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The working titles of this film were Blood Brother, Arrow and War Paint. In an author's note to the novel Blood Brother, Elliott Arnold states that "the main events in the book are entirely true.... Thomas Jeffords ran the mail, went up alone to see Cochise, became his friend and later his blood brother, and then led General Howard to Cochise's camp to make the final peace." While noting that Jeffords "confided in a number of close American friends that he was intimate with a lovely Indian girl," Arnold points out, however, that "the entire story of Jeffords and Sonseeahray is pure fiction and every detail in it was invented, against a known historical background." The novel covers a longer period of history than the film. Cochise died in 1874 and Jeffords in 1914.
According to information in news items and the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, Norma Productions, Inc., of which Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht were the principals, bought the screen rights to Blood Brother in 1948, planning to make the film in the spring of 1949 with Julian Blaustein producing. On July 30, 1948, Norma Productions signed a contract with Michael Blankfort to write the screenplay. In 1991, it was publicly revealed that Blaustein had actually asked blacklisted writer Albert Maltz to write the screenplay. After several writers turned down his request to "front" for him, Maltz asked Blankfort, a close friend, who accepted and allowed his name to be used for free. A June 29, 1991 Los Angeles Times article reproduces a contract dated August 21, 1948 in which Blankfort engages Maltz to do "the major portion of the work."
In April 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox purchased the rights to the novel from Music Corporation of America, which then owned the rights, according to a New York Times news item. The deal included the stipulation that James Stewart (a client of MCA) would star in the film, that Blaustein would produce (as his first assignment under a seven-year optional contract with the studio) and that Twentieth Century-Fox would own the rights to the story treatments and scripts, supposedly written by Blankfort, but actually written by Maltz. The rights had previously been offered to Warner Bros., also with a stipulation that Stewart would star. In an "Author's Foreward" to a script dated April 11, 1949, in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, also at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, Maltz, writing under Blankfort's name, listed a number of concerns dealing with retaining the screenplay's accuracy and authenticity in the filming. He emphasized that "the drama is based upon fact. The main events of the story, which occurred in the years 1870-1872, happened as they are related here." Maltz assumed that "all exterior scenes will be photographed in the magnificent and neglected section of Arizona, in which the events occurred," and encouraged the studio to use Apache Indians as cast members: "The Apaches are today, as they were yesterday, a vigorous and handsome people. It is both practical and advisable that they be used in the cast." In a pre-release Los Angeles Times article of May 21, 1950, Blaustein stated, "We have treated [the Indians] as people, not savages, have tried to show that the only real 'heavies' are ignorance, misunderstanding and intolerance. In short, none of our Indians say 'Ugh!'" In the narrated opening of the film, the character of "Tom Jeffords" declares, "what I have to tell happened exactly as you'll see it. The only change will be that when the Apaches speak-they will speak in our language."
After reviewing the final script draft of May 20, 1949, Darryl F. Zanuck, Vice-President in charge of production, complained that Jeffords was too "noble and untainted, so uncompromisingly lofty in his ideals" and that it was unclear what "motivated him to go to Cochise in the first place." Zanuck commented that in recent films, a "too noble hero is doomed at the box office." In a meeting between Zanuck, Blaustein, Blankfort and director Delmer Daves, it was decided to have Jeffords, in the opening narration, state that he came to Apache country to look for gold and that when he met up with the Indian boy, he was on his way back to Tucson to take a job as a scout. In the narration, Jeffords explains that he saved the boy's life because "some crazy impulse made me do it." After the revised final script of June 11, 1949, the scene of the attempted lynching of Jeffords was added following a meeting with Zanuck, Blaustein and Blankfort.
In the 1991 Los Angeles Times article, Blaustein stated that he showed Blankfort's changes secretly to Maltz. The article states that Maltz was in prison when Broken Arrow was released, serving time for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and that in 1952, after Blankfort testified before HUAC and mentioned names of his ex-wife and cousin, while stating that he had no knowledge that they had been members of the Communist party, Maltz refused ever to speak to Blankfort again. Before he died, Blankfort wrote a letter to the Writers Guild of America acknowledging that Maltz wrote Broken Arrow, but died before he mailed it. Blaustein related that Maltz preferred that the letter not be sent, but changed his mind a year after Blankfort's death and authorized writer Larry Ceplair to make his role known. Maltz died in 1985, and in July 1991, the Writers Guild voted to correct the screen credit for the film to reflect that Maltz wrote the screenplay and to issue "a strong statement of appreciation for the courage of screenwriter Michael Blankfort," who by "fronting" risked being blacklisted himself. Alfred Levitt, a blacklisted writer, brought the issue before the board based on information received by Ceplair, following talks with the wives of both writers and other principals. In 1992, the Writers Guild posthumously awarded Maltz the award that had been given to Blankfort in 1950 for the best-written American western of that year.
