The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, April 30, 2010

Devil's Doorway

Starting in 1950 with Winchester '73, director Anthony Mann made five movies with star Jimmy Stewart, all of them westerns, and all of them different from the typical shoot 'em up.  These weren't just good guys and bad guys shooting it out, these were adult westerns where characters lived in all sorts of gray moral ground.  It was a sign of what was to come in the westerns with a more cynical look at how our country expanded into the west through the 19th century.  The Mann/Stewart westerns are classics, but Mann showed a knack for tough, hard-edged movies throughout his career that didn't shy away from showing a real, authentic wild west.

Take 1950's Devil's Doorway which tackles one of the biggest wild west issues that is so often brushed under the rug.  Say it however you want it, but the extermination of the American Indian as Americans flooded across the country with the idea of Manifest Destiny.  It's a topic that has produced movies with the premise of "white man's guilt," making the Indians look like noble warriors and Americans as drooling, savage murderers.  Devil's Doorway is somewhere in between, a Shoshone tribe who have taken parts of the white culture into their own are forced to defend their land while ranchers, sheepherders and homesteaders prepare for a fight for this prime cut of land.

It's several years since the end of the Civil War and hero and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) returns home to the town he grew up in in Wyoming. Lance made it through the war unscathed and has hopes of building up his family's land into something great.  The only problem; Lance is a Shoshone Indian, and homesteaders have moved into the area and are looking for grazing land.  As an Indian, Poole isn't granted the right to own land so the 50,000 acres his family and tribe have owned for years is now up for grabs.  One sheepherder (Marshall Thompson) tries to make a deal that would benefit both, but a corrupt, Indian hating lawyer (Louis Calhern) leads the opposition.  Lance has been backed into a corner and knows he'll have to defend his land.

In 1950, I'd say a majority of westerns still portrayed Indians as murdering savages so it is refreshing to see an Indian as a major character and a sympathetic one at that.  Taylor is an odd choice for an Indian with his transformation consisting of skin darkener and some grown out, slicked back hair.  Thankfully, he doesn't attempt any stunted English.  Everyone in town knows Lance and respects him, even more so now because he's returned as a war hero.  But because he's an Indian -- and for that reason alone -- he is looked down upon.  All he wants is to defend his family's land without interference, but no one's going to let him do just that.

This is an honest look at the expansion of the west and Devil's Doorway is way ahead of the genre in that sense.  The west was not an easy place to live with people looking to advance themselves with little regard for those who got in their way.  Mann takes that style on with his no-frills, often surprisingly brutal story.  He films in black and white with Colorado proving the locations -- beautiful ones at that -- that adds even more to the authentic feel of the story.  Mann is on point here with no unnecessary detours or subplots.  A female lawyer (Paula Raymond) fights for Lance's cause, but there's no overly sentimental love story that develops.  It's pretty typical of a Mann western, don't waste time getting to where you want to go.

Watching as many westerns as I have -- especially pre-1960 or so -- I feel like I've been trained to expect a happy ending no matter how ridiculous it is in terms of the story and character arcs.  That was my concern here because there is NO WAY this story ends pleasantly, but Mann sticks to his guns.  The last 30 minutes goes down as one of the best, realistic endings to a western I've seen, especially the last 2 shots which are heartbreaking and emotional in a way that completely caught me off guard.  Add that emotion to the exciting action on-screen, and you've got a real winner here.  Anthony Mann and Robert Taylor at the top of their game.

Devil's Doorway <----trailer (1950): *** 1/2 /****

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