Friday 24 May 2013

Movie Review: The Indian Fighter (1956)

A routine story of conflict over gold between white settlers and Sioux tribe 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 natives and tried to make peace with them. Now he wants to establish a better relationship with Sioux 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 uninterested in peace and much more focused on the gold reserves in Sioux territory. As Hawks works hard to forge a treaty between Red Cloud and the fort's commander Captain Trask (Walter Abel), good intentions are poisoned 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 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. Meanwhile Director Andre De Toth makes good use of CinemaScope and the lush green-dominated colours of Oregon, the film a refreshing change from the traditional desert 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 a hero certain of the outcome. His Johnny Hawks character also contributes several cringe-worthy moments involving rough treatment of Onahti. When he finally does get his paws on her, they cavort in the river, Douglas 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 Sioux 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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