During several years of bookings at the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque, I made visits to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and modern Pueblo sites such as Chaco, Taos, Acoma, Kuaua and others. My goal was to acquire an outsider’s understanding of what tribes trace their roots to the ancient pueblos and which of the others that came later were nomads from the north. To pick a few: the Hopi are the best-known pueblo dwellers; the Navajo live on the largest American Indian reservation, surrounding traditional Hopi lands; the Apaches are familiar to moviegoers as warrior tribes that did battle with any who threatened their freedom of movement. The only Hollywood movies I have found on Pueblo life are film versions of Tony Hillerman’s novels, usually made for TV.
There are several documentary films on YouTube that depict the struggles of the Hopi and Navajo people who face many challenges to maintaining their traditions in the late 20th century. Among the best of them is Broken Rainbow (1985), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
The Apache Wars: 1846 –1886
As the battles on the Plains between the Indians and the U.S. Cavalry began to subside, the spotlight of history shifted toward the Southwest. Hostilities between the United States and Mexico, primarily over the disputed area of Texas, gave the last of the rebellious Indians a chance to strike at the vulnerabilities of the emerging nations. As it had done with the epic battles on the Plains, Hollywood devoted a great deal of attention to the final engagements with the Indians in the Southwest. The emphasis was almost always on American heroism. Here are two of the many movies that touch upon the struggles at the end of the 19th century. See also The Geronimo Movies for the sad demise of Indian aspirations to sovereignty over lands that once were traversed only by them.
Broken Arrow (1950)
Video Movie Guide 2002 says this film “was the first to treat the Indian with respect and understanding.” Set in the 1870s, James Stewart is a cavalry scout who takes the side of the Apaches. Beautifully filmed in Monument Valley and other Western locations, the film is admirable for the serious treatment of its subject, but it suffers greatly from the Hollywood conventions of the time. Jeff Chandler plays the noble chief, Cochise, who tries to be a friend to the white man. When this strategy results in tragedy, Geronimo leads the renegades in retaliation. Stewart falls in love with a pretty young Apache girl, who is killed in the end. Will Geer plays the sneering white rancher who leads the white opposition to accommodation with the Indians.
Directed by John Farrow, this is classic John Wayne fare, based on a story by Louis L’Amour. It is the time after the Civil War, and Hondo is serving as a scout for the US Cavalry in New Mexico. Wayne’s presence in this movie will serve as an introduction to John Ford’s Classic Westerns, which explore this territory in obsessive detail.
In the mid-20th-century, the legend of Davy Crockett came to the attention of the American public through the evening television show from Walt Disney, initially called Disneyland. At the end of the show’s inaugural year of 1954, a three-part miniseries called Davy Crockett, began its run with an episode entitled “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter.” The third episode was called, “Davy Crockett at the Alamo.” I was turning 13 at the time and was a member of the prime target audience for this phenomenon. The role of Davy was played by Fess Parker, who would become a household name for a few years of his life. The first three installments were so successful that Disney added two more, even though the title character had died at the Alamo. The violent death of the last man standing on the walls of the Alamo went largely unnoticed by my generation because it was not shown on screen. It ended with Davy swinging his rifle butt at swarms of Mexican soldiers as the picture dissolved and the lively theme song of the show swelled to a crescendo. The two final episodes where effectively flashbacks to Davy’s earlier escapades as a Tennessee woodsman. Despite the muffling of the tragic defeat at the Alamo, I think every kid on my block felt some buried heartache knowing that Davy was somehow gone. But not really gone. In 1955 and 56, the five episodes of the series were re-edited into two feature films for release to theaters. Fess Parker came back to television in the role of Daniel Boone for the years 1964-70. Coonskin caps remained marketable items. Parker retired from acting after 1970. Everything I knew of these events I learned from the movies.
The Battle of the Alamo was fought in February/March 1836 with 185 American defenders facing a Mexican army of 7000 soldiers. There were not many Indians in this picture but they would be major players in the events of this region over the following decades.
