Friday, July 5, 2013

Cowboys and Indians: What’s This “We,” White Man?

My spouse is addicted to that bad old joke about what Tonto says to the Lone Ranger when they see a band of Commanches galloping toward them in full battle dress.  “Looks like we're in trouble,” mutters the Lone Ranger to his pal. Tonto’s response: “What you mean 'we,' white man?” 

That joke has been in my head ever since Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the Walt Disney company decided to do a big-screen version of The Lone Ranger that would put Tonto front and center. Personally, I’m not all that keen to see another film featuring Johnny Depp in weird makeup, but the release of an Indian-centric Lone Ranger has got me thinking about the way Hollywood over the years has portrayed the connection between Native American and paleface characters.

At first it was simple: cowboys good! Indians bad! But filmmaker John Ford, who had a close personal connection with Native Americans and was welcomed by local Navajos to film his western epics in Utah’s Monument Valley, had a more complex view. We can see it in The Searchers, his landmark 1956 tale of an Indian-hater (John Wayne) who goes in search of his abducted niece. A new book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning acquaintance of mine, Glenn Frankel, studies this film in depth. It’s called The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, and I look forward to checking it out. Ford’s elegiac 1964 Cheyenne Autumn was definitely filmed from the Indians’ perspective, but it proved to be a box office bust. (Ford, by the way, continued the common practice of casting as Native American just about any non-WASP who looked suitably exotic, like Ricardo Montalban and Sal Mineo.)

In the late Sixties, when sympathy for the underdog perhaps reached its peak, all things Indian suddenly became trendy. Perhaps that’s why two big films released in 1970 both focus on Caucasians living among Native  Americans. I’m thinking about Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse, about a white British aristocrat who becomes a tribal leader, and Dustin Hoffman, not long after his days as Benjamin Braddock, being raised by Indians in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. (Predictably, as in most of the era’s Hollywood movies about the civil rights movement – think To Kill a Mockingbird -- a white male drove the action of these films.)

 In 1990, along came a blockbuster, Dances With Wolves, winner of seven Oscars. I found this story of a Civil War veteran who casts his lot with the Sioux nation overlong and sentimental, but I can’t deny the power of its Great Plains cinematography. Happily, such Native American actors as Graham Greene and Rodney A. Grant played major roles. Though Indian activists like the late Russell Means griped about linguistic inaccuracies, the filmmakers did try hard to capture on film an authentic portrait of a vanished way of life.

The success of Dances With Wolves encouraged the ever-creative Roger Corman (always good at jumping on other people’s bandwagons) to come up with his own Native American story. We at Concorde-New Horizons worked hard to produce a script for Crazy Horse, which Roger planned to film mostly in Peru, but the cast-of-thousands demands of this story doomed our efforts. Instead we turned to Michael Druxman’s strong script for Cheyenne Warrior, an intimate love story between a Native American and a pioneer wife which ultimately appeared as a TV movie in 1994. Our handsome and talented leading man? Pato Hoffmann, a Bolivian-born actor with Spanish and German blood in his veins. Oh, well.


  1. What is Johnny Depp's background? I'm pretty sure he doesn't have Native American roots ...

    I guess some of the traditional Westerns I'm thinking of don't actually have Indians in them (Riders of the Purple Sage; spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) as much as a western setting and frontier-style morals. Interesting!

  2. Johnny Depp claims to have some Indian inheritance in his genes (not just jeans), along with a lot of other things. Thanks for reading, Gratteciella.

  3. I'm laughing about the old Tonto joke... Richard and I say the punch line to each other when one of us is making assumptions about "we" and one day, in the middle of a grocery store in Long Beach, I blurted out "What do you mean 'we' White Man?" and realized how bad that sounded. I was very red-faced. Even though the joke makes the Tonto the smart one, I've never said it aloud in public again.

  4. Glad to hear from you, Tina. I wish my husband has learned that lesson. I hear the phrase from him at least once a week, in all circumstances. (Not so much in public, though.)

  5. You sum up my feelings on this new Lone Ranger. I am also one of the few people who do not care for The Searchers. I find it (and High Noon) two of the worst "classics" there ever were. Now, I first saw The Searchers in my adolescence after discovering the entertainment value in John Wayne movies - and fresh from watching the Duke are the stalwart hero in Rio Bravo and True Grit and Chisum and The Cowboys and Stagecoach - to see him in shades of gray in The Searchers may have colored my perceptions. Also, not sure if the VHS tape was produced open matte - but when I watched The Searchers in Florida in 1988 (pretty good remembering exactly where and almost exactly when I saw it, eh?) there were instances of me seeing the top of the set and consequently the soundstage rafters at the top of my screen - too big a blooper to have been missed by so many in the theater, surely?

    In any case - I probably need to see The Searchers again.

    Love the story of Cheyenne Warrior! Pato Hoffmann might have been more than a little miscast - but think if Mr. Corman had made the movie in the 50's - he might have had Beach Dickerson or Jonathan Haze in the lead!

    1. According to Ebert, seeing those extraneous beyond the scene details is the fault of the projectionist.

    2. I just read there are some real visual gaffes in The Searchers, including a modern station wagon visible in the distance in one scene. John Ford, it seems, could be a bit careless. But I'll have a lot more to say about this film soon. (Thanks for chiming in, Mr. Adams!)


  6. . . . I can just imagine Jack Nicholson in brown makeup! (And, yes, I need to see The Searchers again too.)