had to let everyone know just how much they despised religion.  Second, this movie was made at a time when a lot of people believed that there really was no such thing as an atheist, that their denial of God’s existence was a self-deluding pretense.  Hence the use of the term “so-called.”

Another feature of the stereotypical movie atheist is the emphasis on reality and logic, at the expense of sentiment and feeling.  Mangram says to Penny’s mother, “You can carry this head-in-sand attitude just so far in the world of reality.”  She replies, “We assure you that you will finally realize that realism untempered by sentiments of humanity is really just a mean, hard, cold outlook on life.”  She is right, of course.  But that is precisely the sort of thing David Hume might have said.  In reality, atheists have as much sentiment as anyone else, but movie atheists tend to lack these feelings.

Anyway, Quirt and Penny fall in love.  She is willing to follow him anywhere, but he is not sure he wants to be tied down.  So this struggle goes on throughout the movie, while she acquaints him with the views of the Society of Friends, such as that a person can harm only himself, even if he appears to harm someone else.  One day, she gets him to leave his gun behind while they go for a ride.  As this is shortly after the cattle rustling incident, Laredo and his boys show up and give chase until the wagon goes over a cliff and into the water.  Penny almost drowns.  Quirt gets her back to the house and Dr. Mangram is sent for.  When it looks as though Penny is likely to die, Quirt decides to kill Laredo.

Right after he rides off, Penny comes to.  She seems to be completely well.  Mangram is stunned.  “I can’t understand it,” he says.  “I can’t understand it at all.  There must be some logical, scientific explanation.  I am too old to start believing in miracles.”  And thus does the movie refute the atheist.

A common feature of the Western is the gunslinger with a guilty past.  He wants to hang up his guns, but there is one last thing he must do.  Another recurring feature involves revenge.  The hero relentlessly pursues his goal of getting his revenge against a man who killed someone he loved.  But when the moment arrives, he renounces his revenge.  However, the man he was pursuing somehow gets what is coming to him anyway.

And so it is with Angel and the Badman.  Quirt rides into town and calls out Laredo, who is in the saloon with the sidekick who helped him gun down Wall Ennis.  Suddenly, Penny’s parents ride into town in a wagon with Penny in the back.  She gets Quirt to hand her his gun.  Just then, Laredo and his companion step out into the street.  Quirt turns around unarmed.  And then Marshall McClintock (Harry Carey), who has been threatening to hang Quirt and Laredo throughout the movie, shoots Laredo and his friend, killing them both.  Quirt tells McClintock that from now on he is a farmer.

It is worth noting that, although Penny and her family would have been disappointed with Quirt if he had killed Laredo, they are just fine with the way McClintock killed Laredo instead.  And so, once again, pacifists manage survive in a violent world, because someone else was willing to do the killing for them.

Heaven with a Gun (1969)

In many ways, Heaven with a Gun is mediocre and formulaic.  There is a conflict between cattlemen and sheepherders.  As usual, the sheepherders are good and the cattlemen are bad.  Enter Jim Killian (Glenn Ford), the gunfighter who wants to hang up his gun and become a pastor, but not before he uses his gun one last time.  Finally, there are some whores with a heart of gold, headed by Madge (Carolyn Jones).

At the same time, the formula has been modified to suit the late 1960s.  To begin with, there are a couple of Native Americans that are also sheepherders, consisting of a father and daughter.  The father is hanged by a couple of the cattlemen, one of which is Coke (David Carradine), leaving Leloopa (Barbara Hershey) orphaned.  When Killian happens along and sees the man hanging from a tree, he cuts him down and buries him.  Later, when Killian walks into the small house he just bought, he finds Leloopa inside, cooking some baby rattlesnake.  Leloopa saw Killian cut her father down and bury him, and as a result, she says that she now belongs to Killian, otherwise Hopi law says her father’s soul will wander forever.  Killian is forced to relent.  The fact that they will be living together in a one-room house creates a little taboo tension:  They are not married, she is a minor, they are of different races, and we are not sure whether she thinks of herself as a daughter to Killian or as his wife, giving us a tinge of incest.  However, Killian leaves at night to sleep somewhere else, presumably at the hotel.

Leloopa mentions that her mother was white, a captive whom her father married.  In the old days, her mother would have been raped, but movies were trying to portray Native Americans in a more favorable light by this time.  Because of this trend of treating Native Americans in the movies in this way, it shocks us a little when Killian tells her she is going to have to take a bath, and she has no idea what a bath is.  Leloopa says it was her mother who taught her English, but her mother apparently didn’t bother to teach Leloopa about bathing, so I guess her mother went completely native.  But why, we ask ourselves, would a movie made as late as 1969 suggest that Hopi Indians are a bunch of dirty, smelly savages?

The answer is that the movie wants to titillate us some more.  You see, when Barbara Hershey is in a movie, it is usually just a matter of time before she gets naked.  In fact, when Killian tells Leloopa that in order to bathe, you first have to take your clothes off, we are not surprised when she starts undressing right in front of him.  He stops her, however, and leaves the house so she can have some privacy.