In correspondence included in the Records of the Twentieth Century-Fox Legal Department (concerning a lawsuit filed on behalf of author Robert Gessner, who had used the title Broken Arrow for his 1933 novel about an Indian boy), the origination of the title for the film is described: Blaustein stated that Zanuck did not like the title of the novel, Blood Brother. Arrow was selected as a temporary title. Sometime later, War Paint, which Blaustein did not like, was suggested by the studio's New York office. During shooting in Arizona, a local Indian told director Daves a story concerning his father, who had "engaged in a number of battles" with Cochise, and mentioned that the breaking of an arrow was the symbol for peace being made. Daves related the story to Blaustein, who came up with the title Broken Arrow, "a wonderful title for our picture, and in fact the only title that would symbolically represent our entire story." In February 1952, Fox agreed to settle with Gessner for $1,000 to dispose of litigation regarding the title.
Location shooting for the film was done during a six-week period near the Apache White River Reservation and in the Coconino National Forest in Arizona, as well as in Lone Pine, CA. According to publicity for Broken Arrow, the film was shot in the locations where the story actually took place, and 375 Apache Indians appeared in the film. Jeff Chandler was under contract to Universal-International at the time. The picture marked the film debut of Raymond Bramley, a New York stage actor. The Governor of Oklahoma invited the studio to hold their premiere there. According to an unidentified news item in the file for the film at the AMPAS Library, Broken Arrow was cited by the film committee of the Association on American Indian Affairs "as one of the first films since The Vanishing American (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30) to attempt a serious portrayal of the Indian side of American history and to show the Indian as a real human being the same as a white man." The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Jeff Chandler), and Cinematography (color).
Reviews generally praised the film's effort to depict the Apaches in a more sympathetic and well-rounded manner than most of Hollywood's previous portrayals; however, some reviewers criticized the film for its "romantic" characterization of Native Americans. Hollywood Reporter commented that the film "accomplishes the miracle of portraying the American Indian as a person much more than the stereotyped rug peddler or vicious savage. Instead he is presented as a member of an ancient and honorable race whose primitive intelligence is the match of any civilized culture, not merely in matters of conflict but in social organization, community service and morality." Hollywood Reporter noted further that the wars between Apaches and settlers had been "covered many, many times before on the screen but never from the angle of the Apaches. This is the plot point that sets Broken Arrow apart." Fortnight wrote, "It chides the canard that the warlike Apaches were a murderous lot, presenting them as a nation fighting honorably for survival. While this theory undoubtedly has historical fact behind it, Broken Arrow substitutes earnestness for profundity and romance in lieu of honest drama." Bosley Crowther of New York Times complained, "The misfortune here is that a purpose and an idea have been submerged in a typical rush of prettification and over-emphasis. Sure, the American Indian has been most cruelly maligned and his plight as a 'minorities' person has not yet been fully clarified. But in trying to disabuse the public of a traditional stereotype, the producers have here portrayed the Indian in an equally false, romantic white ideal. Why couldn't the Indians in this picture be as natural, inelegant and unkempt as Mr. Stewart and the other white men?"
Screen Directors' Playhouse presented a radio broadcast of Broken Arrow on September 5, 1951, starring James Stewart, Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget. On May 2, 1956, the 20th Century-Fox Hour presented a broadcast of a television version of Broken Arrow, starring Ricardo Montalban, John Lupton and Rita Moreno, and directed by Robert Stevenson. This became the pilot for the Broken Arrow television series, starring Lupton and Michael Ansara, which began on September 25, 1956 and ran through the 1958 season, with re-runs lasting through the summer of 1960. Author Elliott Arnold was the story editor of the television series. According to modern sources, Trevor Bardette was also in the cast.