The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Indian Fighter

During the heyday of the movie western in the 1940s and 1950s, directors like John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Budd Boetticher dominated the box office.  Some were bigger scale, others made on a smaller budget with less scope.  But while these directors are generally easily remembered for their work, others went about their work as a director producing quality movies that weren't classics at one end or awful bombs at the other.  They were typically solid if unspectacular movies that audiences ate up but never left a huge impression.

Hungarian director Andre De Toth made a career out of these movies, hard-hitting westerns that were usually light on the corniness factor and heavy on action and blood and guts that were often ahead of its time. He specialized in westerns and action movies and also ended up doing his fair share of television directing in the 1960s when the offers weren't there to direct movies.  I'd seen a couple De Toth movies, and liked them, especially his last movie, Play Dirty, a WWII men on a mission movie starring Michael Caine.  But a majority of his movies were westerns, including 1955's The Indian Fighter.

In the years following the Civil War, Sioux chief Red Cloud (Eduard Franz) is dealing with the increased flow of white settlers into his tribe's land. A scout for the cavalry, Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas), is doing his best to keep the peace between the Indians and the white settlers heading west.  Hawks is leading a wagon train to Oregon and hoping to get through without any incidents, but two saddle tramps (Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr) traveling with the wagon train are looking for gold.  The delicate balance for peace is hanging in the balance, and no matter how much Hawks does to keep it together, these two gunmen are looking for trouble and no one's going to stop them.

Wagon train stories are nothing new to the western and go back about as far as the genre goes.  Growing up I played my fair share of Oregon Trail on the PC so I'm a fan, but this western was missing something.  A simple straightforward story is nothing to shake your head at because I've watched too many movies that go on and on with no real purpose.  But this is one leisurely story, seemingly more content to let Douglas romance an Indian girl (Elsa Martinelli) and let the Oregon filming locations fill in any gaps in the story. The locations are gorgeous to look at, but beautiful filming locations always work better for me when they're a key part of the story, not filling in for the story.

I don't have a lot of pet peeves when it comes to movies, but one major issue I've always had is when one actor plays two different roles.  I'm not talking twin characters either, just two different people.  'Indian' has two such parts, Harry Landers and Hank Worden playing both an Indian warrior and a cavalry soldier. How hard is it to get another actor to play a bit part that any goon off the street could play?  If the budget is that tight, I feel bad for the director.  Worse than that, Worden is dubbed with a ridiculously deep voice as a warrior almost like the moviemakers knew they were trying to get away with something with the dual roles.  It is just a pet peeve and doesn't usually ruin a movie for me, but it is certainly on my mind as I keep seeing the same actor pop up over and over again.

Besides that complaint, the cast is pretty good, starting with Douglas in the lead.  An incredibly gifted physical actor, Douglas was always at home in the westerns where he was allowed to show off, whether it was in a man-to-man fight or his ability to leap onto horses with a jump.  His Hawks character is torn between his respect for the Indians and an "obligation" to his white brethren.  The love angle is a little weird because Hawks forces himself on Martinelli's Indian girl, she pulls a knife, he backs off, and the next time around when he jumps her again, she's all for it.  Seeing Matthau in a villainous turn was cool and former Mrs. Kirk Douglas, Diana Douglas, plays a single mother. There's also supporting roles from Walter Abel, Alan Hale Jr., Ray Teal, and Elisha Cook Jr. as a cavalry photographer.

Now what some earlier westerns often forget is that the west was a pretty nasty place.  De Toth embraces that nastiness in terms of betrayals, murders and double crosses while also showing some fairly graphic violence for a movie released in 1955.  Stabbings, shootings, scalpings and explosions are never gory and the camera doesn't linger, but it's presented and that's better than a lot of westerns.  Some great stuntwork is on display here, and the action scenes are enjoyable in an otherwise average western.

The Indian Fighter <---TCM trailer (1955): **/****

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