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At the end of the US civil war, Johnny Hawks returns and tries to re-starts his life. He was once a renowned Indian fighter but had made peace with the Sioux and had become friendly with the Chief, Red Cloud. His immediate task is to lead an Oregon-bound wagon train through Sioux territory but there are some among the settlers who have heard of a gold mine and will go to any lengths to find it. Every time Hawks thinks he has arranged a peace two men in particular, Wes Todd and another named Chivington seem to make it impossible to keep the peace. Hawks also finds that the Chief’s daughter, Ohnahti, has grown into a beautiful woman. Despite Hawks’ best efforts, war seems inevitable.



Cast:
Director: André De Toth Writers: Robert L. Richards (story), Frank Davis (screenplay)
Stars:

Kirk Douglas, Elsa Martinelli and Walter Matthau



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User reviews:
At the heart of De Toth’s oeuvre lies an interesting contradiction. He has an abiding interest in suspense, action, and the wellspring of violent events (a fact underlined by the number of thrillers, frontier yarns and dramas he helmed during his career), but, as a director, characteristically disassociates himself from their process. This ‘distancing’ effect has been noted by a number of viewers, creating some critical debate about De Toth’s engagement with his material. In my view his detachment is not to be confused with aloofness – an interesting comparison can be made with Stanley Kubrick’s alleged ‘coldness’ – but is rather De Toth’s way of resolving what really ‘matters’. It is this intelligence, revealing itself sharply in his best films, that makes him such a worthwhile study. Along with De Toth’s assured debut ‘Ramrod’ (1947) and the austere ‘Day of the Outlaw’ (1959), ‘The Indian Fighter’ is probably the finest of his Western films, revealing a characteristic response to the demands of the genre. In ‘Ramrod’ the moral questing springs from a noirish plot that is unsettled and full of tension. In ‘Day of the Outlaw’ issues are resolved more formally, played out against the stark landscape of Winter. In ‘The Indian Fighter’, De Toth’s concerns manifest themselves in his most lyrical and sensuous work. He thereby creates a film which, in emphasis, is in direct contrast to most other 50′s Westerns. This is ostensibly a tale of a famous frontiersman Johnny Hawks (played with usual lusty gusto by Kirk Douglas), back from the wars. Ultimately he has to redeem his reputation, discovering balance within the indigenous people he has previously warred against. Gold has been discovered on Indian land, and the bad guys (a marvellous performance by Walter Matthau, ably supported by Lon Chaney, Jnr) are out to kill and cheat to secure the riches. This, and the related fear of a tribal uprising, provide the main action point of the film. As the Indian fighter of the title, ironically the first thing we notice about Hawks is his reticence. In fact he hardly fights at all – only when he is obliged, or when called upon to at the climax of the film. For him, combat is not a prerequisite, although he is not slow to react when needs be. A comparison with the bitterness of Ethan Edwards, say, in Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ is revealing. Edwards loathes the Commanches, with a bitterness entirely absence from De Toth’s hero. As Hawks’ opponents observe, he is more of an Indian lover than fighter. And, of course, in the most obvious way, they are right. Almost more important to the hero than his professional reputation is his preoccupation with the Indian maid Onhati. His single-minded pursuit, and later dalliance, with her initiates the main crisis of the film, as he leaves the wagon train to be by her side, after taking it ‘two days out of my way and half way up a mountain’. This is a film full of sensuality, placed in contrast to ‘duty’, the calling of action. We are constantly reminded of the cool pools, green foliage, closeness of the earth, just as much as of the teachery and turmoil of the frontier. Franz Waxman’s score is lyrical and evocative, frequently idyllic. The glorious cinematography gives nature’s perpetual garden a pantheistic gloss, sometimes intense, and always resplendent. Just as the main film captures these images, so in mimicry does Briggs, a supposed protégé of civil war photographer Matthew Brady, who frequently accompanies Hawks. He is eager to capture the grandeur around him. His camera is as significant to us as it is to Hawks, who makes a point of rescuing it at one point (during the battle at the fort). An important minor character, Briggs emphasises the appreciation of the sublime and beautiful that the film invites. A couple of times De Toth pauses the action (once at the fort and then at the wagon train), to pan his camera for long seconds along sets and people, recording their place in the Oregon landscape. Like Briggs he wants to admire, and record. A circular film, ‘The Indian Fighter’ begins with Hawks gazing at Onhati bathing naked in a pool. It ends with him joining her in the water, forming a happy couple. The whole world of action is thus enclosed by their bonding, their sensual preoccupation usurping the violent demands of Indian-white conflict. The scenes between the two lovers caused a murmur at the time. Considered ‘risque’ for the conservative 50′s Western, De Toth simply inserted them, and their sexual self-absorption, as entirely fitting his plan of things. What is more eyebrow-raising today is how he allowed the encounters between two lovers to backstage the expected intrigues of masculine action, and actually assume greater significance, reversing regular audience expectations. This stress, an essentially feminine one. is completely uncharacteristic of the Western at this time. Add to that a sympathetic view of Indians and nature conservation (the Indian Chief’s environmental concerns are a main reason for his refusing to exploit the land with mining) and you have an excellent film – a career highlight of this greatly underrated director.

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