Seeing Red--Hollywood's Pixeled Skins
American Indians and Film
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: Michigan State University Press
Title Page, Copyright
The first appearance of the movie review, or at least its direct ancestor, followed quickly on the heels of the 1896 unveiling of “Edison’s greatest marvel,” the Vitascope: a “curious object” that was capable of projecting moving life-size, color images on a white backdrop.1 While the New York Times reporter who covered this highly publicized premiere had more to say about the “marvel” itself than the content and artistic quality...
Chapter 1: The Silent Red Man
The Vanishing American (1925)
So, what can you expect from The Vanishing American? Well, it was originally a silent film made in 1925, and as you might guess by the title, it’s based on Zane Grey’s popular novel of the same name. The film has been described as an “epic scale historic melodrama.” Of course, “epic scale” had quite a different meaning...
Enthusiasts of the Washington Redskins and other mascot worshippers will be disappointed in this early silent feature film from 1929. It’s not about sports—well, not entirely—although the Indian protagonist, white actor Richard Dix, is briefly recruited with an athletic scholarship to a fictional Thorpe University on the East Coast. Thorpe University is a nod to the famous...
Chapter 2: John Ford and “The Duke” on the Warpath
Drums along the Mohawk (1939)
In an August 28, 2008, speech when he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States, President-elect Barack Obama explicitly positioned the aspirations of his campaign within the dominant and intertwined narratives of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. Celebrating the unparalleled wealth...
Fort Apache (1948)
The old black-and-white films take me back to my childhood. As a child living in northeastern Arizona, I remember spending Saturday afternoons with my dad watching John Wayne movies. My dad never referred to him as “John Wayne,” but always “The Duke.” In a time span of fifteen or so years, I must have watched every...
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Along with Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950), John Ford’s renowned Cavalry Trilogy includes She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), which the Classic Film Guide calls an “essential Western.” There’s just something about an “essential” John Ford Western. It’s a wonderfully romantic vision of the place that became the United States: breathtaking landscapes reminiscent of Remington...
The Searchers (1956)
Despite the many ways it bothers me, The Searchers is a movie that I will watch time aft er time. Part of the film’s appeal can be attributed to cinematographer Winton C. Hoch’s keen eye for its dramatic imaging of Monument Valley. The landscape is not only beautiful and grand, but is used symbolically...
Chapter 3: The Disney Version
Peter Pan (1953)
My jaw hit the ground when I heard this song and saw these “redskins” hopping around and making fools of themselves. Granted, it was only a cartoon, but it was one in which the animators took the liberty of demeaning an entire race in the name of entertainment. Led by a “chief ” who spoke with an “Injun” accent that was thicker than Tonto’s, the Indians in Disney’s...
Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955)
Walt Disney’s landmark television production Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier is a challenging film to review. Natives appear on-screen for much of the movie, a compilation of the first three stories from the 1950s television series Davy Crockett Indian Fighter, broadcast December...
I would like to title my review “Pocahontas Disneyfied, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love and Ignore Genocide.” Th e subtitle is a deliberate nod to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, one of the twentieth century’s preeminent films, an absurdist critique of nuclear buildup and our nationalist tendencies toward annihilation...
Chapter 4: Mixed-Bloods in Distress
Duel in the Sun (1946)
A Brady Bunch station wagon pulls up in front of the Sandia Army Base Th eater in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Five brothers, ranging in age from teenager to toddler, pile out. Regulation army haircuts, patched jeans, and collared, polyester short-sleeved shirts buttoned to the top. Although we are all Comanche/white, I’m the only dark...
The Unforgiven (1960)
Picture this: I’m fourteen years old. It’s 10:30 p.m. Saturday night, after the news. Feature-film time. My dog Ginger and I are plopped on the living room couch waiting for the weekend feature film to begin. Oh great, it’s got Audrey Hepburn in it, she’s one of my favorite actresses, and Burt Lancaster—loved him in...
