History of the portrayal of Indians in the movies

September 12, 1990|By Dallas Morning News

Some milestones in the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood movies: 'Ramona'' (1935) -- This archaic romance was one of the first talkies to present an important star as an Indian. Loretta Young, as the daughter of a powerful Spanish landowner, marries a --ing Indian, played by Don Ameche. Of course, Ameche must die tragically so that Loretta (after an amazingly brief period of mourning) can properly marry a white aristocrat. Although it pretends to treat Indians sympathetically, the script condones its heroine's second marriage with a fervor that suggests racism.

''Northwest Mounted Police'' (1940) -- One of Cecil B. DeMille's worst and most racist movies. Paulette Goddard plays a half-breed, so audiences of half a century ago instantly knew she was up to no good. Even her white lover, Robert Preston, called her "the sweetest poison known to man." All the Indians were dumb and treacherous, except for pretty Paulette, who was cunning and treacherous.

''Duel in the Sun'' (1946) -- In this grandiose horse opera, Jennifer Jones also plays a tempestuous half-breed. (Was there ever a "serene" half-breed in old Hollywood?) Wearing dark makeup, Jones portrays the daughter of a dignified Southern gentleman and a wanton Indian princess. The racist script suggests that the Indian side of her nature preferred wicked brother Gregory Peck, while the genteel, Southern side responded to good brother Joseph Cotten.

''Broken Arrow'' (1950) -- One of the first mainstream Hollywood films to really sympathize with the plight of the Indians. Jeff Chandler gives one of his best-remembered performances as Cochise, but today the casting seems ludicrous, as does the casting of starlet Debra Paget ("Princess of the Nile," "The Ten Commandments") as an Indian maid.

''Apache'' (1954) -- Burt Lancaster's idealistic Indian emerges as more compassionate than the cavalry members. Jean Peters, as Lancaster's wife, is not a traditional "squaw" but, rather, a stubborn, courageous woman with her own thoughts.

''The Searchers'' (1956) -- When John Wayne started to shoot Natalie Wood simply because she has lived among Indians, some audiences at the time possibly felt he was doing the right thing, to use Spike Lee's ironic phrase. A searing film, particularly in its unblinking presentation of the bigotry of John Wayne's character.

''Flaming Star'' (1960) -- Twenty years after "Northwest Mounted Police," Elvis Presley's half-breed was given a much more sympathetic treatment than poor Paulette's. Although Elvis' movies usually took no risks, "Flaming Star" presented Indians sympathetically.

''Cheyenne Autumn'' (1964) -- John Ford's final Western reflects his growing admiration for the Indians; in this truly autumnal drama, a tribe seeks to return to its original grounds after being relocated by the government. Genuinely moving in its treatment of the betrayals suffered by American Indians.

''Hombre'' (1967) -- Of the many films that deal with white men raised by Indians, this was the most popular. Critics, being nitpickers, wondered how anyone could take Paul Newman seriously as a Native American when his eyes were so blue. The film was solidly sympathetic to the underdog, with Newman even sacrificing his life to save small-minded whites.

''Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here'' (1969) -- A brave, provocative film in which sheriff Robert Redford must track Indian fugitive Robert Blake. The sincere, passionate love between Blake and Katharine Ross, also playing a Native American, is vividly contrasted to the mechanical sex play of the white couple played by Redford and Susan Clark. The Indians are much more human than the whites.

''Little Big Man'' (1970) -- This picaresque adventure is generally regarded as the turning point in filmmakers' attitudes toward American Indians. Naysayers resent the casting of Asians in Indian roles. Also, some observers feel that equating the Indian wars with the Vietnam War diluted the impact of the Native American tragedy. Nevertheless, everyone agrees that its sympathetic approach to Indian life went deeper than token liberalism. The film presents Native Americans as a vast catalog of humanity, even including a gay Indian among its characters.

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