Broken Arrow Review

Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of Broken Arrow, the first Hollywood Western to treat Native Americans in a decent light. The film holds up well today, transcending much of its preachiness and has also been treated to a worthwhile, if not perfect, presentation.

Broken Arrow has earned its place in cinema history as the first mainstream Hollywood Western to treat Native Americans as something beyond mere rifle fodder. More importantly, it’s a film fully aware of its own significance and uses this knowledge with which to form its plot. James Stewart, in affable mode, plays an open-minded prospector (read audience surrogate) who’s “sick and tired of all this killing” and so decides to immerse himself in the Apache with the aim of becoming a go-between for the whites and their sworn enemy.

Understandably, being a Hollywood “first”, Broken Arrow’s progressive qualities only go so far. (Indeed, we should hardly expect an Apache equivalent of Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner.) As such it is still the whites who are at the film’s centre, not only in terms of Stewart being the leading man (as well as the supplier of the voice-over), but also inasmuch as all the principle Native Americans are played by white actors, with Jeff Chandler taking the primary role. Of course this device was regularly used throughout the fifties – witness Chuck Connors in Geronimo, Burt Lancaster in Apache or Rod Steiger in Run of the Arrow – and as with those pictures Broken Arrow has the same problem insofar as it severely stunts the performances of those actors who are, effectively, “tanning up”. In this case Chandler is forced to keep things stoical meaning that none of the nuance he later displayed in, say, Samuel Fuller’s Merrill’s Marauders is available to him. Indeed, it’s as if the level of respect the filmmakers are adopting has reduced the character to near paralysis.

But then such was the regularity of this problem throughout the decade that it’s also an easy one to overlook – and besides Chandler’s role is essentially peripheral to Stewart’s. Moreover, it is Stewart who makes Broken Arrow so inviting. It’s intriguing to compare his role here to that of his other Western of 1950, Winchester 73, the film which began his terrific run of collaborations with director Anthony Mann. Whereas that series of Westerns, alongside his films for Alfred Hitchcock, take a deep look at Stewart’s psyche, here he’s the simple all-American he’d portrayed in his earliest pictures, particularly the lightweight musicals such as Born to Dance. Of course, there’s a little more integrity at work and with that in mind it is perhaps unsurprising that Broken Arrow best recalls such Stewart pictures as The FBI Story than it does any of his Westerns.

There’s also some of the overall tone of The FBI Story about Broken Arrow. As its treatment of the Apaches is neither incidental nor unintentional it does at times come across as more than a little haughty. There’s a faintly patronising air to the way in which the “mysticism” is dealt with and the manner in which the dialogue is translated is of the cod-poetic variety. But there’s also more than just Stewart to counteract such misgiving, the strongest coming from Delmer Daves’ typically muscular direction. Perhaps not in the same league as his later 3.10 to Yuma or the earlier Dark Passage, Broken Arrow still sees Daves approaching the material with a briskness which prevents it from ever becoming too self-serving or overwrought. The action quotient – an element he also succeeds in – may be low, but there’s the requisite amount to demonstrate his obvious skills.

Furthermore, any preachiness is also off-set by a pleasing lack of simplicity. Broken Arrow was made at a time when Hollywood was engaging in a number of problematic themes, such as anti-Semitism in Crossfire and Gentlemen’s Agreement. Yet a number of these pictures also had ulterior motives so to speak, with these two efforts, for example, also tackling, in a roundabout manner, homosexuality. From this perspective then, Broken Arrow is as much a plea against racism as a whole as it is an atonement for the Western’s previous treatment of Native Americans. Indeed, if looked at in such a manner then the romantic subplot between Stewart and Debra Paget’s character, and the miscegenation that involves, becomes all the more daring and complex. Likewise, the treatment of both the Apaches and the whites is equally complicated, with neither being presented in a wholly good or wholly bad light, but altogether more human. That Geronimo sneaks a cameo in the final quarter more than suggests, despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, the ending can never be entirely happy.

The Disc

Broken Arrow is presented in its original Academy ratio using a print of reasonable quality. The Technicolor is beginning to fade and as such some of the long shots are occasionally a struggle to discern, but otherwise the result is as good as could be expected. Certainly, the crispness of the image makes a line of spit coming from Stewart’s mouth in the final scene immediately apparent. As for the soundtrack, the original mono is present and sounds equally fine. There are no overt problems to speak of, but also nothing that truly impresses. As for extras, Broken Arrow is identical to Optimum’s other 20th Century Fox Western releases inasmuch as the disc houses only the film.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Apr 20, 2005

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Broken Arrow Review | The Digital Fix