Broken Arrow represents an early attempt by Hollywood to portray Native Americans in a positive light in a Western. The Western genre didn’t have the greatest track record: native people were historically portrayed as uncivilised savages, while in reality… the Anglo-Saxon “settlers” were the true uncivilised savages, who committed massive genocide on an epic scale. However, during the revisionist Western boom of the ’60s and ’70s, filmmakers tried to take a more sympathetic approach to how they portrayed Native Americans. The genre’s most famous director John Ford always had respect for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Despite this, Ford has often been called racist. That’s somewhat unfair—for example perhaps his most famous film, The Searchers, is infused with a level of moral ambiguity that was rare in the genre at that time.
Delmar Daves was the director of Broken Arrow, and he was a solid, workmanlike filmmaker who is most remembered for his film noirs, like Dark Passage and the excellent noir western 3:10 to Yuma. Daves is interesting, because he was too much of a B-movie director to be considered mainstream, but didn’t quite have enough quirks to be a true iconoclast. However, he was an excellent director as well as a very fine screenwriter: for example, he adapted the play The Petrified Forest into the proto-noir that it was.
James Stewart plays Tom Jeffords, a real person who was somewhat responsible for ending the US government’s wars with the Apaches (who were actually a collection of several related tribes) by getting them to agree to treaties. He wasn’t completely the great guy he is bigged up to be in the film. But when you have Jimmy Stewart playing a character, the actor who portrayed American idealism better than any other actor in history, it certainly helps you seem better than you necessarily were. The romance between Jeffords and a young Native woman was totally fabricated for the source novel Blood Brothers and the film. The romance in the film (I haven’t read the book) seems incredibly forced to add a “love interest,” and is just a bit creepy. The actress, Debra Paget, was 17, while Stewart was well into his 40s, but this kind of on-screen pairing wasn’t uncommon at the time, or on the frontier.
The depiction of the Native Americans tries to be progressive, and for its time it somewhat succeeds. It has some of the “uncivilised savage” stuff viewers would have come to expect, especially the way Geronimo is portrayed. As far I can tell, he wasn’t involved with the treaties but was thrown in there because he was an Apache and was one of the most famous Native Americans of the era. It does show their culture, their honour and their rituals, which for a white audience in 1950 must have been incredibly eye-opening. It also showcases and the form of consensus-based direct democracy in Native American culture that is in still in place on many reservations today, and which borders on anarchism.
Broken Arrow is a fascinating insight into the depiction of Native Americans, although it falls into some of the traps familiar from other films of its time. Jimmy Stewart is great, but of course most of the Native Americans are played by white people in “brown face,” which is also problematic. The notable exception is Jay Silverheels (he was Tonto in The Lone Ranger TV show) who plays Geronimo.
The features include a commentary with Western experts C. Courtney Joyner and Rob Ward, along with a stills gallery and trailer. It’s the first release from Plan B Entertainment, an offshoot of Signet One Entertainment that will release Westerns exclusively.