"Injuns" Native Americans in the Movies
Edward Buscombe, 2006
We "see in Indians what we want to see, what we need to see," Edward Buscombe (16)
"the Indian existed in two worlds, one of which I may also inhabit, the other which would remain impenetrable to me. We have to recognize that for white people our view of Indians is always going to be one coloured by the assumptions we bring with us" Edward Buscombe (242)
"Men become what they dream, you have dreamed well", Old chief to the eponymous Indian imposter in the film Grey Owl, (1999) dir. Richard Attenborough.
Edward Buscombe (171)
"Injuns" Native Americans in the Movies
Edward Buscombe, 2006
This is a brilliant book. Edward Buscombe's skill is in being able to communicate with a wide audience. Rather like the best cinema which combines entertainment while exploring the human condition he provides great insight into a medium of popular culture in a way which, while grounded in academic study, is accessible and of interest to the general reader.
Edward Buscombe applies Robert Berkhofer's concept of the White Man's Indian to the way Western films depict them:
" not about what Indians are really like, or what really happened to them, so much as it is about how white people have chosen to represent them in the most popular and hence influential medium of modern society. Films made by white people for white audiences will inevitably produce an image of Indians designed to serve a white agenda. We see in Indians what we want to see, what we need to see. But those wants and needs can be quite complex, and can change over time" (16).
Films are not historically accurate and it does not take a blow by blow account to prove it. Buscombe does not indulge himself in doing so with the result that the book is crisp and readable and never pedantic or drowned in detail. Similar to the myth of the West itself, Indians are a separate myth which is also part of the whole mythic West. The Indians presented are White man's conceptions.
"The popular cinema .......has created a fiction for its own purposes" (21)
It is for the witting or unwitting ends of directors and film studios which in turn reflect the perceptions, preconceptions preoccupations and prejudices of the societies which have supported the development of the myth - both historically and contemporary to the making of the films. The separation of the history of the Mythic West from the History of the West itself is often blurred by historians. Even after the more blatant examples of it like Frederic Jackson Turner many American historians and even European authors about the Media are confused by this lack of clear distinction. The blurring was developed by Buffalo Bill, who insisted that his enterprise was Buffalo Bill's Wild West. The word 'show' was pointedly and deliberately omitted.
Edward Buscombe begins by pointing out that the depiction of Indians became one of the conventions of the genre which defined Westerns and gave them a predictability and familiarity with which an audience felt comfortable, confident in knowing what to expect and reassured when they took their seats. He shows how this derived historically from the early media, taking us through artists such as Catlin and Bodmer and later Remington, the stories of Fennimore Cooper and subsequently dime novels and Zane Grey, the photography of Curtis and Reed, and the "Wild West" of Buffalo Bill. In closing the first chapter with early cinema Edward shows that D W Griffiths initially presented native Americans in a very positive but idealised "pastoral" way. However he notes that the presentation soon changed from from "idyllic to warlike" , adding perceptively that throughout its history the film industry has been responsive to economic forces: "the market demanded the type of western related to the excitement of the Wild West Show" (91)
D W Griffiths positive but idealised, "pastoral". Change from "idyllic to warlike" (91) explained by Simmon as result of "moving of Studios from east to west, but other factors too which are difficult to extrapolate. Causation in film history is always a difficult question. Social and historical forces can never be discounted, but it is not always easy to assess what weight to give them. Perhaps more important than studio shift was the market demanded the type of western related to the excitement of the Wild West Show. "(91-2)
Next Buscombe pursues what for me is of most interest: The Liberal Western. He covers many of the fifties films which feature native Americans. Having identified 50 of such films and viewed 40 of them he never falls into trap of merely reviewing them. By sticking to his crisp analytical approach Edward gives us the benefit of his vast experience of the genre in the form of numerous insights into the intertwined historical development of the medium in its social setting. For example Buscombe points out that Broken Arrow (1950) raises the question "Who asked us (ie the Whites) here in the first place?" but it is not pursued. (103) He then observes that others have erroneously seen Broken Arrow as a
"justification for the disastrous termination policies that Congress pursued in the 1950s whereby federal responsibility for Indian lands, treaties and individuals was ended".
