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Broken Arrow

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Delmer Daves - 1950
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There has been a good amount of discussion regarding Delmer Daves quest to make the presentation of the Apaches in Broken Arrow as authentic as possible within the context of a Hollywood production. Likewise, the film has been oft noted for showing for showing the settlers and indians where both are capable of sympathy or villainy. And in terms of genre, Broken Arrow, even while dated with its casting of white actors as native Americans, is still worth noting.

What I found interesting, and not mentioned, is that a significant number of shots are extremely tilted, especially in the opening scene, with the camera looking up at a character against the blue sky, or almost overhead, looking almost straight down against the tan, rocky surface. There are very few shots with the camera focused straight ahead, or eye level. The camera angles become less extreme as a visual corollary for those moments when the characters may be seen as equals. The casting of Jeff Chandler as Cochise could well have been due as much to his being as tall, actually one inch taller, than James Stewart, again providing a visual shortcut to the film's message.

Two visually striking moments are reminders that previously Daves had made films now regarded as film noir classics, Dark Passage and The Red House. After a skirmish, three white men have been hanged by their indian captors. The three bodies are seen in silhouette against the red sky, one of the bodies is upside down. While not fully graphic, the grotesque nature of the punishment conveys why there is fear of the indians. Later, James Stewart is seen alone, illuminated by a camp fire. His face is seen half in shadow.

I'm not familiar with the novel that provided the basis for the film. Some scenes can be easily read as referring to the political climate when Broken Arrow was produced. The blu-ray has corrected credits attributing the Oscar nominated Albert Maltz for the screenplay, rather than his front, Michael Blankfort. Maltz was one of the "Hollywood Ten", blacklisted until 1970. The actor playing the most antagonistic of the white settlers is Will Geer, who would also be blacklisted. As the itinerant prospector acting as the self-appointed liaison between the settlers and the indians, Stewart is challenged regarding racial loyalty, and is later almost lynched by an angry mob over his defense of Cochise. While a good distance from the revisionist westerns that often stood in as critiques of the war in Vietnam, Broken Arrow was considered quite progressive for its time.

Stewart's character of Tom Jeffords is similar to the characters portrayed in the Anthony Mann westerns. Jeffords, like the characters in the Mann films, has no fixed home, with the drama initiated by a chance encounter. There is a brief moment when Jeffords is seen as vengeful, the darker James Stewart more frequently associated with Mann, when Jeffords discovers that his young indian wife has been killed in an ambush arranged by Geer. The film is told with first-person narration from Stewart, seen at the beginning and end, riding alone.

The color is quite subdued for a Technicolor production, filmed on location in Arizona. In his first western, Daves finds moments to emphasize the smallness of his actors against the mountains, rocky flatland, and sky. This sense is further underlined when Geer's body is washed away in a river, seen directly above, a view from heaven. Cinematographer Ernest Palmer was an Oscar nominee for his work here. There's one critical study of the films of Delmer Daves, a filmmaker still seriously in need of deeper consideration. The new blu-ray of Broken Arrow is definitely collection worthy.

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