Heflin is a Bridger of Peace
After Delmer Daves tried to set the record straight about Native Americans with his 1950 movie "Broken Arrow" similar movies followed which attempted to show Native Americans as not being savages and how they were tricked out of land after signing peace treaties. "Tomahawk" or "Battle of Powder River" is just one such movie but unlike the later "White Feather" it doesn't just recycle the story, it creates a different story whilst still highlighting what happened to the Native Americans. And it has to be said that "Tomahawk" does a brilliant job because we have the main storyline which highlights how the Indians were mistreated but we also have a further story of revenge and whilst there are women involved romance is kept to the absolute minimum. It may not be the most action packed western, but the lack of action is made up for with some great cinematography which capitalizes on the scenery and the use of Technicolor.
With discovery of Gold on Sioux land, the U.S. Army want to build a road and fort on the Sioux territory and frontier scout Jim Bridger (Van Heflin - Airport) finds himself in the midst of the army trying to broker a deal with the Sioux people due to him having been married to a Cheyenne. Understanding of both sides he warns the Army that if any Sioux dies during the building of the road and Fort there will be all out war. But with racists such as Lt. Rob Dancy (Alex Nicol - The Man from Laramie) as part of the Cavalry it seems like trouble will definitely happen. But it is Dancy who causes Bridger to take more of an interest in things due to what happened in the past, something which has haunted him for years and has caused him the need for revenge.
I don't know whether "Tomahawk" is based upon a true story but with an opening and closing narration it certainly feels like it is a recreation of something which happened long ago in 1866. And with the storyline built around the character of Jim Bridger who is stuck in the middle as being a friend of both the Cavalry and Sioux it feels even more like a re-enactment taken from his memoirs.
Now the nice thing about "Tomahawk" is that for a movie which is just over 80 minutes there is plenty going on but it never feels hurried as it weaves its storyline. It takes us from the initial meeting between the Sioux and the Cavalry where the plans to build a road and Fort on Sioux ground is brokered with Bridger in the middle trying to keep things peaceful. The story evolves as the Fort is built despite objection and we meet Lt. Rob Dancy who hates the Indians and is looking for any excuse to start a war with them. But then we also have the history as Bridger is after the man who killed his Indian wife and learns that Dancy is the man.
All of this is nicely put together so we have various elements of drama, be it Dancy killing an Indian and in doing so starting a war or Bridger biding his time till he can get his revenge on Dancy. In many ways you could say that this side is quite typical, there is what you could call plenty of generic western drama be it Indians attacking a group of Cavalry men or when eventually Bridger gets to tackle Darcy. But there are always little twists on the norm and most interestingly in a movie which has two female characters and a touch of romance the actual romance never really surfaces or detracts from the main story.
But the thing about "Tomahawk" is whilst you have these various moments of typical western drama and story we also get a more level view of it. In those opening scenes we learn exactly why the Sioux did not trust the Cavalry and politicians because over the years they have constantly been moved on with the treaty being changed and not in their favour. We also see them not as savages but as people, people who have lost loved ones and feel the same hurt and bitterness as anyone else. And whilst we watch them attack the cavalry it is only after they have been attacked. Considering how one sided westerns were just 2 years earlier "Tomahawk" is definitely an improvement even though it is not the greatest of movies.
Now there are a lot of nice performances in "Tomahawk" from Yvonne De Carlo who plays Julie and comes to understand the truth about the Sioux people through to Alex Nicol who as Indian hater Lt. Rob Dancy gets across his racist nature. But whilst there are also nice performances from Preston Foster, Susan Cabot and a small part for Rock Hudson "Tomahawk" is a movie which is commanded by Van Heflin as Jim Bridger. Now to be honest Bridger is not the most dimensional of characters but Heflin does a good job of making him interesting especially when it comes to his need for revenge, simmering away beneath the cool exterior. And it is Heflin who makes the dilemma of his character feel real when he is asked whose side he will take if war breaks out, you can feel the trouble he has answering when asked.
What this all boils down to is that "Tomahawk" not only is a thoroughly entertaining 1950s western but one which also does a reasonable job of correcting the history books when it comes to the mistreatment of Native Americans. It's by no means the best example of this sort of western but it certainly won't disappoint for fans of the western genre.