The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Run of the Arrow

On April 9, 1865, the Civil War officially ended when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.  For many though, there was no end to the war.  Many in the South never acknowledged that the war was over and kept on fighting, some more violently than others.  1954's Vera Cruz dealt with some of these individuals who headed south into Mexico for a chance at more fighting and riches and power.

Those men were looking for a chance to keep on fighting.  In 1957's Run of the Arrow though, the main character is a patriot to the South and the Confederate army.  When the war does end, he refuses to be positive about the country coming together because in his mind, he's a Virginian and a Southerner before an American or a Yankee.  What to do? Why head west, young man.

Fed up with a post-war life in Virginia, infantryman and sharpshooter Private O'Meara (Rod Steiger) rides west beyond almost all signs of civilization.  He doesn't know what he's looking for, but somewhere down the road hopes to find some where or some place he can be happy.  On the trail, he meets an Indian scout for the cavalry and a member of the Dakota Sioux, Walking Coyote (Jay C. Flippen), who introduces him to the way and culture of his tribe.  O'Meara is sold on the lifestyle immediately and ends up joining a tribe lead by the warrior Blue Buffalo (Charles Bronson) and taking an Indian wife, Yellow Moccasin (Sara Montiel).  But this idyllic little life O'Meara has carved out for himself is endangered by the ever-advancing U.S. army trying to settle the west.

Storyline sound familiar? It should. It's called Dances With Wolves some 30 years later.  Of course, there are differences but the basic premise is the same.  Directed by the always tough, always reliable Sam Fuller, 'Arrow' is one of many westerns from the 1950s that dealt with more adult themes and messages, much like Anthony Mann's westerns.  This isn't good vs. evil.  There are all sorts of shades of gray here.  Even working through the flaws though, this movie gets points for an attempt at being honest and not whitewashing any of the history.

Fuller was a director extremely capable of filming action, but he leaves the battles and gunplay off to the side for much of the movie -- although the ending is a doozy in terms of on-screen violence.  This is more a story about principles, ideals and personal beliefs, what's important to an individual.  Steiger's O'Meara is so distraught at the end of the war that he turns his back on his country completely and moves on looking for a new life.  He ends up finding out that personal convictions and background are harder left behind than anticipated.  Working as a scout late in the movie, O'Meara has a great scene with an army engineer (Brian Keith in a phenomenal scene-stealing part) where they find out men are not so different -- black or white, North or South.  For a movie released in 1957, I was surprised at the story's honesty.

The movie's opening scenes jump out as impressive in terms of their effect on the overall storyline.  The movie opens on Palm Sunday as Lee surrenders to Grant.  A sharpshooter, O'Meara picks off a lone Union soldier but only wounds him.  He takes him to a field hospital where the man's life is saved, the bullet missing his heart by centimeters. It's the last shot fired in the war.  Years later, who is at the head of a U.S. cavalry company ready to wipe out O'Meara's new Sioux tribe? Lt. Driscoll (Ralph Meeker), the man O'Meara shot and saved years before who is now a bloodthirsty officer who wants to wipe out the Indians.  It's a great opening and really sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

As good as this movie can be at times, it's also embarrassingly weird at other times.  Jay C. Flippen as a Sioux warrior? Really? There was no one else available who is white?  The portrayal of the Sioux also seems more applicable to the Apaches of the Southwest, not the tribes of the plains.  It gets to a point where Fuller almost fetishsizes the Indian warriors who were nothing more than some barely there loinclothes and has them glistening in the sun.  It's distracting and seems like an odd choice for a director like Fuller who typically went for realism over style.

That said, the movie was surprisingly good.  Sure, Steiger's attempt at an Irish accent -- it tunes in and out -- is pretty awful, and a story that covers many years is condensed into 90 minutes seems rushed at times.  But on the whole, Fuller and a strong cast turn in a western that is enjoyable, thought-provoking, and in an extremely positive way...different.  The movie and story put a different spin on something that is too familiar in many other movies.  Definitely check out this quasi Dances With the Wolves inspiration.

Run of the Arrow <---trailer (1957): ***/****

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