In the aftermath of the American Civil War, former soldier Johnny Hawk (Kirk Douglas) – a man famed for fighting Native Americans – is hired to escort a wagon train across Oregon. His mission runs foul of a local Sioux tribe, however, when settlers on the train are caught trading whisky for gold.
Produced in 1955 and directed by André De Toth, The Indian Fighter marks the first feature made by Kirk Douglas’ own production company Bryna. It is written by Frank Davis and Ben Hecht from an original story by Robert L. Richards. It is a slightly odd film due to both its producer/star’s politics and the time in which it was made. Douglas, a fairly active left-wing figure in Hollywood, likely pushed The Indian Fighter‘s measured, sympathetic portrayal of the Sioux tribe at the film’s centre. On the other hand this is still a mid-1950s Hollywood picture: while granted their dignity and strength in the screenplay, the Native American characters are all still cast with non-indigenous actors in brown makeup. On top of that there are some appalling gender stereotypes and attitudes, and sexual assaults are still getting conflated with ‘playing hard to get’ romance. The film is quite awkwardly between two attitudes, and that makes it an interesting film but not necessarily a great one.
It is Hawk who forms the most interesting character. He is a war veteran, and thus has the respect of the post-war military, but he is also well known to the Sioux – who grudgingly respect him in part because of his talents in fighting off raids and conflicts between indigenous and colonial Americans. At the same time, neither side quite trusts him. For the Sioux he is sympathetic, but much too white. For the nearby fort, he is an intolerable ‘Indian-lover’ who seems more likely to side against them than with them. Douglas is in dashing leading man mode here, pushing his trademark charisma for all that it is worth.
Before he has even reached the fort to take on his new escort assignment, Hawk is required to rescue a whisky-trading gold seeker from the Sioux’s custody. A secret deal has gone wrong, leading one Sioux warrior dead and trader Wes Tod (Walter Matthau) is about to be burned alive in retribution. Only in a one-on-one fight with the skilled warrior Red Cloud (Eduard Franz) is Hawk able to save Tod’s life and bring him along to the fort. It proves to be a mistake, since once freed Tod and his associate Chivington (Lon Chaney) set about trying to learn the location of the gold seam that the Sioux have been hiding.
There is some well-staged action throughout The Indian Fighter – not just Hawk’s duel with Red Cloud but also an extending siege sequence that makes up the film’s climax. It is all remarkably bloody for its time. Scenes of shootings, stabbings, and scalpings all hit much harder than one might expect for the 1950s. While the film goes a long way to make its Sioux characters sympathetic and intelligent, it does not put in any real effort into historical accuracy. Small steps, one might argue, but the spectre of brownface looms over any small gains the film otherwise makes. At the time of its release, much publicity surrounded Italian actor Elsa Martinelli’s casting as Kirk Douglas’ Sioux love interest. Honestly, Martinelli’s casting deflates any cultural gains made by the interracial romance.
As with most pre-1960s westerns, The Indian Fighter is charming but problematic. It does mark an evolution in how the genre handled America’s first peoples from the middle of the century, but there remains a long distance to go.
2 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Indian Fighter (1955)”
Nothing like some egghead in 2023 passing judgment on a 1950s film’s “wokeness.” Give it a rest. You think change happens overnight? It takes time to change centuries of racist attitudes. This film gets points for being one of the first to portray Native Americans in a positive light.
No one is going to see it in the 1950s though, are they? Historical context is only going to get you so far, and while The Indian Fighter gets a lot right it also gets a lot wrong – ignoring that isn’t doing anyone any favours.