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May 09, 2017

The Indian Fighter

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Andre DeToth - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Is it possible to view The Indian Fighter and overlook a couple of elements that may be uncomfortable for contemporary audiences? The easier part is the Hollywood convention of white actors as American Indians. While there were Native Americans as members of the film's Sioux tribe, key roles are filled by Eduard Franz, Hank Worden and Elsa Martinelli. In this way, The Indian Fighter is not different from most other westerns pretty much until Arthur Penn's Little Big Man in 1970. What hasn't aged well would be the couple encounters Douglas has with Martinelli, forcing himself on her with a big smooch on the lips the first time, grabbing her hair in their second meeting, ending with Martinelli smiling and embracing Douglas, because he is Kirk Douglas. Later, it's the actress known as the former Mrs. Kirk Douglas who grabs the star for a kiss.

If the sixty plus years has dated some of the content on The Indian Fighter, the film itself looks as good as did at the time of its initial theatrical release, and probably sounds better with updated recording technology. There's a scene with the Indians attacking a fort with large, flaming spears, with a thrilling whooshing sound as the spears fly towards the fort.

The Indian Fighter was Andre DeToth's first film in the still relatively know CinemaScope format, two years old at the time of production. As such, the widescreen filming here is conservative, especially compared to Rebel without a Cause, produced the same year, with actors framed in full or medium shots. There are a good number of panoramic shots, but it's only a couple of later scenes that there are couple of shots with the kind of dramatic compositions found in earlier DeToth films. One of the best examples of the former is a traveling shot of the wagon train, stopped for the evening, starting with several people listing to a folk singer performing "Two Brothers" (a Civil War song written in 1951), with the camera moving left to observe villains Lon Chaney, Jr. and Walter Matthau eating dinner, further left with a bearded settler by his wagon, stopping Kirk Douglas sitting with Diana Douglas and her young screen son.
A later shot that is reminder of what DeToth can do within the frame comes after the big battle scene, with a high angle view of Kirk Douglas in the mostly empty space within the fort's entrance seen in the distance, while the foreground on the left side of the frame is partially filled by an anonymous soldier seen as a medium shot, eating from his canteen.

The basic story is familiar enough, with Douglas acting as the go-between, arranging peace between the Sioux and the cavalry, and allowing settlers to travel to Oregon through Indian territory. Chaney and Matthau are the ne'er do wells, selling whiskey to the Indians, hoping to mine the gold hidden in the tribal land. Elsa Martinelli is introduced getting undressed, with as much nudity as could be suggested in a 1955 Hollywood film. This was the first significant role for the twenty year old Italian actress, and her lines are kept brief in her role as the Indian chief's daughter. Neither Martinelli nor any of the other actors playing Indians speak pidgin English. The two screenplay writers credited are Frank Davis and Ben Hecht, and I am assuming that some of the more sarcastic exchanges were from Hecht. How sarcastic? When the Indian chief expressed hope that the white men would entirely kill each other in the Civil War, Douglas responds that the war didn't last long enough.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Toby Roan, a specialist in Westerns, primarily from the 1950s. Several of the actors would be familiar to those watch film and television westerns from the Fifties and Sixties, with three Juniors in the cast - in addition to Lon Chaney, Jr., there is Elisha Cook, Jr. as the photographer attempting to document the journey to Oregon, and Alan Hale, Jr. as the awkward would-be suitor of Diana Douglas. Roan also discusses the production history on location in Bend, Oregon. Roan points out how The Indian Fighter simultaneously stays within genre convention and also goes outside what was expected. I was also relieved that there was no confusion on my part, with Roan confirming that Hank Worden is seen in two different roles, as a cavalry soldier who locks up Chaney and Matthau, and more prominently, as the liquor loving Indian known as Crazy Bear.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 9, 2017 09:48 AM