Monday, May 24, 2010
TCM is doing a series on the Native American in Hollywood movies and recently they screened DEVIL'S DOORWAY, which I had never seen or heard of. Directed by Anthony Mann, it's one of the most unexpected movie history revelations I've had in decades.
It came out in 1950 and tells the story of a Native American who, after serving in the Union Army for four years in the Civil War, mostly as a sergeant in charge of "white" men serving under him, and winning their allegiance and even a medal for bravery, he returns to find a sinister lawyer using the new "Homestead Act" to encourage white settlers to take over his family's ancestral homestead.
It has so many surprising plot twists, including a woman lawyer (we're talking the year after the Civil War ended!) who takes the side of the Indians, it's almost impossible to believe a movie about racial prejudice could have been made at that time in this country. It's years ahead of anything comparable in terms of not just subject matter but the way it's presented.
The stumbling block is Robert Taylor playing an Indian. But in some ways that makes it more powerful, if you can get over the ridiculousness of Taylor playing the victim of prejudice because of the color of his skin, which the make up they use makes it look more like he's been in Miami for too many weeks.
But a famous leading man, the symbol of "white American manhood" in many ways at the time, playing the victim of bigotry probably was a smart political move at the time, convincing a lot of "white" women that maybe they could see themselves with a "non-white" man and a lot of little "white" boys and teenage males that there's more to cowboys and Indians than they ever imagined.
It had to have had an impact on at least some of the audience's consciousness when it came to interracial relationships of all kinds from personal to communities. Thinking of the John Wayne flicks of this time or the tons of Westerns coming out then that almost always depicted the Indians as either violent savages or subdued underlings, to see a proud and dignified individual standing up for himself and his people seems in retrospect to have been close to revolutionary.
Worth checking out just for the history of it as well as for Mann's usual adept direction of action scenes and male iconic imagery, as well as the surprisingly original plot twists.