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Near the end of Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, the camera pulls back to reveal the white protagonists Cora (Madeline Stowe) and Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) standing together with the last Mohican, Chingachgook (Russell Means), mourning his son, the dead Uncas. As the ceremony ends, the camera moves again, this time dollying around...
A mustang pony and his Anglo/Lakota rider are lonely partners in Disney’s 2004 film Hidalgo, where the two somehow manage to conquer the “Ocean of Fire,” a three-thousand-mile race across the Arabian Desert. Set in the late nineteenth...
Chapter 5: You Mean, I’m a White Guy?
Broken Arrow (1950)
Of all the movies in this book, Broken Arrow remains one of the most problematic. No one really knows what to do with it, how to read it, how to teach it, or even where it should sit among the pantheon of Westerns. Neither an Indian film nor a typical Western, it straddles the bucking horse that is the un-PC movie. Will Broken Arrow get thrown off? Or, will it ride out its eight...
Little Big Man (1970)
Ever since I began teaching history almost twenty-five years ago, students on regular occasions have asked me, “What was it like to grow up in the ’60s?” Th e question becomes more wistful with the passing of years and the students’ distance from that storied and mythic decade. Sometimes they want their fantasies...
A Man Called Horse (1970)
Just back fr om seeing A Man Called Horse. Oh the way those ungrateful Lakotas treat Richard Harris made me so mad I could hardly finish my Milk Duds. Note to Self: remember to schedule those “copasetic-coping” classes my crystal gazer recom-mended so I can learn to walk a mile in another’s Manolo Blahniks. And imagine Dame Judith Anderson playing an old Lakota squaw! Really, what would ...
Dances with Wolves (1990)
Unfortunately, the movie industry seems to relish scripts that slander my people, the Pawnees. Take, for example, Dances with Wolves, whose plot may be summarized as follows for the few lonely souls who have not seen it in theaters, on DVD, or cable TV marathons...
Chapter 6: Indians with Fangs
The Manitou (1978)
Until it ceased operation in 1986, the Sandhills Outdoor Th eater in Valentine, Nebraska, was the major venue for residents of Cherry County and South Dakota’s neighboring Lakota Sioux Rosebud Reservation to gather and enjoy B- to Z-list Hollywood fare. I’m unashamed to confess that while living on the Rosebud from the mid-1970s to...
Crazy things are going on in this movie Wolfen. I mean it’s a werewolf movie, but it is set in the city—and not just any city, but New York City. Manhattan Island, to be even more specific. Didn’t the director do any research before putting this thing together? Everyone knows werewolves haunt the countryside. There’s nothing...
Chapter 7: Walk a Mile in My Moccasins
Medicine River (1993)
When Indians go home following a long absence, you can be sure that the road will likely be as bumpy as the roads in Medicine River, a fictional reserve town set in western Canada. No one knows what to make of long-lost returnees whose changed markings are fully observable to the home folks. Will, a long-lost Cree played...
Smoke Signals (1998)
Sometime in 1997, the Native listservs had really begun to cook. It was the heady early years of the Internet, and even Indians were drunk with the e-power. Everybody was posting stories on old AIM members, arguing over history, arguing over who had the most corrupt tribal chiefs and chairmen, and still debating about what really...
The Business of Fancydancing (2002)
No one knew what to expect in the early days of the new millennium when word hit the street that Sherman Alexie was going to make a film called The Business of Fancydancing. After all, is there any film genre more beloved in America than the volume-of-poetry-to-screen adaptation? I remember...
Chapter 8: NDNS: The Young and the Restless
The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
As I sit at my computer, a three-inch plastic Indian stands beside the monitor. He has a scalp lock, and wears leggings, a breechcloth, a knife sheath, and a pouch, all of yellow. Next to him is the case for a videocassette of The Indian in the Cupboard, with the cover reversed, so that the case resembles a weathered wooden cabinet...
The Education of Little Tree (1997)
I cry every time I watch The Education of Little Tree. It annoys the piss out of me, but I can’t help it. Even though I know that the book upon which it’s based, originally advertised as the homespun autobiographical reminiscences of the Cherokee storyteller Forrest Carter, is actually...
