Friday, 1 May 2015

Tomahawk (1951)

Following last week's post about two films by George Sherman, this post will focus on another of his best films, Tomahawk (1951). It is one of several films produced in the 1950s by Universal-International studio about the wars between American Indians and the US government, and of which George Sherman directed a handful. The screenplay was written by Silvia Richards and Maurice Geraghty. Richards was otherwise working with Fritz Lang at the time (they were also romantically involved) and she wrote two of Lang's films, The Secret Beyond the Door (1947) and Rancho Notorious (1952), as well as Ruby Gentry (King Vidor 1952). Geraghty had written a number of westerns, including a few directed by Sherman, such as the very good Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949). It was produced by Leonard Goldstein, who worked with Sherman on many films until Goldstein's death in 1954.

Tomahawk is primarily set in 1866, in Wyoming and South Dakota, and there are two stories in the film: the larger historic events and the personal story of Jim Bridger and Monahseetah, and these two stories coalesce. The historical background is the so-called Red Cloud's War, named after a leader of the Sioux nation, Maȟpíya Lúta, or Red Cloud, that took place in these parts of USA between 1866 and 1868. The Sioux and the US government cannot come to an agreement about the land, and the US has built a fort, Phil Kearny, as part of a trade route through what should have been Sioux land, and the fort becomes an irritant for them. In the winter of 1866 Red Cloud and his men lured an army unit of up to a 100 men into a trap and killed them all in a battle (known as the Fetterman Massacre) and after one more year of fighting Red Cloud eventually won this war after he took the fight to the courts, and the Treaty of Fort Laramie (or Sioux Treaty) was signed in 1868. Fort Phil Kearny was abandoned and the Sioux got their land. But the land would continue to be irresistible to the whites and soon war broke out again, and the Indians were inevitably defeated. The court cases have continued to the present time however, and some are still not settled.


That was the historical background on which the film is based, and the film stays relatively close to it, and in order to emphasise its historical grounding a voice-over in the beginning and the end provides some of the historical context. The film opens with the camera panning over a cloudy sky and then moving to the ground, to a large grass plain on which a conference is taking place between the Sioux and representatives from the US government (see image above). The voice-over asks whether there is anybody who has the ability to see both sides of this conflict and then answers with "Jim Bridger is such a man". Jim Bridger is based on a real person with the same name who was a scout and trapper and a trader and something of a celebrity in his time, although the Jim Bridger in the film is much younger than the real Bridger was in 1866. His personal story in Tomahawk is that he lived with the Cheyenne and that his wife and child were Cheyenne too but they were murdered by a group of renegade US soldiers. Bridget is also present at the conference (at least in the film), as is his sister-in-law, Monahseetah and his friend Sol Beckworth. At the conference he is clearly on the side of the Sioux, and he does not try to hide his contempt for the US government's lies and deceptions. Also present at the conference is of course the leaders of the Sioux nation, including Red Cloud who leaves the conference in anger, but says that as long as no Sioux is killed he will not go to war, and the soldiers go back to Fort Phil Kearny. When Monahseetah recognises a lieutenant among the soldiers, the man whom she believes killed her parents and her sister, Bridger's wife, they go to the fort to make clear whether the lieutenant is that man and if so seek justice, or rather revenge.

Bridger and Monahseetah

Bridger, who is white but has lived and worked with Indians his adult life, and speaks several languages, is the obvious hero in the film, even though he is a bitter and mournful man, and even though the US soldiers are distrustful. The colonel at Fort Phil Kearny asks him where his loyalties are, with the Sioux or with the cavalry. Bridger answers that he does not want to take sides. "I'm talking about the fight. If it comes, you can't be on both sides." the colonel says. "I cross that bridge when I have to." Bridger responds. In the film the real enemies are the US government and individual soldiers, who can be racists and murderers. The lieutenant, with his short blonde hair, looks rather like a Nazi villain and in the end, when faced with Bridger's vengeance, he defends himself by saying he was just following orders. But, as in Sherman's Reprisal! (1956) discussed in the previous post, racism is everywhere. There is a woman who has fallen for Bridger, Julie Madden, and he tells her about what happened to his wife. "I'm so sorry." she says, and he angrily replies "You're sorry, but only for me. You're not sorry for her. She was just an Indian..." But Bridger cannot just stay outside and observe, as a white man in Sioux territory his position is fraught, whatever he might think. He and Red Cloud's favourite son do not get along and eventually they fight it out, a fight to the death with Bridger the survivor. He does not want to fight, or kill, but it came to that anyway. That is the final straw for Red Cloud.

The above mentioned Fetterman Massacre is depicted in the film, although the film version have fewer men involved and is not set in wintertime. Directly afterwards comes yet another attack by the Sioux against the remaining soldiers, including the civilian Bridger. But now the soldiers have been equipped with new, modern rifles, much more efficient and quicker than the old ones. Red Cloud's strategy is based on the slowness of the older weapons and as a consequence most of his men are mowed down, in front of the sad eyes of Bridger. Afterwards the colonel talks about their victory, and Bridger replies "You didn't beat them Colonel, it was those breech-loaders [the new guns]. It was a mechanical thing that beat them."

Finally, as happened in real life, a new treaty is signed and Fort Phil Kearny is abandoned. That is where the film ends, with the Sioux as the winners. It is probably the only film where the happy ending has the US cavalry leaving their fort and triumphant Sioux burning it down behind the retreating soldiers.

Tomahawk does work rather well as a history lesson, even if it of course is not 100% accurate. It also works well as a film. Van Heflin who plays Bridger is very good, and the fact that the film is shot on location where the real events too place does wonders. What is unusual in the film is that the Sioux and Cheyenne speak their own languages, and Bridger too speaks their languages, and when he and Monahseetah speak with each other it is not in English but Cheyenne (although she is played by Susan Cabot, and not an American Indian). Visually Sherman's images are impressive, with the humans often appearing as little dots under an immense sky and on the open landscapes, the horizon seemingly endless. Some shots are exceptional in this regard. There is only one scene with obvious fake, plastic background, and it is unfortunate because it is also the emotionally most intense scene in the film, when Bridger is telling Julie Madden about the killing of his wife and child. He is covered in sweat, and can barely speak the words, so unbearable are they. It is an uncomfortable scene, and a significant one too. The same racism and brutality that would later come to the surface again, in for example My Lai, is exposed.

This will be the last Sherman post for a while. I still have very little information about the context and the working relationships and practises at Universal in the 1950s, but I imagine that these films were made by a small group dedicated to doing progressive stuff, and that they might very well have had problems with McCarthyism.* But it is not only at Universal. Sherman also made films for Columbia, with similar themes and mood, such as Reprisal!. The research continues, and there will most likely be more posts on Sherman in the future.

Tomahawk is what the Sioux call Bridger.

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*So-called pro-Indian films were rather common in the 1950s, beginning with two releases in 1950, The Devil's Doorway, directed by Anthony Mann, and the major hit Broken Arrow, directed by Delmer Daves. Sherman's Comanche Territory from the same year is also pro-Indian (it ends with Maureen O'Hara's feisty saloon keeper stealing a wagon filled with guns and handing them out to a group of Comanche so they can defend themselves against the white settlers), although the tone of that film is more light-hearted. This is not to say that there were no pro-Indian films prior to 1950, it is just that they were not explicitly called that.

My earlier post about George Sherman are here (a full overview of his career), here, and here.

Update: I had inexplicably written Colorado Territory instead of Comanche Territory, but that has now been corrected. Colorado Territory is an even better film though, directed by Raoul Walsh in his prime.

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