Friday, 24 May 2013

Movie Review: The Indian Fighter (1956)

A routine story of conflict over gold between white settlers and Sioux Indians in the wild west, The Indian Fighter mercifully lands just on the right side of a relatively enlightened portrayal of the natives.

In his past, Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas) has both fought the Indians and tried to make peace with them. Now he wants to establish a better relationship with a Sioux tribe and their Chief Red Cloud (Eduard Franz), to allow trade to flourish with a new nearby army fort and the wagon convoys filled with settlers heading through the territory. Hawks also has a lustful eye on Onahti (Elsa Martinelli), the Chief's daughter.

Meanwhile greed-driven Wes Todd (Walter Matthau) and his partner Chivington (Lon Chaney Jr.) are less interested in peace and much more interested in the gold reserves located on the Sioux territory. As Hawks works hard to forge a treaty between Red Cloud and the fort's commander Captain Trask (Walter Abel), the good intentions are quickly soured by the violent actions of Todd and Chivington, sparking retaliation and putting at risk the fort, the settlers, and the tribe's future.

The first movie produced by Douglas' own Bryna Productions, The Indian Fighter is a relatively standard tale of the white man's greed for gold colliding with native respect for the land. The script (co-written by Ben Hecht) establishes Todd and Chivington as the real villains of the piece, allowing the Sioux to be portrayed reasonably sympathetically, and elevating The Indian Fighter to more civilized territory.

Director Andre De Toth makes good use of CinemaScope and the lush green-dominated colours of Oregon, the film a refreshing change from the desert-dominated traditional western aesthetic.

Douglas goes through the movie with a perpetual grin of confidence, and even when he is punching out his enemies he carries the swagger of the hero who knows that he will prevail. There are several cringe-worthy moments courtesy of the Johnny Hawks character, both involving eye-poppingly rough treatment of Onahti. Martinelli obviously did not mind, as she and Douglas apparently became a sexually hyperactive off-camera couple throughout filming.

Back on-camera, when Hawks finally does get his paws on Onahti, they cavort in the river, Douglas cheaply trying to recreate the classic roll-in-the-surf enjoyed by his Hollywood rival Burt Lancaster two years earlier in From Here To Eternity.

After an exciting Indian raid on the fort, the story careens towards a rushed, if not botched, climax. Walter Matthau as Wes Todd and Elisha Cook Jr. as a frontier photographer add interest to the supporting cast. But all the characters here are strictly sketch creations operating within the stringent limits of a single dimension. The Indian Fighter may also be a bit of a peacemaker, but he otherwise does not stray far beyond the more predictable elements of the genre.

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