Broken Arrow (1950)

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

Broken Arrow might strike contemporary viewers as being pretty stodgy, self-conscious, straining. That’s probably fair, film-evaluatively speaking. However if we think of the movie’s intent, of the way that it really did push against long-held conventions in the portraying of Native Americans on film, and attempted to bring some nuance to the discussion of historical conflicts, and to our understanding of the individuals who participated therein, we might find ourselves cutting the movie a little slack.

Just because a film means well doesn’t mean that it’s any good. Good, which is to say well and intelligently made movies, seem often to intend—and accomplish—all sorts of ill. In either of these situations there’s reason for both praise and censure. And in either case, from principled Philistines with really poor taste, as well as from aesthetically advanced awful Libertines, you can find all sorts of fierce advocacy. But whether you’re arguing for nice & lousy or artful and excremental, you’re still, basically, in a pretty unsatisfactory position.

Stand down, soldier! Maybe bad movies are just bad, wherever the bad may lie. Alternatives? Well, moral heft and excellent craft always make for a pretty pleasing combination. It happens all the time, but it sure doesn’t happen most of the time. What do you do about the tons of productions that slot somewhere in between poles? Well, we could always be nice as we go pointing out those little lapses. Especially when they’re so of-their-time. It’s not that you ever countenance injustice, but you can understand it’s root causes, and the fact that they can contain so much of the inadvertent.

And when films, or people, are actually trying? Well!

In the case of Broken Arrow there are definitely some things that give you pause. Lots of actual Natives, but mostly utilized decoratively. Jeff Chandler’s Cochise is definitely one white-looking Indian. And what’s with the Native Princess? On the other hand, get a load of those natives in Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart’s (amazing!) Winchester 73, released this same year. This one has problems, but it’s also actually working on those very problems! The most constructive course seems clear.

Quibbling gets tiresome, and cutting down too. Here in 1950 there was lots of progress yet to be made, lots of needful advances, and changes in attitude. This film’s on the right side of that worthy effort, and who’s to deny that it didn’t bear fruit later on? If and since that’s the case, then it might actually be true that the thing you feel to criticize is also something worthy of praise and admiration. There’s the film, after all, and the story going on outside of it. Either way, here, we’re kind of okay.