Stewart's Peace Loving Cowboy
"Broken Arrow", the James Stewart western, is an interesting movie and has earned it's place in cinematic history for being the first western to treat native Americans as humans rather than there as target practice. But whilst deservedly earning its place in the history books it's not the greatest of western. Oh the fact that it shows Native Americans as people is most definitely good and the fact that in doing so is also a movie about racial equality which doesn't become too preachy is also good. But none of that stops the deliberate jolting dialogue, some shaky acting and what feels to me like an over all nervousness when dealing with what was then a ground breaking subject from spoiling the movie slightly. That doesn't mean that "Broken Arrow" is bad because it is entertaining with a good storyline and some nice touches but in comparison to other westerns it all feels a little too restrained and controlled.
The year is 1870 and following 10 years of war between the settlers and Cochise's (Jeff Chandler) Chiricahua Apaches ex soldier Thomas Jeffords (James Stewart - The Rare Breed) finds himself up close and personal with a group of Apache's after saving the life of one of their boys. Realising through their fair treatment of him that they were not the animals he once thought they were he decides to learn everything he can about them. With knowledge on his side he makes his way to Cochise's stronghold where he hopes to broker some form of peace deal between them. Having succeeded to agree for the mail to be allowed through Jeffords is then approached by General Howard (Basil Ruysdael) to try and bring an end to all war and broker a permanent peace deal. But with much hatred on both sides it may not be that simple.
The storyline to "Broken Arrow" takes it source from the history books with the character of Thomas Jeffords who did befriend Cochise and act as a go between in order to bring a period of peace between Chiricahua Apaches and the whites. But it is not all based on reality and to turn this story into movie fodder there are embellishments and tinkering with the truth but even so the actual story is quite impressive. There is believability about it and whilst a romantic storyline which sees Jeffords fall for the young Sonseeahray ending up feeling wrong, partly down to the age difference between James Stewart and Debra Paget, you do feel like you are watching an important passage in America's history. It also helps that it is full of journal style narration giving a feeling that James Stewart, who also acts as narrator, is reading from Jeffords own memoirs.
But of course "Broken Arrow" is known because it is was one of the first movies to show native Indians as humans rather than wild animals who needed to be killed. It does quite a good job of this and there are moments which really highlight this aspect such as when Jeffords mentions that he had never thought that Apache mothers wept for their dead sons. It is a bit heavy handed at times and between the staccato like dialogue and the fact that the main actors playing apaches were in fact white it does seem a bit false. But even so it manages to not only portray native Indians as humans but also deliver a message about racial equality and trust without ever becoming preachy.
And whilst "Broken Arrow" goes about setting the record straight over native Indians it is also a western. There may not be a lot of action but those moments of action are pretty decent delivering moments of excitement which liven up what is a more drama focussed western.
The thing is that whilst "Broken Arrow" tries to set the record straight it ends up feeling a bit too restrained and controlled. It just feels like everything about it is stilted as if it has gone through several legal readings so that nothing in it is offensive or wrong. It means that emotional scenes often feel a little unnatural and over acted because the script is so sanitized. And as such the acting is at times a little shaky as if those cast in major roles new the importance of the movie and so were over cautious. All of which has a knock on effect of making "Broken Arrow" at times a little too uneasy and ultimately an average western despite it's importance in cinema's history.
Now you have to say that James Stewart was perfect to play Thomas Jeffords because the character has this moralistic aspect and Stewart gets that across brilliantly. And whilst "Broken Arrow" wasn't Stewart's first western, that was "Destry Rides Again", he most certainly shows the flare for being a cowboy which he would demonstrate in the many westerns he would make with Anthony Mann. But the thing is that whilst Stewart was perfectly cast and gives the most relaxed performance out of the cast, the fact that Stewart was 25 years older than love interest Sonseeahray, played by 16 year old Debra Paget feels just a little bit too wrong. As for Debra Paget she is sweet, beautiful and generally gives a solid performance as does Jeff Chandler as Cochise but it feels very restrained and tightly scripted.
What this all boils down to is that whilst "Broken Arrow" does deserve it's place in the movie history books it isn't in fact a great western. In reality it is a good western with a great message and tries hard to show that Native Americans weren't animals but humans but it feels like the powerful storyline is too restrained and at times the controlled nature of everything makes it feel stilted. Even so it is entertaining and in one of his earlier westerns James Stewart shows great comfort for playing a cowboy whilst also delivering the moralistic side perfectly.