Saturday, November 29, 2008

Broken Arrow

Forty years before Kevin Costner danced with wolves and Mary McDonnell, James Stewart also danced with a white woman posing as a Native American. Although in the case of Broken Arrow, she’s actually supposed to be an Apache. They used to do that a lot back then. Jeff Chandler played Cochise. At least it wasn’t Rock Hudson (who played a Native American in Winchester ’73).
I’ve never really bought James Stewart as a cowboy. I mean, he plays the kind of cowboy you would expect, one that stands up against intolerance and injustice. It doesn’t usually go over very well in the rough and tumble world of machismo and gun fights. What Stewart does is basically Mr. Smith Goes to the Wild West. He doesn’t look natural in jeans and a handkerchief tied around his neck.
When the opening credits started rolling, I rubbed my hands together thinking: “Oh, this ought to be good.” Because it had all the earmarks of a stereotypical Cowboys and Indians exploitation movie.
And for all intents and purposes, that’s what it was. You have blaxploitation movies like Shaft and Super Fly and sexploitation movies like Thelma and Louise and Fatal Attraction. But what do you call Native American exploitation movies? Mohawxploitation? Siouxploitation?
“It is good to understand the ways of others,” Stewart says at one point in this Technicolor think piece. And he’s right.
The one thing that I kept thinking about the entire time I was watching this movie was how well it relates to current events. I won’t enumerate all of the plot points that match up with America’s war on Iraq (no matter how much I’m itching to do so), but let’s just say they are enumerable.
I especially felt it when there’s this big talk-out in the bar and it reminded me of what would happen if you got a bunch of Republicans and Democrats together in a bar and let them talk about immigration or terrorism. The conservatives talk about capitalism, culture and civilization (i.e.: white people) whereas liberals only discuss human rights (i.e.: freedom in various guises).
I’m not trying to make a political point here. I’m neither liberal nor conservative. But I did notice that James Stewart’s motives were a little tainted. He said himself that he was influenced by his love for a girl (Debra Paget). It always seems that passion and pleasure are at the core of liberals’ pursuit of happiness that they equate with freedom (kind of like the Star Wars’ Sith).
The best scene in the movie is at its climax when everything comes together. It is the first time where you experience a real depth and it comes about in an intricate dialogue between Cochise and Stewart. Stewart’s convictions are being tested with the loss of his motives. But Cochise’s convictions are stronger than ever despite the fact that he has been given a very plausible out to a treaty he has every reason to believe will not be upheld by the white man.
All this, with the slapped-on happy ending of Stewart riding off into the mountains (the sun is most likely setting behind them), seems to intentionally ignore the fact that we all know there is no Apache State. Three years after this movie takes place, the Apache get to experience their own trail of tears when the treaty is reneged. Oh, the U.S. will make it up to the Apaches later and let them have a million acres of land. But that won’t happen for another fifty years or so, thirty years before Broken Arrow is made.
It’s not the intent of this review to exposit about the state of the Native American or their fate. It is the intent of the movie to show a point in our history where things worked out peacefully for a time despite factors on both sides that perpetuated war.
I suppose this brings me back to why I watched the movie in the first place. I started working at a music and dvd store last week and one of my first customers bought Broken Arrow. I noticed that James Stewart was in it and because I like him I thought I would try to find the movie at the library. I also thought it would be kind of funny to watch every movie customers bought. So if they ever came back I could say, “Hey, I watched that movie you bought last time. My favorite scene was when Cochise shot that guy and there is that long pan of him floating down the river.”
Because I’m less concerned with the plight of Native Americans or the war in Iraq and more concerned with making myself look like a pedantic know-it-all.

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