The Alamo (1960)
Only a short time after the Davy Crockett craze abated, he was back again in the person of John Wayne. Forsaking the coonskin cap for the most part and throwing a lot of punches before the battle even begins, Wayne puts his own stamp on the character. The filmmakers felt they were delivering a relatively serious Hollywood effort to represent a legendary event in American history with dignity and a faint whiff of accuracy. At its best, it is a panoramic opportunity to look over the walls of the Alamo and view the 7,000 smartly uniformed troops of General Santa Anna marching on the 185 rag tag Americans defending their stronghold at San Antonio. In this version, Crockett dies inside the fort as the Mexican army swarms through the shattered walls.
The Alamo (2003)
This film from the Disney studios was not well received. There was some feeling that the classic John Wayne treatment of the Texas legend had set the standard and that this film diminished it. The problem seems to be in how to handle heroics in our antiheroic age. If Davy Crockett is not to be the beloved Disney icon of another generation, then what will he be? He might have been a disinvested figure, commenting on the follies of warfare, or a tormented character ruled by the tyranny of his own legend. But here, played by Billy Bob Thornton, he is merely human, likable, and reluctantly heroic in the end.
Sam Houston, played poorly by Dennis Quaid, is not the titan of Republic leading the forces of revenge after the fall of the Alamo. He is something of an afterthought in this movie. There is a large dose of irony in the fact that the Mexican forces in this time were the imperialists. They were aristocrats and their minions in Napoleonic uniforms, contemptuous of the rabble defending their territory and dreaming of independence. But the irony is not exploited, and the Mexican army takes on a role similar to the British in the other American revolution. The action of the film revolves entirely around the siege of the small mission at San Antonio with the final defeat of General Santa Anna at San Jacinto in the same year of 1836.
There are several documentary features on the 2003 DVD. They go a long way toward explaining the strange lifelessness of this film. It appears that a great many of the filmmakers and actors shared a commitment to the accurate portrayal of this historic event. They were joined by legions of dedicated re-enactors and local citizens. This movie was not so much a product of passion as it was an obligation. One of the documentaries speaks of the “Holy Trinity” of Alamo heroes, and further illustrates the struggles of the film to represent the imperfections of these characters without compromising the heroism. There is controversy on how Crockett died, though it was certainly not the way Fess Parker died. The film adopts the version where he was captured and executed on direct order from Santa Anna. Later, Sam Houston spares the captured general’s life in exchange for handing over Texas. It became a state within a decade.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto: 1949-57
It is not entirely clear how far the Lone Ranger and Tonto ranged in their constant quest to do the right thing and to set examples of best Western behavior for everyone they met, especially the young. Though I have not researched this subject thoroughly, I can say that all that is commonly known of their territory is that the masked man was once a Texas Ranger and he met Tonto in the course of an almost fatal encounter with some Texas desperadoes. I have included these two fast friends here because it has been the mission of this segment of MovieJourneys to explore encounters between Native Americans and the white horsemen who would overrun their lands.
In my youth, during the same years that I was caught up in the Davy Crockett craze – although I never bought the hat – I was a regular watcher of The Lone Ranger on my family’s black-and-white TV. I liked this guy about as much as I liked the other cowboy heroes that raced across my screen: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and a secondary list of gunslingers and sidekicks. Beyond all this square-shooting, however, I felt a special affinity for Tonto. The Lone Ranger could be a bit preachy and self-important, but Tonto had a wisdom that was rooted in the ancient recesses of the land he wandered. He had to endure the high-handed way the Lone Ranger treated him – something like the way the later Batman treated Robin – but these two shared a deep friendship and would have laid down their lives for one another. Tonto, on balance, was more of a role model for me than the friend he rode in with.
There has been a multitude of radio shows, television episodes, comic books, spinoff novels, and Hollywood movies from this franchise during my lifetime. The most recent of them, as I write in 2014, was the Johnny Depp fiasco, The Lone Ranger (2013). Depp mixed some courageous choices with good intentions for this film and it might have worked if it had been titled, Tonto’s Revenge. It was out of balance. What it really needed was a story about friendship and the transcendence of difference. Tonto’s wisdom was lost in showboat virtuosity and out-of-control special effects. Note that the lead characters are significantly downplayed in the trailer.
Southwest & Northwest Related Posts:
- Movies of the Pacific Northwest (U.S.)
- Movies of the Southwest
- John Ford’s Classic Westerns
- The Geronimo Movies