Later in the movie she manages to get raped.  Coke starts making advances to her in the street.  Instead of remaining in the street where there are plenty of people around, she gets the bright idea of running into a barn, which means that Coke can rape her in private.  We figure, “All right, this is where we get to see Barbara Hershey naked.”  But she is only partially undraped as she leaves the barn.

Killian beats up Coke.  Finally, that night, when he gets home, Barbara Hershey is sitting outside completely naked, although we only get to see enough of her body to give the movie an M rating (“M” for mature, a designation eventually replaced by PG).  She says she knows he is trying to find her another place to stay.  After he puts her to bed, she asks if he will stay with her, which was probably the real reason she got naked and not all that Hopi nonsense she was spouting.  But he leaves.

After Killian kills Mace (J.D. Cannon), the gunslinger that had been hired by chief cattleman Asa Beck (John Anderson), Madge convinces him that if he really wants to hang up his guns and become a pastor, he must stop killing.  That makes sense.  But what to do about all those evil cattlemen threatening to wipe out all the sheepherders?  Here we see another influence of the 1960s.  Killian gathers together all the townspeople, including the wives and children of the cattlemen, and they all go to the lake where there was to be a showdown, placing themselves in what would have been the middle of a battle between cattlemen and sheepherders.  It is suggestive of the civil disobedience, civil rights marches, and nonviolent resistance so characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s.

Finally, it becomes clear that Killian is going to allow Leloopa to stay with him, presumably as husband and wife, though that is not explicitly stated.  This too is a change from the old days.  Normally, Leloopa would have been off limits for Killian, not so much because they were of different races, but because she had been raped.  Miscegenation was something of a taboo in the old movies, but it did happen from time to time, as in Broken Arrow (1950).  But a raped woman was damaged goods, and the movies usually figured out some way to keep the protagonist from marrying her, as in Man of the West (1958), assuming she was even allowed to be alive by the end of the movie.  The idea of a raped woman marrying a man and living happily ever after was just too offensive in the old days.  Maybe it still is.  But this movie doesn’t see it as a problem.

Devil’s Doorway (1950)

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.

To the Last Man (1933)

In Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the point is made that revenge is never ending, whereas justice can bring things to a final resolution.  To the Last Man turns that idea on its head.  In this movie, which is about a feud between two families, whose principal names are the Haydens and the Colbys, the head of the Hayden clan, Mark Hayden, decides to end the feud by bringing in the law, which Granny Spelvin objects to as not honorable, because blood will not be spilled for blood.  Nevertheless, Mark goes to the sheriff and charges Jed Colby (Noah Berry) with the murder of Granpa Spelvin.  Even the sheriff thinks it is a bad idea to let the law interfere with a feud, but he arrests Jed, who is tried and sentenced to fifteen years in jail.  To get away from Kentucky, Mark takes his family out to Nevada.  But when Jed’s fifteen years are up, he and what is left of his family follow the Haydens to Nevada, along with a gang of criminals, headed by Jim Daggs (Jack La Rue), whom Jed met while in jail.

While things are heating up between the two families, Lynn Hayden (Randolph Scott) and Ellen Colby (Esther Ralston) accidentally meet and fall in love.  They plan to marry as the feud swirls around them.  And so, this is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story, except that this too is turned on its head.  Whereas Romeo and Juliet died, leaving their families to regret the feud that led to their deaths, this “Romeo” and “Juliet” survive, get married, and live happily ever after, while everyone else in the two families dies (except for a few women and children on the Hayden side).  Moreover, unlike justice, which ended nothing, revenge carried out to its ultimate conclusion, when there is only one man left, is the only thing that finally puts an end the feud.

The Phantom Empire (1935)

The Phantom Empire is the greatest serial ever made.  It was edited from the 245 minute serial into a 70 minute movie titled Radio Ranch or Men with Steel Faces, but the movie version loses much of the camp value of the serial.  Also lost is the way the serial cheats with the cliffhangers, letting us think something terrible happened, only to show something different at the beginning of the next chapter, which typically begins with a stirring piece of music, although there is no indication as to who scored it or whether it was original with this serial.

Gene Autry, playing himself, is half-owner of Radio Ranch, where people come to stay as paying guests and from which Autry broadcasts a radio program every day.  In the first chapter, after singing a song, he introduces Frankie Baxter (Frankie Darro) and his sister Betsy Baxter (Betsy King Ross), his partner’s children, who head a club for teenagers sponsored by Radio Ranch called National Thunder Riders or Junior Thunder Riders.  They tell about how one day they saw a bunch of men with capes and helmets riding horses that sounded like thunder, though they do not know who those men were.  Nevertheless, Frankie and Betsy formed the club, the members of which wear capes and helmets modeled after the ones worn by the original Thunder Riders, as they call them.  Other teenagers are encouraged to visit the ranch and join the club, or they can start their own local fan club.  Then Autry narrates the next installment of a serial within this serial in which the Junior Thunder Riders ride to the rescue to save a man and his wife from a bunch of bandits.  You might think that since this is a radio serial, only dialogue and sound effects would be involved, but they actually act out the parts, almost as if it were being filmed, which, I guess, in a way it is.

