Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2009

Broken Arrow

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

(Beneath are two posts to the Marxism mailing list from this morning. The first is mine and the second is by Hunter Bear, a long time civil rights and indigenous rights activist.)

Just stumbled across this 1950 movie about the Apache wars in Texas on  AMC. It stars James Stewart as Tom Jeffords, a real-life character who  tried to negotiate peace and resisted white encroachment for the most  part. Cochise is played by Jeff Chandler, a Brooklyn Jew originally  named Ira Grossel. Just what you’d expect, I guess.

I haven’t seen the movie for years, maybe not since the 1950s. But as it  progressed, it seemed fairly progressive, at least as compared to the  usual racist tripe from John Ford (despite, of course, their outstanding  quality in film terms.)

I just did a bit of research online and discovered that the script is by  Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10, who was in prison when the movie  was released. The movie screenwriting credit was Michael Blankfort’s, a  “front”.

Here’s some relevant info from the TCM website, a useful resource for  old movies of value:

After reviewing the final script draft of May 20, 1949, Darryl F.  Zanuck, Vice-President in charge of production, complained that Jeffords  was too “noble and untainted, so uncompromisingly lofty in his ideals”  and that it was unclear what “motivated him to go to Cochise in the  first place.” Zanuck commented that in recent films, a “too noble hero  is doomed at the box office.” In a meeting between Zanuck, Blaustein,  Blankfort and director Delmer Daves, it was decided to have Jeffords, in  the opening narration, state that he came to Apache country to look for  gold and that when he met up with the Indian boy, he was on his way back  to Tucson to take a job as a scout. In the narration, Jeffords explains  that he saved the boy’s life because “some crazy impulse made me do it.”  After the revised final script of June 11, 1949, the scene of the  attempted lynching of Jeffords was added following a meeting with  Zanuck, Blaustein and Blankfort.

In the 1991 Los Angeles Times article, Blaustein stated that he showed  Blankfort’s changes secretly to Maltz. The article states that Maltz was  in prison when Broken Arrow was released, serving time for failing to  cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and  that in 1952, after Blankfort testified before HUAC and mentioned names  of his ex-wife and cousin, while stating that he had no knowledge that  they had been members of the Communist party, Maltz refused ever to  speak to Blankfort again. Before he died, Blankfort wrote a letter to  the Writers Guild of America acknowledging that Maltz wrote Broken  Arrow, but died before he mailed it. Blaustein related that Maltz  preferred that the letter not be sent, but changed his mind a year after  Blankfort’s death and authorized writer Larry Ceplair to make his role  known. Maltz died in 1985, and in July 1991, the Writers Guild voted to  correct the screen credit for the film to reflect that Maltz wrote the  screenplay and to issue “a strong statement of appreciation for the  courage of screenwriter Michael Blankfort,” who by “fronting” risked  being blacklisted himself. Alfred Levitt, a blacklisted writer, brought  the issue before the board based on information received by Ceplair,  following talks with the wives of both writers and other principals. In  1992, the Writers Guild posthumously awarded Maltz the award that had  been given to Blankfort in 1950 for the best-written American western of  that year.


There’s an old Hollywood film which, when it’s occasionally run on television, I always see — sometimes in part, sometimes all the way through. It appeared this morning  It’s Broken Arrow [1950], the story of Tom Jeffords, a U.S. Army Scout who, in the Arizona territory of 1870, saw the Apaches as human beings, developed a friendship with a major Apache leader, Cochise, married a young Apache woman, and forged a kind of peace between Cochise and his people — and most of the Americans. The film follows the actual historical record with, all things considered, reasonable accuracy — but with the still common fictional modifications that characterize Hollywood’s treatment of many subjects.

But, to come quickly to the main point, Broken Arrow could be considered the first pro-Native film of widespread reach ever filmed by Hollywood.

Seen by today’s yardsticks, Broken Arrow could, I suppose, be viewed as simplistic, maybe even a little hokey. The lead Native figures are played by non-Indians:  Jeff Chandler as Cochise and Debra Paget as Sonseeahray — with whom Jeffords falls in love and marries via the Apache Way. [She is later killed by Anglo die-hards.]  Jimmy Stewart depicts Jeffords and Jay Silverheels [Mohawk] plays the dissident Geronimo.

Broken Arrow was filmed for the greatest part in the Oak Creek Canyon country, close by to Flagstaff, but in a much lower elevation.  It was one of the first films to be made in that beautiful area — and has been followed by countless others.  The other setting, purely secondary to Oak Creek, is the film town of Old Tucson near that then rather small [but not now] major city of the state.

The filming occurred mostly in 1949, while the Big Snow that had hit the high country [Flagstaff got 17 feet in two or three weeks and more followed] was beginning to melt.  A fair number of Navajo people were used in the film — something that almost immediately began to disturb the considerable racist Anglo component in Flagstaff.  When they learned, soon enough, that the film was really quite pro-Indian, they became increasingly vocal in their hostility. There was no violence, such as occurred in the making of Salt of the Earth in not-far-away southwestern New Mexico in 1953-54 — but the level of hostility at Flag was high.  This was much less true at well-integrated Flagstaff High where I was a keenly observant sophomore and, as the controversy went on, a junior.

[Will Geer, the Salt sheriff plays an Anglo rancher in Broken Arrow.  The main screen writer was Albert Maltz, black-listed in Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee and thus never credited for his fine work for Broken Arrow.  Geer was soon to become a black-list victim — and so was Salt of the Earth.]