The Doe Boy (2001)
Tahlequah, Oklahoma. A feature film set in the Cherokee Nation’s capital. Okay, I’m game. A coming-of-age story. Th ere’s deer hunting. Great. Complications within an interracial family, sure. Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Hummm. Here’s a film I believe I’m ready to love. Finally. Yes, finally...
Black Cloud (2004)
Black Cloud (2004) opens with violence: pounding flesh against muscle and bone in a practice boxing match between Black Cloud (Lakota, Eddie Spears) and his coach Bud (Lakota, Russell Means). Rick Schroder’s screenplay is loosely based on the true story of Navajo boxer Carl Bahe of Chinle, Arizona. Bahe overcame...
Chapter 9: Death Wish, Indian-Style
Navajo Joe (1966)
Somewhere in the wilds of northeast Connecticut, circa 2008: student (proudly Irish-American, BTW): Well, just because John Ford used Navajos who spoke Navajo in The Searchers who were supposed to be Comanches, it’s...
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969)
Backstory. In 2006, the family of William Mike traveled in a caravan through the Morongo Indian Reservation on Field Road, winding their way up the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. Near the top of the hill, they passed the Catholic church and turned left into the old tribal cemetery. Th ere they placed headstones...
Billy Jack (1971)
Three memories from my childhood come to mind as I consider the cultural tour de force that is the Billy Jack franchise. Th e first is my uncle Vern learning karate from a book sometime between the years 1973 and 1975. I remember watching him with great admiration and awe as he practiced his kicks in my grandparents’ backyard, pausing only...
Chapter 10: Love, Indigenous-Style
Waikiki Wedding (1937)
Ah, Hawai‘i. Land of pineapple, processed sugar, hula, and aloha. Well, for some I suppose, if you’re into that whole touristic exploitation of someone else’s land for your own pleasure, as most Americans tend to be. But for me? Not so much. I never in a million years thought I’d ever have anything in common with Shirley Ross, a 1930s Hollywood...
The Savage Innocents (1960)
E.S. (establishing shot): Conversation in Chicago’s Wooden Nickel on Wilson Ave., ca. 1961. A couple of guys from the neighborhood are debating going to the movies. They’ll take the El up north and go to the Lakeshore or the 400, or maybe even the Devon or the Adelphi. But first, they’ve got some talkin’ to do...
Big Eden (2000)
Big Eden (2000) is acclaimed as part of a second generation of gay cinema. Th e film is more romantic comedy than coming-out drama or confronting AIDS and its consequences. While those early gay films are certainly significant, the writer/director, Thomas Bezucha, presents gay relationships as normal parts of the community. His desire...
Chapter 11: Workin’ for the Great White Father
Distant Drums (1951)
About three quarters of the way through Raoul Walsh’s 1951 Technicolor drama Distant Drums, the U.S. Army’s Captain Quincy Wyatt (Gary Cooper) returns with his brigade in tow to the island he inhabits. In a point-of-view shot, the camera pans the charred remains of his isle’s chickees (Seminole houses). We get a reaction shot of Wyatt, his face registering utter...
The Far Horizons (1955)
The historical errors in The Far Horizons (1955), Hollywood’s contribution to the 150th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, come at you so fast, it is hard to keep up with them. The film opens with Meriwether Lewis in satin pants, and ends with the camera on Sekakawea (Donna Reed in pancake makeup) riding away from Thomas Jefferson’s White...
“It’s a five hundred year resistance.” Th at’s how Indian activist Jimmy Looks Twice, played by real life Indian activist and poet John Trudell, puts the events of the 1970s on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota into historical perspective. Th e activists and the Lakota people they support are a threat, he argues, because they “choose to be who...
"UGH!” Unbelievable, Ghastly, Horrific. Th at was my one-word indigenous review aft er first seeing Windtalkers. However, as it’s been several years since I stumbled out of the movie theater spewing that primal utterance into the air, I now find it possible to be more restrained in my analysis...
What the Critics Said . . .
Page Count: 245
Publication Year: 2013
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