The "Ache for Home" in Anthony Mann's Devil's Doorway (1950)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2003
- pp. 18-29
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Hearne | The 'Ache for Home" in Anthony Mann's Devil's Doorway (1950) The "Ache for Home" in Anthony Mann's Devil's Doorway (1950) by Joanna Hearne University of Arizona Shoshones defend their ranch against white vigilantes. "It's what all men dream of when they ache for home" —Verne Coolan, Devil's Doorway In the year 1950, a post-war revival of the Western genre marked a major shift in the way Hollywood represented Native Americans, with the release of Delmer Daves' color production ofBrokenArrow in July andAnthony Mann's firstWestern, Devil's Doorway, a few months later. Both films examine and then negate the possibility of cross-racial romance, set that romance in the immediate post-Civil War period, and feature a male hero who is a returning Civil War veteran. Although Devil's Doorway has received considerably less critical attention than Broken Arrow, it is by far the more radical film in its depiction of frontier politics. Devil's Doorway functions as a drama ofre-integration and disintegration, in which the returning war veteran disrupts the already -uneasy balance ofpower in his home community. Indeed, the very idea of "home" becomes destabilized by the violence of what René Girard has called the "Warrior's Return." The film has been discussed primarily as an allegory for early civil rights, but Devil's Doorway resonates with the problems facing returning Native American veterans after World War II, including poor reservation conditions, chronic local prejudice, racist and outmoded government supervision, land use crises, and, most importantly , a federal assault on tribal lands, sovereignty and treaty rights. Tapping the post-war assimilationist sentiment that drove the new federal Indian policy of Termination,1 Devil's Doorway combines Western,film noir and "social problem" genres to convey the contradictions inherent in the 1950s treatment ofminorities , particularly forced assimilation and forced segregation, and the use ofimages ofIndians as both legitimizing signs ofmilitary potency and figures of generative sacrifice to the national destiny .2 In particular, the film presents Indian land as contested space, and articulates contradictory post-WWII views ofreservation land as the locus ofnational post-war desires for an imagined "home" and simultaneously a "concentration camp" from which Indians must be liberated. The Drifter Devil's Doorway tells the story ofBroken Lance, or Lance Poole (RobertTaylor), a Shoshone Indian and decorated Civil War veteran who returns to his Wyoming homeland, Sweet Meadows, only to find that unchecked prejudice and greed have come with territorial incorporation and the railroad. Because of the new Homestead Act, Lance is unable to claim ownership of Sweet Meadows, although he has worked the land successfully for years as a profitable cattle ranch. The town's lawyer, Verne Coolan, is a racist who works to destroy Lance and the other Shoshones in order to open their land for white settlement. Lance hires Orrie Masters, the only other lawyer in town, to petition on his behalf; as a woman lawyer, Orrie understands something about social prejudice. But Coolan precipitates a fight by inviting desperate sheepherders to settle Sweet Meadows. There is a suggestion of romance between Orrie and Lance, but their relationship is also combative as they argue over whether Lance should compromise with the sheepherders. In the climactic shootout, Lance and a group ofreservation Shoshones hiding athis ranch are surrounded by vigilantes and, later, the U.S. cavalry; the women and children are allowed to go back to the reservation, but the Shoshone men are killed in the fight. In the final scene, Lance puts on his cavalry uniform and marches out to salute the cavalry leader as he 18 I Film & History Joanna Hearne | Special In-Depth Section falls forward in death. Masters utters the closing line, "It would be too bad if we ever forgot. Guy Trosper's script for Devil's Doorway—which Mann called "the best I have ever read"—went through radical alterations between 1946 and 1949 from a Western that pits a drifter against a big cattleman to a re-activation of the silent era's sympathetic and reformist Indian Western subgenre (Simmon).3 Trosper's initial short story, entitled "The Drifter," emphasized conflict between big cattlemen and small ranchers, as...