Before there was Avatar, before there was even Dances With Wolves, there was Broken Arrow.
I wasn’t expecting much out of this film. I picked it solely because it had Jimmy Stewart, and he’s been missing from this feature for too long. I knew from the description that it was about the wars with the Apache, who have always been the genre’s favorite villainous redskins. Again, I wasn’t expecting much.
If there was one thing that was pounded into my head in college, it was that no movie ever portrayed Native Americans fairly. They were all John Wayne propaganda pieces that justified our rape and pillage of the land over and over again. It was one of those little facts that justified my disdain for Western movies for years.
But it turns out my American history classes weren’t entirely right, at least in the case of one film. Broken Arrow was the first film to actually portray the Native Americans in a sympathetic and fair light, and while it stumbles in authenticity, it deserves an A for effort. The fact that it comes from one of Hollywood’s stauncher Republicans (Stewart was a proud conservative) is a nice surprise.
To be fair, I actually looked up when Wayne made his controversial “they were selfishly keeping the land” comments to see where they fell in regards to Broken Arrow. To my surprise, he seems to have actually regretted them. As critic Eugene Levy points out, Wayne’s characters actually do tend to be more tolerant and fair to Natives.
While it doesn’t erase his political and personal opinions, you have to give him some credit. He could have sold a very different message. But, he didn’t exactly make Broken Arrow and Stewart did. Advantage: Stewart.
Broken Arrow is based on the true story of Tom Jeffords (Stewart), a former Army officer who has turned to prospecting. He’s on his way to Tuscon when he comes across a wounded Apache boy and nurses him back to health. He narrowly escapes being killed by the boy’s family, but they begrudgingly spare his life out of fairness.
It’s actually a great scene, full of wariness and distrust, but it leaves an impression on Jeffords. When he arrives in Tuscon, the town is boiling over with bloodlust due to Cochise and his unification of the Apache. Jeffords is appalled, and decides to make a stand for something daring — peace based on shared trust and understanding. He volunteers to ride to Cochise’s stronghold, and talk to the formidable leader.
The film handles Jeffords’ awakening as something fairly subtle. It could be hammy, since it’s first presented as one of Stewart’s trademark “aww shucks” speeches where he realizes (via the wounded boy) the Apache aren’t “wild animals” and have mothers who cry for them. But two minutes later, Jeffords is forced to witness the Apache brutally execute some white men.
Yet he comes away willing to work towards peace out of a quiet realization that innocents are dying on both sides of the battlefield. This sentiment alienates him from his fellow Americans, but Jeffords doesn’t back down, and sticks to his diplomatic guns.
While Broken Arrow makes some regrettable decisions — all the leading Apache characters are played by white actors, “authentic” ceremonies are invented for the benefit of white audience members — it’s worth noting that never once is Jeffords ever portrayed as being superior to Cochise and the Apache.
He becomes friends with Cochise, and it’s based entirely on mutual respect. There’s no corny trial by fire or Indian bravery test. If anything, Cochise is dismissive of Jeffords’ desire to be “one” with the tribe. Yeah, you knew it was coming. Jeffords falls for a beautiful maiden and wants to marry her.
Unlike similar storylines, Broken Arrow is brutally honest about the realities of interracial romance, though it does allow dewy-eyed love to proceed. (While Jeffords’ friendship with Cochise is fact, all the mushy stuff is fiction.)
Of course, treaties and true love don’t run smooth, and the ending of Broken Arrow is a bitter one. But even now, its message rings true and I have to wonder if you could even make this today. Let’s not forget that How To Train Your Dragon came under fire this week for it’s “political” messages of peace, love, and understanding. If Broken Arrow was put into theaters tomorrow, how long would it take before a critic or pundit would scream that it advocated rejecting your own tribe in favor of an alien one?
(Broken Arrow is available on Netflix Instant Watch, as are nearly all the Western Wednesdays before it. Watch it and tell me if it solves the question as to why Martin Riggs refers to everyone as Cochise in the Lethal Weapon series.)