Meanwhile, a bunch of men fly in by airplane, who we quickly figure are up to no good.  One of them, Professor Beetson (Frank Glendon), believes that somewhere underneath Radio Ranch is Murania, populated by descendants of the ancient city of Mu, who moved underground to escape the glaciers a hundred thousand years ago.  Beetson believes they will find valuable deposits of radium and secrets that have been lost to the world, technology based on their knowledge of radiation.  Their plan is to get rid of Autry, either by killing him or by causing him to miss a broadcast, which will result in the loss of his radio contract.  Either way, they figure the ranch will become deserted, giving them the freedom to look for Murania without being disturbed.  This plot point leads to several ludicrous situations in which Autry is fleeing from the Thunder Riders or from the scientists, in danger of losing his life, and right in the middle of it all has to worry about getting back to the ranch in time to sing another song.

All this is on the surface.  Meanwhile, twenty-five thousand feet below the ranch is Murania, where the original Thunder Riders live, when they are not galloping about on the surface for whatever reason.  There are, of course, the expected absurdities in this lost city, such as that everyone speaks English.  More interesting is the mixture of ancient and futuristic technology.  The Muranians have wireless telephones, and they have television, allowing Queen Tika (Dorothy Christie) to view what is going on anywhere on the planet, mostly in America.  They have all sorts of advanced weaponry, such as guided missiles, and yet the guards carry spears.  They have robots to perform the manual labor, but the ones that are armed have swords.  Moreover, when the Thunder Riders need to enter or leave Murania, they have a robot turn a crank to open the door, instead of simply having the equivalent of a garage-door opener.

Their government seems to be a bit of a mixture as well.  As noted, there is a queen who rules over her subjects.  However, she refers to one of the wounded soldiers as a “comrade,” a term not normally used in monarchies, but which would have suggested a communist state like the Soviet Union in 1935.  And there is reference to the “secret police.”  When she watches the television to see what is going on in the world, she is contemptuous of the insanity she witnesses, calling the surface people fools, who are always in a hurry, their lives full of death and suffering.  You might think from this that Murania must be an enlightened utopia, but when the captain of the Thunder Riders fails to capture Autry as she commanded, she starts to put him to death for incompetence, but then decides that lashes with a whip will be a better punishment.  She wants Autry captured so that she can drive him off Radio Ranch, because she fears that surface people will discover Murania and invade it.

When the captain fails a second time, she commands Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman) to put him to death in the Lightening Chamber.  But once inside, Argo tells the captain that every time someone is supposedly put to death (thirty-seven so far this year), he saves him so he can be part of the rebellion he is planning.  The captain agrees to join the rebellion, and so his execution is faked.  When Queen Tika, who has people whipped or executed for merely failing to carry out her orders, despite their best efforts, finds out about the rebellion, she cannot understand why people are turning against her.  After all, she knows she has been a good queen, because that is what her underlings tell her when they are asked.  Later, Betsy says what most of us have been thinking, that Queen Tika reminds us of the one in Alice in Wonderland, always shouting, “Off with his head.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Junior Thunder Riders have parallels to Murania beyond merely fashioning themselves after the Muranian Thunder Riders.  Frankie has a secret laboratory on the second floor of a barn in which he invents gadgets, just as scientists in Murania continue to develop new technology down below.  While the Muranians have wireless telephones, the Junior Thunder Riders can be summoned to the secret laboratory with a light bulb moving up through the roof blinking on and off in Morse code.  While the Muranians below the surface watch the world on their television, the Junior Thunder Riders watch what is happening on Radio Ranch with a periscope that peeps through that same hole.  And just as the Muranians live secretly underground, the Junior Thunder Riders have a secret underground passageway beneath the barn leading out of the side of a hill much as the entrance to Murania leads out the side of a mountain.

And just because these are not enough plot complications, Autry is framed by the scientists for killing his partner, and so in addition to being hunted by Beetson’s gang and the Muranian Thunder Riders, he is also being pursued by the sheriff, with only the Junior Thunder Riders to help him.

Eventually, Autry is captured and brought to Murania, but then escapes.  Later, Frankie and Betsy are captured and brought to Murania.  To block the path of anyone not authorized to pass by, there is a robot standing off to the side with a sword held erect.  When activated by a button on his chest, an infraray tells it if someone is trying to pass, at which point it comes down with its sword.  So, when Frankie and Betsy get to that robot, Frankie presses the off button on the robot, and then they go right past him without a problem.  That’s Yankee ingenuity for you.

The rebels do not intend to establish a democracy, but rather simply want power, which promises to result in an even more repressive society than the one run by the queen.  As a result, Autry and his friends team up with the queen, who aids them in their escape.  However, in the course of the rebellion, all of Murania is destroyed by the latest advance in weaponry.

Back on the surface, Beetson confesses to killing Autry’s partner, daring Autry to try to prove it.  However, thanks to a piece of equipment Frankie brought back from Murania, the confession is caught on television, and the bad guys are arrested, after which Autry makes it back to the ranch in time for his final broadcast for the season.