Thursday 17 September 2015

Movie Review: Tomahawk (1951)

An early progressive western, Tomahawk is an underrated and compact film. The story of a territorial conflict between the U.S. army and the Sioux Indians is culturally sensitive and features an excellent Van Heflin performance.

Gold has been discovered in Montana, and the U.S. government attempts to strong arm Sioux Chief Red Cloud (John War Eagle) out of the way by offering to negotiate another worthless treaty. Frontier scout Jim Bridger (Heflin), who travels with a Cheyenne woman called Monahseetah (Susan Cabot), understands the value of the land to the Sioux, and uncovers a secret plan for the army to build a new fort under the command of Colonel Carrington (Preston Foster), regardless of the negotiation outcomes.

The fort is built, and army troops start to escort white travelers along a new road through Sioux territory. Lieutenant Tob Dancy (Alex Nicol) is Carrington's top deputy, and Bridger recognizes Dancy as having a history of extreme violence towards Indians. When traveling entertainers Dan (Tom Tully) and Julie (Yvonne De Carlo) are attacked by the Sioux, they take refuge at the new fort, and tensions rise both inside and outside the walls.

Directed by George Sherman and loosely based on real events, Tomahawk is one the earliest westerns re-examining relations between natives and settlers, and offering a much more balanced view of history. Along with efforts like Broken Arrow and Devil's Doorway (both from 1950), Tomahawk offers a nuanced representation of the cultural conflict on which the Unites States was built. The Indians are portrayed as victims, deceived by a succession of treaties and resorting to violence only in the face of the latest naked land grab.

The film is assembled on a modest budget, and clocks in at just 82 minutes. In most aspects Sherman produces an experience that exceeds expectations. While the dialogue is straightforward, the emotions often obvious and the supporting cast bland, the film weaves in an unusual number of interconnected threads as sources of tension, evolution and discovery. Jim and Tob Dancy are connected through a violent past, Carrington represents a promising new breed of army commander, his wife and the other ladies at the fort have a decision to make on how to treat Monahseetah, while Julie quickly learns what civility means in the presence of a man like Jim Bridger. The film provides rich grounds for personal growth and interaction, and thoughtfully exploits the opportunities for narrative progression.

Van Heflin and Yvonne De Carlo also help to elevate the material. Heflin sinks his teeth into the role of Jim Bridger and delivers a thoughtful, distinguished performance, finding the keen dilemma of a white man who has fully internalized the suffering of Indians. De Carlo provides able back-up as a privileged woman provided with the circumstance to interact with Jim and Monahseetah at close quarters, and therefore the opportunity to question everything she took for granted about Indian culture. Deep in the cast, Rock Hudson appears in an early role as an army soldier.

Filmed in bright colours and drenched in sunshine, Tomahawk boasts a vivid aesthetic to match its brutal honesty. From form to function, this is a small western that rides with dignity and casts a long shadow.

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