Tomahawk, the Universal Western and the commodification of progressive thought

Versão em português

A couple weeks ago, Kino Lorber put out a blu-ray for Tomahawk, a 1951 western directed by genre specialist George Sherman. I like Tomahawk a lot, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it, but one of the reasons I’d like to talk about it is that Tomahawk is such a good example of a very particular 50s subgenre of generally progressive western that tries to show a sympathetic eye for Native American tribes during the west expansion years.

I mentioned Sherman, a fine filmmaker who did a lot of good westerns from the 30s through early 70s, but this genre was foremost the work of Universal, where he was usually employed during the 50s. Universal had a huge hit with James Stewart starrer Delmer Daves directed Broken Arrow in the previous year and located a market deficiency: people were watching westerns in record numbers in the decade after World War II and among this large audience there was a part of it willing to see movies between cavalry and Indians that show the latter point of view and so they keep churning at least one of those every year. Universal averaged over 10 westerns a year in the 50s, by far the most among any studio in those western dominated days, so this was not hard. Besides Tomahawk, Sherman himself did The Battle at Apache Pass (1952, a semi official sequel for Broken Arrow), Chief Crazy Horse (1955) and the independent made Comanche (1956) and other better known directors like Budd Boetticher (Seminole, 1953) or Douglas Sirk (Taza, Son of Cochise, 1954) tried their hand in it for Universal while a few other studios would put out movies like Pony Soldier (1952) or Sitting Bull (1954) that follow the format closely.

Those movies have their formula patterned on Broken Arrow: they have a white hero who is usually a scout or trader who knows the Native Americans well and more important empathize with them, there will be a principled Indigenous leader who is tired of fighting and whiling to settle for a diplomatic solution, who has to deal with some young hothead styled like 1950s youth gang member looking for a suicidal fight while the cavalry gets divided between clueless bureaucrats and Custer style racist officials. The emphasis obviously changes a little from movie to movie, on Tomahawk Van Heflin plays the hero, John War Eagle is very good as the Indigenous leader Red Cloud and Alex Nicol is the racist officer that Heflin is after due to his part in a previous massacre and the internal tribe politics are secondary compared to Broken Arrow. Those movies are big centrist fantasies of reconciliation. that suggests If only the sane cool-headed parties had managed to run the show and reached a compromised solution, US history would have far less blood on its hands.

They are animated by the understanding of their fantasy scenarios, 50s audiences knew that on those movies’ own terms the bad guys and violence won and they tend to be at least a little bitter about it. Tomahawk’s climax is constructed around two opposite official history battles, the Fatterman massacre and Wagon Box Fight. The former was one of the cavalry’s worst losses with around 80 soldiers dead and the latter had a small cavalry output butchering through Red Cloud forces thanks to modern rifles. The movie starts with a failed diplomatic meeting with the Natives denouncing whites for going back on their word yet again with the full blessing of our hero and through it, Heflin keeps pointing out that the road through the Sioux lands which starts the war isn’t something worth fighting for and by the final scene Preston Foster colonel complains that despite his troops win on the battlefield, Washington politicians had decided to deactivate the road rendering the movie bloodshed worthless. West historians have disagreements on the extent of Red Cloud’s losses on the Wagon Box Fight, but Tomahawk plays the US military favorite version that they were very high, something which paradoxically makes the Cavalry look worse in the movie. The scene is among the best on a 50s western turning it into a bloody military ritual with a new wave of Indians moving by horse and getting gunned down replaced by another, the focus on Heflin watching it with crocodile tears just reinforcing his inefficiency.

By Tomahawk’s end the only thing achieved was Heflin’s personal vendetta against Nicol’s officer, but the general sense that the west campaign is a senseless violent parade led by desire for profit by some unseen merchants remains strong. Tomahawk is a pretty good movie, it even does good at observing that Foster’s idiot colonel is as evil in his own way as Nicol’s sociopath, the political maneuvering flows better than in some of them, the didacticism is well integrated as is some of the more conventional plot points, the massacre scene in the end is troubling and Sherman’s handle of action and violence is strong and like most Universal westerns the technicolor cinematography is stunning throughout. Still, while its politics are better than most, what stands out for me about those movies are how much they represent a form of commodification of progressive thought, they exist less because there’s some Heflin type executive at Universal with a guilty conscience, but because exploiting said guilt was a good business. I’ve watched enough 50s westerns that with time it is hard not to think hard about this, it is not an exercise in cynical criticism, but trying to deal with the complex realities of how this kind of industrial filmmaking operates and one whose consequences are easy to observe nowadays as the politics emphasis might change, but the industry logic remains the same.

Indeed, while I’m fond of Tomahawk, George Sherman did better westerns at Universal, particularly Dawn at Socorro and The Last of the Fast Guns, two genre gems, but I’d like to close by mentioning Reprisal! a terrific little film he made at Columbia in 1956. Almost no one talks about Reprisal! because it stars Guy Madison one of the lesser cowboys from this era who also produced, but it is a troubled movie about identity and racial politics made the same year as The Searchers with Madison playing a half Cherokee rancher passing as white who is forced by a Native lynching by a local rich family to eventually take a stand. Madison is a much worse actor than Heflin and the ending is soft as expected (there’s so much one can do in a genre movie under the code censorship), but the movie is a harsh serious picking at the nest that makes good on westerns natural tendencies towards pare down discursive narratives. It is far from a perfect movie, but despite its concessions, it benefits as a smaller semi-independent feature from dealing with those tough questions with less commodified answers.

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