In those days, Phoenix was a 12 hour drive from Flagstaff [now, sadly, it’s less than three], and the Hollywood film folk bought many supplies at Flagstaff.  That economic fact softened some — but only some  — of the pervasive hostility which reached the point of an effort to prevent the film, when it was completed, from playing in town.  When Broken Arrow was close to heading out to the world in 1950, it became known that it was scheduled to play forthwith at our primary theatre, The Orpheum. [The other movie house in town, Lyric, was a dive.]  Opponents of Broken Arrow, at Flag and environs, called on “white people” to boycott the movie.  At that point, Platt Cline, owner and editor of the daily paper, Arizona Daily Sun — and more than just a “moderate” on racial matters — ran an editorial suggesting that people simply see the film and draw their own conclusions.  He pointed out that Broken Arrow could be considered, in a very real sense, “our film” — since it involved Oak Creek country and Navajos.  That netted Platt, a good friend of my parents, quite a number of hostile letters,  He didn’t give a damn, printed some of them.

Flagstaff was pretty pervasively racist — one of the reasons our family lived in outlying parts.  It wasn’t the total segregation complex of the Deep South and there were interesting diversities that warrant a long article in their own right. The high school, as I’ve noted, was thoroughly integrated: Anglo, Chicano, Native, Black, Chinese.  There was a small Black elementary school.  Some restaurants served only Anglos and I remember outside signs, “No Indians Or Dogs Allowed”; a few also served Chicanos and Indians and Orientals; no mainline eating places served the small Black community which had, of course, developed its own places which would serve everyone.

The low-brow Lyric Theatre —  kind of awful in retropect — would serve anyone, sit wherever you wished.  The Orpheum had a large balcony where Blacks had to sit.  “Others”, whoever they were, could sit downstairs or in the balcony — whatever they wished.  On the other hand, most Chicanos and almost all Natives preferred to sit in the much friendlier balcony — where our family always sat and where the price was a bit lower and, frankly, the view much better.

Broken Arrow came to Flagstaff as scheduled — in its first release wave. I and my multi-ethnic group of buddies were there, almost at the head of the line.  We were far from the only ones.  The Orpheum was literally packed brimful — balcony and downstairs.  In the end, it played at Flag for a number of days — much longer than its original scheduling.

And it always drew bumper audiences.

As nearly as I and my family and my friends could tell, almost everyone in the throngs who viewed it, liked it very much — fascinated in many cases. And almost from the first showing onward, the bitterly hostile comments by the die-hards who would eventually die but never surrender, were muted, no longer public.

Broken Arrow didn’t turn Flag into the “beloved community” — not a chance of that — but it was a very significant step for everyone, and a source of considerable pride for Indian people.  Years later, in the ’60s, I gave a fairly long speech at Flagstaff which had changed somewhat for the better, still to this moment an on-going process.  My talk was well attended by a wide variety of people and, in the course of it, I mentioned Broken Arrow.  I was pleased that that struck a note of positive resonance with almost all adults present. They well recalled the hassle and its aftermath.

So when, as it occasionally does, appear on television — and I spot it — I always greet Broken Arrow with good words and thoughts, thank it, and wish it and our Cause, very well indeed.

Hunter [Hunter Bear]

HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR/JOHN R SALTER JR] Mi’kmaq /St. Francis  Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk  Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´  and Ohkwari’

Check out our Hunterbear website Directory http://hunterbear.org/directory.htm [The site is dedicated to our one-half Bobcat, Cloudy Gray:  http://hunterbear.org/cloudy_gray.htm


  1. It is probably just coincidence but it’s an interesting one. On digby’s web site (http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/) there’s a review of Avatar which I only read because there’s a still shot from the movie with the comment “It looks way cooler with the glasses…and a bong hit. Trust me.” I just had to read on. Most ‘Avatar’ reviews remind me of an alleged remark of Stravinsky’s about Pierre Boulez’ ‘Pli selon Pli’ — “pretty monotonous and monotonously pretty”. The coincidence, however, is in the comments section and specifically from David Ehrenstein today at 9:58 am. where he says ‘All the blater about “new technology” amounts to really good 3-D wasted on a story that was first told back in 1950 as Broken Arrow with James Stewart and Debra Paget.’

    Just strange that in a matter of days I find three different references to the same 1950 movie.

    Comment by Colin — December 27, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

  2. Really interesting review.

    The McCarthy era was hardest on writers in Hollywood. I’m only repeating what you said before.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — December 29, 2009 @ 7:52 am

  3. […] got the tip to see Broken Arrow from Louis Proyect (read his magnificent review here). Read the review. And then see the movie with this in mind: […]

    Pingback by A Little Bit About Everything You Need to Know. | Broadsides — February 2, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

  4. […] Admittedly the whole thing is slightly tarnished by the two main Indian roles being portrayed by white actors but hell, this was filmed in 1949 so you gotta take what you can get. The film rightly occupies a privileged place in cinema's canon but at the time of release, at least when the film premiered in the town of Flagstaff (the nearest population centre to the filming locations) events offscreen mirrored those onscreen with many residents ready to boycott the picture on opening night and throughout its run. […]

    Pingback by Discovered in the Archives – Broken Arrow « sometimes they go to eleven — April 17, 2013 @ 7:41 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: