Sunday, May 14, 2017

BROKEN ARROW: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1950) Kino Lorber

James Stewart attempts to broker a tenuous peace with the Apache in director, Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950); a middling western, hampered by Jeff Chandler’s ineffectual performance as Cochise; two-thirds the ‘noble savage’ caricature ascribed to all portraits of Native American Indians in countless other westerns and one-third with Jeff’s usual verve for playing every part I have ever seen him in with that proverbial pole mounted much too far up his tuckus; herein, looking about as uncomfortable in his native wig as I imagine he was when discovered by Esther Williams in her boudoir, wearing her underwear…another story for another time, kiddies. Despite his actor’s shortcomings, Chandler (born Ira Grossel) attained something of the exalted rank in popularized fifties beefcake (the era of Rock Hudson, Tab and Jeff Hunter and George Nader), was to have his career cut short by botched surgery for a herniated spinal disc in 1961, hemorrhaging on the operating table and given a 7 ½ hour emergency operation in which 55 pints of blood were administered to save his life.
It proved futile in the end; Chandler dying from his complications. He was only 42.  Film historian, David Shipman eulogized Chandler’s appeal thus: “(He) looked as though he had been dreamed up by one of those artists who specialize in male physique studies or, a mite further up the artistic scale; he might have been plucked bodily from some modern mural on a biblical subject. For that he had the requisite Jewishness (that) was not quite real. Above all, he was impossibly handsome. He would never have been lost in a crowd, with that big, square, sculpted 20th century face and his prematurely grey wavy hair. If the movies had not found him the advertising agencies would have done – and in fact, whenever you saw a still of him you looked at his wrist-watch or pipe before realizing that he wasn't promoting something.”  And frankly, that is about all that can be said of Chandler – fun to look at, perhaps closeted bi-curious, and certainly no actor by any barometer of quality one may choose to ascribe. What can I tell you? It was the fifties; an era when every conservative middle-aged mum in America though Liberace would make their daughters the ideal husband.
Broken Arrow is today generally sited as a Hollywood watershed; the first studio-sanctioned western to approach its subject matter from both sides of the conversation; with stalwart, James Stewart supremely cast in his Hollywood ‘every man’ role as Tom Jeffords; a peaceable trapper whose valiant attempts to embrace the ways of the Cochise, the sworn enemy of the white man, results in a miscegenation of the races; an idyllic romance (and later marriage) between Tom and the native virgin, Sonseeahray (Debra Paget, most convincing and angelic with real sex appeal). Theirs is a bliss cut short by the ruthlessness from a foiled ambush by local racist/townsman and rancher, Ben Slade (Will Greer) with tribal warriors loyal to the embittered Geronimo (Jan Silverheels).  In just a little over 90 min., Broken Arrow covers a lot of factoid information, tethering history to an idealized love story in Hollywood’s grand tradition of weepies with a bittersweet core; the screenplay by blacklisted writer, Albert Maltz taking the broad approach to American ‘l’histoire’ and, from a blindsided perspective in pure entertainment achieving a notable end result. The picture’s lynch pin undoubtedly hinges on the actor playing Cochise; producer, Julian Blaustein having a hell of a time locating any actor up for the part. “We were even considering Ezio Pinza,” Blaustein would later admit. I shudder to think of where that would have placed Broken Arrow in the annals for posterity. Some enchanted evening, indeed!
The picture, as it exists, liberally based on Elliot Arnold’s sprawling 1947 novel, Blood Brother, is masterfully photographed by the great Ernest Palmer and underscored by the even more distinguished composer, Hugo Friedhofer. The plot is mostly incidental to these glowing representations photographed in 2oth Century-Fox’s own particularly lurid saturation of Technicolor (for which the studio was justly renown). Based on his performance in 1949’s Sword in the Desert, Jeff Chandler beat out Pinza for the part of the manly and proud native warrior; principle photography commencing just days later in Northern Arizona, just thirty miles south of Flagstaff and giving Chandler not much time at all to ‘get up’ in the part. Apaches from the Whiteriver Agency on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation were hired to play themselves – another departure from the Hollywood tradition of heavily pancaking whites in tawny brown makeup. Viewed today, it is impossible not to see the star-making quality in sixteen year old Debra Paget’s sincere portrait of a maiden squaw at the cusp of womanhood and betrothed of her own accord to the 42-year-old Jeffords. Paget’s Sonseeahray illuminates the screen with a presence that betokens far beyond her natural physical beauty; sweetness less naïve and more that of an accomplished thespian than her own youth (or later career in the movies) would suggest. Despite their age disparity, Paget’s love scenes with Stewart’s middle-aged martyr are surprisingly effective and touching; her premature death during the aforementioned ambush depriving us of the momentum of her winsome spirit introduced and maintained throughout the story’s middle act narrative.
Our tale is bookended by a solitary trek; trapper, Tom Jeffords stumbling across a wounded, 14-year-old Apache boy in the wilderness who will likely perish from buckshot wounds sustained in a confrontation with local ranchers if not properly attended. Despite their opposing status as sworn enemies, Jeffords attempts to give the boy food and water. He is momentarily attacked by the child, weakly wielding a knife. But then the boy relents to Jeffords’s care and is nursed back to health. Alas, Jeffords has placed himself in harm’s way; the boy's tribesmen appearing at the point of an arrow. Jeffords narrowly avoids his own slaughter when the boy reveals his kindness to the clan. The tribesmen are amused but unconvinced. After all, was it not the white man who broke their treaty of good faith, resulting in the current blood feud with casualties mounting on both sides? Hence, when a troop of gold prospectors approaches, the Apache gag Jeffords and tie him to a tree. Helplessly he watches the Apache capture and torture the survivors to death. At the end of this ordeal, Jeffords is freed and allowed to return to his outpost, but warned no further concessions shall be afforded him should he be so foolish enough to venture into their territory again.
When Jeffords returns to Tucson, he encounters a prospector (Harry Carter) who narrowly escaped the ambush. Having witnessed the event firsthand, Jeffers corrects the prospector’s overblown account, incurring rancher, Ben Slade’s (Will Geer) incredulousness and displeasure over Jeffords’ helping an Apache boy, but also for refusing to assist Col. Bernall (Raymond Bramley) in the charge for an all-out war with the Apache. Jeffords realizes old prejudices have gone from a simmer to a boil, but reasons no lasting peace will ever come from renewing the blood feud or by harboring racist suspicions about the enemy. Determined to extend the proverbial ‘olive branch’ toward the Apache, Jeffords has a local native, Nochalo (Chris Willow Bird) teach him the Apache language and rudimentary customs. Determined as he is, Jeffords vows to his friend, Milt (Arthur Hunnicut) to venture into Apache territory and broker a peace for the stagecoach mail service to get through, sending up smoke signals as his prelude to a peaceful journey. Arriving deep within the Apache stronghold, Jeffords his met with reserved respect by Cochise (Jeff Chandler). Jeffords fluency in both the language and native customs highly impresses Cochise. Though he remains skeptical of Jeffords’ motives, Cochise decides to agree to the terms of Jeffords’ tentative peace. The mail service may pass through Apache territory unmolested.
Jeffords’ treaty is met with skepticism back home. Ben Slade demands an all-out war to immediately commence. But Milt elects to be the first to test the fidelity of Jeffords’ tenuous peace and is amazed when the first five dispatchers he sends out with the mail return unharmed. Cochise too is highly motivated by the white man’s ability to stay true to his word. Upon Jeffords second journey into the Apache camp he is met warmly by Cochise and invited to a ceremonial Social Dance and Sonnseehray’s Sunrise Ceremony (a.k.a. Puberty Rite). The girl is betrothed to fellow tribesman, Maghogee (Robert Foster Dover). But the girl has spirit and willingly pursues a tentative romance with Jeffords who is equally moved to consider making her his wife. Though Cochise thinks it a terrible idea he is nevertheless deeply influenced to arrange the marriage after witnessing the depth of Jeffords’ reciprocated affections for the girl. Envious of the arrangement, Maghogee tries to murder Jeffords as he sleeps in the Apache village. He is defeated and later executed by Cochise. Jeffords and Sonseeahray are wed and begin their lives together.
For the briefest of wrinkles in time their world possesses the sort of even cadence Jeffords hopes to spread like wild fire between the Apache and his fellow settlers. Jeffords is most impressed by Cochise's fidelity to their pact, offering unquestioning protection with his men when one of the town’s stagecoaches is attacked by Geronimo and his warriors. In Tucson, however, Ben Slade has whipped the local citizenry into a lynch-happy frenzy; determined Jeffords should hang for placing his faith in Cochise above his own people. Jeffords is spared his fate by Gen. Oliver Otis Howard (Basil Ruysdael); a one-armed cavalryman cum minister, known as ‘the Christian General. Returning to the Apache stronghold with Howard in tow, Cochise is given the bond of the United States Government. Howard speaks for the President and openly condemns racism, saying that the Bible ‘says nothing about pigmentation of the skin.’ Jeffords has no fear of Cochise’s word. But Cochise recognizes the trouble to be had with Geronimo who not only opposes peace of any kind with the white man, but with a small contingent of loyalists, has divorced himself from the Apache to form a renegade operation on his own, determined to wage war on white men everywhere.
Meanwhile, Ben Slade concocts an ambush of his own, putting up his son, Bobby (Mickey Kuhn) to spin a yarn of harrowing escape after two of his horses were presumably stolen by Cochise's people. Cochise vows to Jeffords his people did not take the horses and doubts Bobby’s story. Alas, still determined to fight the good fight, Jeffords ventures into the valley alongside Cochise to investigate the boy’s claim with Sonseehray. The small party is waylaid by townsfolk loyal to Slade. In the ensuing conflict, Jeffords is badly wounded and Sonseehray is killed, leaving Jeffords distraught and bitter. Cochise forbids Jeffords to retaliate in anger, recognizing the trap was not perpetuated by the U.S. Military. He further reasons no less or more blame to Slade as ascribed to Geronimo who equally broke their peace. Agreeing upon these terms, Jeffords walks away, his voice over adding “The death of my beloved Sonseeahray had put a seal upon the peace, and from that day on wherever I went, in the cities, among the Apaches and in the mountains, I always remembered, my wife was with me.”
Broken Arrow is a good, though not great western drama; its flaws never entirely crippling its entertainment value, as no picture that ever starred James Stewart is ever a total waste of time. But Stewart remains the one bright spot in this otherwise unevenly scripted, though essentially appealing, if, at times, grotesquely sentimental romancer with plenty of action to boot. Almost embarrassingly, Jeff Chandler’s clunky performance was Oscar-nominated; Broken Arrow leading the liberalized charge but occasionally becoming too preachy about the accord and peaceful co-existence between Native Americans and white civilization. Part of a very brief cycle, subliminally to reflect the liberal demographic on trial during the McCarthy witch hunts, Broken Arrow’s enduring salvation and legacy is its well-balanced depiction of the Apache as possessing their own meaningful social structure as counterpoint to the white settlers. It’s the empathy one recalls, despite stoicism and pontificating from Chandler’s Cochise; still, more impersonation than homage, or even, competency to convey anything better than tolerance and racial equality through the gospel according to the Lone Ranger’s Kemo sahbee.
To promote Broken Arrow, Fox hired Rosebud Yellow Robe, a Native American folklorist, educator, and author to undertake a national tour. Explaining there were no such things as Indian princesses (a myth perpetuated after Pocahontas was rechristened ‘Lady Rebecca’ by the English), Rosebud also voiced her displeasure about the portrayal of Indians on the radio, screen, and television, dispelling time-honored clichés of the ‘whooping/warring’ savage. In the end, Broken Arrow did fine business for Fox; earning a sizable $3,550,000 on its relatively minuscule budget. Viewed today, Broken Arrow is well worth one’s time; its virtues many and, occasionally, rare. But it lacks the driving impetus of other more succinctly made and astutely observed stories that would follow in its footsteps a decade later. We’ll give it browning points for being among the first; Broken Arrow is a fine entertainment for the most part with the exception of the few caveats discussed herein.
‘A few caveats’ to discuss about his transfer too. Kino Lorber continues to mine its lucrative association with Fox Home Video (an all but defunct enterprise in and of itself where vintage catalog releases are concerned). But the results, presumably sourced from a new 2K restoration, bear some head-scratching. First off, as with virtually all Fox deep catalog, no original separation masters exist from which a proper restoration effort would suffice. So color fidelity, density, and virtually all other aspect of the movie’s palette are, at best, highly suspect and, in no way reflect the luster and vibrancy of Fox’s vintage 3-strip Technicolor. That said, the color here is very good – mostly – with minor fluctuations impugning the overall presentation. Flesh tones can appear natural or very pink or very orange, depending on the reel. Worse, there are several glaring instances of misalignment between the 3 strips of color negative, resulting in disturbing halos, mostly from shrinkage of the blue record. These ought to have been digitally corrected for this release. Regrettably, they have not.
Film grain is curious; a few scenes showing exaggerated grain (Technicolor was generally known for its grain-concealing properties). Inserted dupe negatives illustrate a few jarring moments where both color density and overall balancing miserably falter. But overall, much has been done to return the bulk of Broken Arrow to a reasonable facsimile of its opening night splendor with age-related artifacts greatly tempered. The mono DTS 1.0 audio is adequate for this presentation. Save a few trailers, there are no extras included herein. For a western sited as a watershed in American movies, one would have thought at least an audio commentary was forthcoming. Ho-hum…the beat of the tom-toms goes on. Bottom line: Broken Arrow deserves to be seen. This Blu-ray is imperfect, but better than adequate and therefore comes recommended. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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