Buscombe argues cogently that Broken Arrow is not actually in favour of 'termination' since it argues for reservations:
" It mounts powerful arguments in favour of the reservation system as a humane solution to the 'Indian Problem'." (109)
In general, then, 1950s films presented Indians as having two choices: assimilation or obliteration, but Buscombe observes that they were increasing in numbers at this time, so the genre reflected the classic preoccupation with native Americans being captured in historical time: the blatant presentation of the Vanishing American. Apart from Arrowhead the films are not themselves racist, he says, although white racists may well be shown as troublemakers and opposition to mixed race marriages might often be the cause of the "trouble". Explanations for "trouble" do not embrace concepts like imperialism or conquest, rather, Buscombe astutely observes, they are the result of individuals, often motivated by greed. Individual soldiers are also sometimes singled out as provoking conflict. Tacitly, then, the USA and its institutions as a whole is exonerated, even though paradoxically Indians are quite often shown in a favourable light, and are given the opportunity to present their case.
Turning to the impact of native Americans in Europe, once again Edward puts the Cinema into its historical context, showing how interest was cultivated during the nineteenth century by visiting tableaux. George Catlin's presentations of native American life and Buffalo Bill's Wild West crossed the Atlantic to excite the European imagination. Even in Catlin's early recreations interest centred much more on warfare than on his presentations of domestic life. Edward notes that a lack of interest in Indians by spaghetti westerns was not typical of European Cinema as a whole, and gives the examples of East and West Germany, In the former Indianerfilme, unlike Hollywood movies, the Indians were depicted as the resisters to imperialist expansion while in the latter the German tradition of Karl May's backwoodsman potboilers was maintained.
Not only was Hollywood not interested in presenting Indians other than typifying the myth which had been promulgated by popular culture, but it rarely used native American actors in the leading roles. Paradoxically even in films which addressed racism, albeit by individuals rather than the US government or its institutions, Indians had not acquired the "star power ". Dealing with the tetchy question of native Americans in films being played by other ethnic groups Buscombe notes "The audience enjoyed the daring taboo attached to interracial sex, but was comforted by the knowledge that it was only make believe". (154-5) To his numerous examples Edward could have added a spaghetti western the story of which did feature an Indian: Navajo Joe (1966). Here it is Burt Reynolds who takes the lead role in a none too memorable film. Edward is little overcritical of John Ford's casting of Cheyenne Autumn since according to Ford's biographer Joseph McBride Ford had at first wanted to use native Americans in the lead roles but was forced by Warner Bros. to use non native American actors for "commercial" reasons. While Edward mentions Henry Brandon's German origin, and his original name Heinrich von Kleinbach, he could also have added that when he played Scar in the Searchers the Navajo extras referred to him as the "Kraut Comanche" (McBride, 565). Edward refers to Woody Strode as "black" yet elsewhere, as in McBride, for example, there seems to be some acceptance that Strode had some native American in his ancestry, although this would of course not be apparent or known by many watching Ford's films which featured him so I am being too pedantic here. Amazingly, given that native Americans were not employed in leading roles, some actors like Iron Eyes Cody claimed to be native Americans. "Cody" made his living by being employed as an extra and organizing others to be the howling mob circling many a wagon train and performing trick riding feats to have the audience on the edge of their seats. As elsewhere in this fascinating book Edward writes most engagingly on how this hoaxer of Italian origin managed to fool everyone except Angela Aleiss.
For such a pocket sized volume the book is wealth of information, wide ranging and written with great knowledge and skill - always thought provoking and stimulating yet accessible and fun to read. Even the illustrations are well chosen and integrated into the text. This book is truly a little gem.
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© Chris Smallbone October 2010