Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Indians on the American Screen (lecture)

Maurice Tourneur & Clarence Brown: The Last of the Mohicans (1920). Please click to enlarge the image.

Opening of our Autumn Season in Cinema Niagara, Tampere, 14 Sep 2009. I gave an introduction for the retrospective on Indians in American Cinema, connected with the exhibition The Life and Times of Sitting Bull in the Vapriikki Museum in Tampere. http://www.vapriikki.net/sittingbull/

I was grateful for the invitation, as it gave me the impetus to read a wonderful book:

Angela Aleiss: Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2005.

She detects a strange regularity in key Indian Westerns: Broken Arrow (1950), Little Big Man (1970), Dances With Wolves (1990). One might expect the next key Indian Western to be released in 2010!

- In popular fiction, there has always been a duality regarding Native Americans: the wild barbarians, and the noble savages

- This duality has also been characteristic to the movies. There have been cycles of noble Indians and savage monsters

- The main general trend has, however, been towards more balanced and positive images

- In Finnish we may speak of "intiaanit", whereas in the U.S. Native Americans is the correct term

- Indians belong to the original subject-matter of the cinema. Already in 1894, Edison filmed The Sioux Ghost Dance and other performances from Buffalo Bill's Wild West circus

- At that time, James Fenimore Cooper's noble Indian characters were well-known, already also in Finland

- historical figures like Hiawatha and Pocahontas were a part of popular imagination, and Helen Hunt Jackson's novel character Ramona, as well - they were all often adapted in and referred to in films

- in the cinema, Indians most typically appear in Wild West stories, the most popular era being the ca 35 years from after the Civil War to the end of the 19th century

- films made about modern Indians have not been successful

- there have always been real Indians in the movies, but usually the performers have been non-Indians. Anthony Quinn had some Indian heritage

- Remarkably, there have always been high profile fake Indians in the movies, and it seems that real Indians have tacitly supported them

- My question here is about the prohibition of the image in the Indian culture. Taking one's picture takes one's soul. Might it be that true-believing Indians actually prefer fake performers to take their place in the movies?

- Will Rogers (largely a Cherokee) and Wes Studi have had the liberty to portray non-Indians

- The Chickasaw Edwin Carewe directed over 60 films

- A recurrent theme is the love between the Indian and the Caucasian. That theme was not banned by the Production Code, like the love between the Black and the Caucasian

- The children of the Indians and the Caucasians, formerly called "half-blood" (!) have always been portrayed with sympathy in movies like The Broken Lance (Robert Wagner), The Searchers (Jeffrey Hunter), and Flaming Star (Elvis Presley)

- Positive Indian figures have always been typical to A Westerns, negative figures to B westerns (stock characters in run-of-the-mill films)

- In early cinema Indians were portrayed with sympathy, as victims of the greed and cruelty of the whites

- D.W. Griffith directed 30 Indian films, 22 of which were positive to the Indians, and in the others, too, Indians were usually provoked by the crimes of the Whites

- Thomas H. Ince hired an Oglala Sioux tribe and produced 80 Indian Westerns

- Also Buffalo Bill produced films such as The Indian Wars

- Cecil B. De Mille's first film The Squaw Man was a milestone in film history, a foundation of Hollywood, and Paramount

- James Fenimore Cooper's work was often filmed, most notably by Maurice Tourneur (The Last of the Mohicans)

- The Covered Wagon (1923) revived the evil Indian, the obstacle for the Manifest Destiny

- but the pro-Indian Zane Grey wrote The Vanishing American (1925) for the screen, although his condemnation of the wrongdoings of the white man were toned down

- In The Big Trail (1930) John Wayne declared that Indians are his friends

- the romance of the lost paradise (of the South Seas, Alaska... ) was popular in the movies of the 1920s and the 1930s, and that reflected also on the image of the Indian

- Warner Bros. and Massacre (1933) with Richard Barthelmesss

- The Plainsman revived the cliched cowboy and Indian dichotomy, and Stagecoach did it again. The savagery of the Indians was stressed in the 1930s

- but Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox produced the pro-Indian Shirley Temple movie Susannah of the Mounties

- at Warner in They Died With Their Boots On history was fantastically re-written to portray General Custer as the Indian's best friend

- in Fox's Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill, as well: "they are all friends of mine"

- Delmer Daves became one of the most important film-makers to depict Indians: Broken Arrow, Drum Beat

- since the 1950s several pro-Indian A movies were produced: Apache, Jim Thorpe All American, The Story of Will Rogers, The Searchers, Broken Lance, Devil's Doorway, Run of the Arrow, Two Rode Together, Cheyenne

- in New Hollywood the anti-Western emerged: Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here

- the survival films: Ulzana's Raid, A Man Called Horse, Jeremiah Johnson

- the revival of the Western: Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo, Pocahontas

- the modern Indian: Thunderheart

Keywords: Native American in the cinema. Native Americans in the cinema. Indians in film. Indians in the cinema. 

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