Blu-ray Review: Broken Arrow | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019  

Broken Arrow

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

May 04, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The prevailing image of Jimmy Stewart in the mind of modern film fans is that of a Golden Age Tom Hanks; his warm, folksy image etched into the collective consciousness by his work in Frank Capra classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Others may prefer the four films he made with Alfred Hitchcock which either exploit or subvert his innate decency as the ideal American. In between are the biopics and the screwball comedies, but the genre to which Stewart was arguably most devoted – and the one that people tend to sleep on – is the Western. Stewart made nearly two dozen westerns over the course of his lengthy career, reaching back as early as 1939 – where he played second fiddle to Marlene Dietrich in the comedic Destry Rides Again – and extending through the sixties and seventies with films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Shootist, both of which place him in the iconic shadow of John Wayne. However, his most prolific period were the years between 1950 and 1955, during which he made six Westerns, all of which featured him as the lead. Five of them – Winchester ’73, Bend in the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie – were directed by Anthony Mann in what is probably one of the most underrated actor/director streaks in film history. The sixth was a 1950 film directed by Delmar Daves called Broken Arrow.

The 1950’s were an interesting time for the Western. It still loomed large on movie screens – as it had since the Silent Era – and it was making its mark on early television screens with hit shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. The cynical Revisionist westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood were still a decade away, but there was a sense of naturalism and honesty that began to creep into the genre in the 1950’s, a post-war malaise painted in Technicolor against the backdrop of an increasingly mythic past. It’s from this conflict between changing ideals and mythologized history that Broken Arrow derives its power, for better or worse. Set in Arizona in 1870, the film is a fictionalized account of the friendship between ex-Union officer Tom Jeffords and famed Apache war leader Cochise, which led to a brief but historic peace between the US government and the Apache tribes. 

Broken Arrow was notable in its day for containing the most sympathetic and balanced depiction of Native Americans in a Hollywood film up to that point, standing in stark contrast to previous Westerns that portrayed them as savage barbarians or drunken comic relief. This progressive reputation will seem laughable to modern audiences for a variety of reasons, chief among them being the portrayal of Cochise by white actor Jeff Chandler. Chandler was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, a form of complacent liberal back-patting will seem familiar to anyone who watched Jared Leto win an Oscar for playing a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club. Despite this flagrant white-washing and various other concessions to the social mores of the 1950s, it’s not hard to appreciate the efforts the filmmakers took to kick back against decades – if not centuries – of ingrained racism and stereotyping. Stewart plays Jeffords as he played so many of his Western characters, as a man haunted by his past life as a soldier and willing to put his life on the line for a chance to avoid further bloodshed. It’s his innate decency as a performer that sells much of the film, given how obviously pandering Jeffords forays into Native culture will seem to a 21st century audience. Native rituals and ceremonies are shown to be complex and valid, if also over-explained and bizarre. Jeffords’ relationship with Cochise is the highlight of these efforts; complex and continually evolving, with both men recognizing each other as equals while never forgetting that their friendship is a unique rarity that cannot be easily replicated. Less successful is Jeffords’ romance with a Native girl played by the equally white Debra Paget, which would seem like a sop to convention in any era. At least the white-washing here is somewhat justified, given the filmmakers desire to depict an inter-racial relationship in the face of the strict anti-miscegenation rules of the Hays Code. This sense of realist compromise extends to the films narrative, which ultimately celebrates understanding and tolerance while recognizing that long-term peace is unlikely and requires hard sacrifices.   

Kino Lorber’s new release of Broken Arrow features a 2K restoration that highlights the gorgeous, Academy Award-nominated cinematography of the America Southwest as well as the less gorgeous brown-face makeup on the faces of Chandler and Paget. The only special feature is two snippets from the films’ press kit. The first is a baffling clip in which Stewart and Paget display a brand-new American flag with fifty stars in anticipation of Hawaii and Alaska being admitted to the union. The second clip features the films’ writer receiving an award from the Apache people while presenting a young Native girl with a headdress used in the film, a perfect encapsulation of the films awkward baby steps toward social progress.


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