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When one thinks about the 1950s B picture, one typically imagines sci-fi films with foam-rubber aliens, Westerns with third-tier stars, or hard-boiled crime pictures that are gritty more by economic circumstance than by design. In reality, midcentury poverty row filmmakers tackled virtually every genre, even those that seemed to challenge their budgetary means.
Written and produced by the team of Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, and directed by Lew Landers--all of whom enjoyed long careers on the low-rent side of Hollywood--Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953) is a departure from these clearly-defined genres, and shows that the "Kings of the Bs" were more ambitious than they are often given credit for being.
The historic record of Smith's relationship with the Native American princess is sketchy at best, since the details of Smith's own account changed over the course of many retellings. Even if many of the facts remain unverified, the story has been the bedrock of elementary school textbooks, serving a milestone in the settling of the New World, as well as a romantic tale of love conquering all.
Acknowledging that the Smith and Pocahontas story had already been exaggerated and romanticized through the years, the filmmakers preface the film as "A Legend," and thus absolve themselves of the obligation of historical accuracy. The story unfolds as Smith faces a tribunal to testify about his experiences as leader of the Virginia Colony at Jamestown from 1608-1609, to clarify whether he is "the worst rogue in our kingdom" or "the boldest adventurer."
Though encouraged by his fellow settlers to oppress the Native Americans and scour the land for gold, Smith has more long-term goals in mind, attempting to befriend the "naturals" and teaching his men how to conservatively farm the land. Smith's philosophy raises the ire of his rival, Wingfield (James Seay), who considers himself "a gentleman, not an adventurer," but quickly proves himself to be neither. When the settlers are attacked by the locals (in the style of the Hollywood Injun of the wild West), Smith assumes leadership of the settlement and orders the construction of a stockade, and leads a peace-seeking delegation to meet Chief Powhatan (Douglass Dumbrille). En route, Smith encounters Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas (Jody Lawrance). She befriends the white settler and later--as every elementary school student remembers--saves Smith from execution by offering to marry him. "Let the white skin's life be spared!" decrees the chief.
Pocahontas's independent streak causes her to butt heads with Smith but she eventually earns his respect and affection. Wingfield's mistreatment of the naturals stirs up tensions between the Native Americans and the settlers, threatening the tentative peace that Smith had so recently forged. After defending the stockade from a devastating attack, Smith contemplates a return to England, raising the dramatic question of whether he and Pocahontas will live together in the New World in happiness, or separate from one another for the sake of the peace between the two nations.
As a director, Lew Landers (1901-1962) is best-known for films such as the Karloff/Lugosi vehicle The Raven (1935) and The Mask of Dijon (1946, starring Erich von Stroheim). He began his career as an actor in the silent era, and ended it as a prolific director of TV Western, crime, and adventure series.
Pollexfen (1908-2003) and Wisberg (1909-1990) had a long partnership, collaborating on such iconic B pictures as Edgar G. Ulmer's The Man from Planet X (1951) and E.A. Dupont's The Neanderthal Man (1953). But, as Captain John Smith and Pocahontas proves, they were not bound to the horror and sci-fi genres. During the 1950s, they wrote and produced a number of low-budget swashbuckler films -- such as Lady in the Iron Mask (1952), Sword of Venus (1953), and Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl (1954) -- a genre that has not aged as gracefully as the others, and has failed to win over new generations of viewers.
Pollexfen and Wisberg's partnership ended with 1955's Son of Sinbad, but both continued their careers in the middle depths, neither of them rising to A-picture prominence. Wisberg's final film as writer was the comedy spoof Hercules in New York (1969), which is notable for introducing film audiences to Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Strong (who later dropped the stage name in favor of his birth name: Schwarzenegger). Pollexfen worked less frequently than Wisberg, writing and producing only a handful of films in the decade that followed Captain John Smith, including another Ulmer picture, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957).
Character actor Alan Hale, Jr. occupies a minor supporting role in the film, as one of Smith's more loyal followers. Though he no doubt established his modest career on the name recognition of his father, Alan Hale, the fame of the younger Hale would eventually eclipse that of the elder, as he became a weekly household presence as Jonas Grumby (aka "The Skipper") on TV's Gilligan's Island (1964-1967).
As old-fashioned as it may seem, the romance of Smith and Pocahontas is a dramatic chestnut that endures to the present. It has been regularly revisited through the years, recently in the Disney animated Pocahontas (1995) and Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), which attempted to retell the story in a context of absolute authenticity.
Producers: Jack Pollexfen, Aubrey Wisberg
Director: Lew Landers
Screenplay: Aubrey Wisberg, Jack Pollexfen (original screenplay)
Cinematography: Ellis Carter
Art Direction: Ted Holsopple
Music: Albert Glasser
Film Editing: Fred Feitshans
Cast: Anthony Dexter (Capt. John Smith), Jody Lawrence (Pocahontas), Alan Hale, Jr. (Fleming), Robert Clarke (Rolfe), Stuart Randall (Opechanco), James Seay (Wingfield), Philip Van Zandt (Davis), Shepard Menken (Nantaquas), Douglas Dumbrille (Powhatan), Anthony Eustrel (King James).
by Bret Wood