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Everyone knows that Hollywood's take on history is rarely accurate or truthful, especially when it comes to tales of how the West was won. Case in point, Sitting Bull: a 1954 Western scripted by Jack DeWitt (Bomba, the Jungle Boy, 1949) and Sidney Salkow (Prison Nurse, 1938). It contains some glaring historical inaccuracies such as a meeting between the chief and President Ulysses S. Grant that never took place. It is also framed in typical Hollywood fashion by a story of "white folks," including the requisite love triangle between an Army officer sympathetic to the Indians (Dale Robertson), a general's daughter (Mary Murphy), and a newspaperman (William Hopper, son of gossip columnist Hedda). But it is a well-intentioned effort to portray the great Sioux leader with some dignity and understanding and notable for featuring a black actor, Joel Fluellen, in an important and sympathetic role. But for those with an interest in the real Sitting Bull, here's a brief overview of the man.
Born around 1831 in what is now South Dakota, Sitting Bull was a chief and holy man who united all the Lakota tribes in their struggle for survival on the northern plains. Widely respected for his courage, leadership and insight, he brought together the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho in opposition to the U.S. government in 1876. He also refused to settle onto reservations after an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer confirmed that gold had been found in the Black Hills. Inspired by Sitting Bull's vision of soldiers falling into his camp like grasshoppers falling from the sky, Oglala war chief Crazy Horse led thousands of Indians against Custer at Little Big Horn, destroying the army contingent. The U.S. sent legions of troops to the area, routing the various tribes one by one, but Sitting Bull took his people into Canada, refusing offers of a pardon in exchange for settling on a reservation. In 1881, however, finding it impossible to feed his people as the buffalo became extinct, the chief came south to surrender.
The Lakota settled on a reservation, and four years later Sitting Bull was allowed to leave to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where he earned $50 a week to parade through the performance on a horse, plus whatever he could raise selling his autograph and photo. In 1890, fearing he would join an ancient ritual meant to rid the land of white people, authorities had 43 policemen - all Lakota who had adopted the white man's way of life - arrest Sitting Bull. In the ensuing struggle between police and Sitting Bull's followers, the great chief was shot in the head and died, defiant of the government to the end and refusing to give up his tribal ways and turn to Christianity.
In this version, Sitting Bull labors to keep the peace between his nation and the United States, while the "bad guys" are portrayed as loose cannons on both sides: George Armstrong Custer (Douglas Kennedy), who was, of course, famously wiped out at Little Big Horn, and the warrior Crazy Horse (Iron Eyes Cody, who also served as technical advisor and designer of the Indian costumes).
Perhaps Hollywood's most famous and enduring portrayer of Native Americans, Cody was, in fact, not Indian at all but the Louisiana-born son of Italian immigrants. Nevertheless, he married a Native American, adopted two Indian sons and worked as an Indian throughout his long career, which stretched from 1930 to 1987 (with a possible but unconfirmed role in 1919). He worked for many years to advance Native American causes and was honored by that community in 1995 for his efforts.
Sitting Bull is portrayed by J. Carrol Naish, a New York native of Northern European ancestry who ended up playing ethnic types throughout his long film career (1930-1971). He portrayed Japanese, Arabs, Russians, many Latins, even Chinese sleuth Charlie Chan. And he was an Indian (both Native American and Eastern) on many occasions. He played Sitting Bull once before, in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), a musical set in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
Mary Murphy, who portrays the love interest here, made 35 movies in her 24-year career, but she will probably always be best known as the good girl who redeems bad-boy biker Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). A couple of years after this movie, she married co-star Dale Robertson, perhaps best known for his starring role in the 1960s TV western Tales of Wells Fargo.
Director: Sidney Salkow
Producer: W.R. Frank
Screenplay: Jack DeWitt, Sidney Salkow
Cinematography: Victor Herrera, Charles J. Van Enger
Original Music: Raoul Kraushaar, Max Rich
Cast: Dale Robertson (Major Bob Parrish), Mary Murphy (Kathy Howell), J. Carroll Naish (Sitting Bull), Joel Fluellen (Sam), Iron Eyes Cody (Crazy Horse).
by Rob Nixon