Film Review: White Feather,
Robert D Webb, 1955
'(They're) heading for the promised land.
I wonder how long they will be able to live on broken promises
.....If this happened to you would you like it?'
Josh Tanner (Robert Wagner)
White Feather,Robert D Webb, 1955
White Feather is similar in its sympathetic portrayal of native Americans to the film Broken Arrow, (1950). Not surprisingly, perhaps, since the ground breaking Broken Arrow's director, Delmer Daves scripted White Feather and the experience and impact of the earlier film helped him to develop the leading Indian characters much more fully.
I particularly like the old Cheyenne chief, Broken Hand, who comes across with compassion and dignity. Eduard Franz uses body language to appear thoughtful and wise, with far greater depth of humanity than the rather stylised noble savage which Jeff Chandler's Cochise had presented. But the younger warriors, Little Dog and American Horse, show much more development than the usual stylised cardboard 'other' to which audiences were accustomed. They show great spirit, passion and courage, as human as Broken Hand but youthful and exuberant.
While James Stewart's performance as Tom Jeffords helped Broken Arrow to classic status, a young Robert Wagner is studied and measured, if rather understated, in the part of Josh Tanner, a helpful frontiersman/surveyor who intercedes between the two warring sides. His romance with Appearing Day (Debra Paget), who had also provided the romantic interest in Broken Arrow, is believable and far more optimistic. Debra Paget is wonderful as Appearing Day, how could anyone fail to fall in love with her! The romance is sensitively and warmly directed.
Customary symbolism abounds: smoke signals and tom toms for example, and as our intrepid hero, Josh Tanner, rides alone slowly into the sprawling Cheyenne village, he looks around him at everyday activity which has been carefully researched, and authentic tipis provide a backdrop. Tanner unfortunately speaks broken biscuits when conversing with the Indians, 'Your sister has much beauty' grates terribly. The importance of the spirit world and courage and glory in warfare is clearly depicted and not in a patronising way.
In many ways this is a much better film than Broken Arrow, but it probably would not have been possible to make without Broken Arrow's success. Where the film falls down is in the plot, which meanders a bit, I suspect this is owing to the cutting room floor, because the subsidiary characters of Ann Magruder (Virginia Leith) and her father (Emile Meyer) are inconsequential except to starkly make two points of racial prejudice, neither of which is ever developed, any more than is any relationship between Josh and Ann. I do love to watch Noah Beery jr. as he is so cheery and likeable, his friendly face has graced many a western, and here as Lieutenant Ferguson he provides the usual breath of fresh air.
Like Broken Arrow the story registers its 'authenticity' by the inclusion of the hero's (Wagner) voiceover as a narration. It finishes by outlandishly claiming to be 'based on a true story' which is always sure to raise the hackles of the historian in me. That the Northern Cheyenne were 'relocated' far from their northern plains homeland in 1877 is 'true', the rest of the film is a complete fabrication. Even the way the Cheyenne are shown to be practising military manoeuvres is highly dubious ( Custer's troops were wiped out but if the Cheyenne were capable of a sustained military assault so would have been Reno and Benteen's men). The Blackfeet and Crow are shown to be moving from the same area which is not where they were, and nor were they moved south like the Northern Cheyenne. Also irritating is the choice of Broken Hand as the Chief's name, for the 'real' Broken Hand was a trapper : Thomas Fitzpatrick.
However, this film is certainly worth watching. Phillip French dismisses White Feather as 'trading in an easy optimism (of Broken Arrow) that blithely rewrites history in terms of reconciliation and peaceful co existence'.(Westerns, 1988 p49) I think this film is a little more subtle and complex than that. It is a bit disjointed which I think leads Michael Coyne, never one to understate his case, to dismiss it as 'painfully tedious',(The Crowded Prairie, 1997,p71) I can understand his reasons for his view but disagree with him on this occasion. Let me know what you think. For me it is thought provoking, and raises interesting issues. Although the Indian characters are not played by native Americans they are portrayed sympathetically and their culture is valued, not demonised, ignored or patronised. Thankfully the director did not fall prey to pressure to finish the film with a battle featuring the hackneyed whooping hordes chasing round and round a circle of wagons. This, in itself, is commendable. The ending is tense, exciting and, as far as I know, unique. Like the film as a whole the end is thought provoking, raising issues and containing symbolism which make White Feather a very good, if a little sentimental, film.
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© Chris Smallbone february 2009