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The Indian Fighter

The Indian Fighter(1955)

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teaser The Indian Fighter (1955)

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) is a subversive look at the mythology of the Wild West and a unique deconstruction of an American folk hero as envisioned by Robert Altman, a director well known for turning the typical genre film inside out (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, (1971), The Long Goodbye, 1973). With M*A*S*H (1970), his first popular success, Altman used the Korean War as a backdrop for a razor sharp black comedy about the insanity of war. In a similar fashion, he used a traveling Wild West show in Buffalo Bill and the Indians to comment on American history, the politics of show business and the exploitation of Native Americans by greedy entrepreneurs.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians was inspired by Arthur Kopit's play, Indians, which receives a screen credit even though scenarist Alan Rudolph only used a few lines from the original stage production. Where Kopit's play was a cynical political comedy about the numerous injustices visited on Native Americans, Rudolph's screenplay broadens the canvas considerably to address the whole issue of American mythmaking.

Fresh from the success of Nashville (1975), probably the best example of his multi-layered storytelling technique, Buffalo Bill and the Indians was filmed on location at Stoney Indian Reserve in Alberta, Canada and features a stunning array of talent: Paul Newman as the legendary Buffalo Bill, Joel Grey as his press agent, Burt Lancaster as Ned Buntline, the man responsible for inventing the legend of Buffalo Bill, Harvey Keitel as Ed, Buffalo Bill's nephew, Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley, and Shelley Duvall as the wife of President Grover Cleveland. As portrayed by Newman, Buffalo Bill sees himself as a total entertainer and more than willing to exploit his famous name for fame and fortune. But during rehearsals for his show, he is dismayed to discover that his main attraction, Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), doesn't share his views. Not only does Sitting Bull refuse to participate in staged reenactments of famous historic events (because they are misrepresentations of the truth), but he continually challenges Bill's hero status in the show.

There is another similarity to Nashville in Buffalo Bill and the Indians and it's exemplified by the "story within a story" framework, which is obvious from the first scene in the film where audiences are informed by a narrator that this is "not a show, it is a review of the down-to-earth events that made the American frontier." As we watch an attack on a log cabin, the violence halts abruptly when Buffalo Bill's press agent yells, "Cease the action." The scene is revealed as a rehearsal, thus setting the stage for a movie that plays constantly with the notion of truth and entertainment.

Released amidst the bicentennial celebrations of 1976, Buffalo Bill and the Indians did not enjoy the critical success of Altman's more popular films. The revisionist history did not sit well with audiences and the fact that United Artists did not widely promote the release on television or in print certainly did not help it at the box office. Probably the most damaging blow to Altman came when his producer, Dino de Laurentiis, revealed his disappointment with the final product. De Laurentiis had been expecting a more traditional Western with broad commercial appeal, and Altman's dialogue-heavy, politically subversive product was not the film the producer wished to release. Altman and De Laurentiis' working relationship disintegrated when the producer submitted the film to the Berlin Film Festival, where it was awarded the coveted Grand Prix. Altman angrily turned down the award, stating that the version of Buffalo Bill and the Indians screened was one "that has been edited drastically, [and] does not represent my work." The frustrated director subsequently asked that "neither I nor my film be considered for any prize or honor on the basis that it perpetrated a fraud."

The very public rift between the two men would lead to additional problems for Altman, who already found himself on unsteady footing in Hollywood due to his outspoken nature. De Laurentiis had previously picked Altman to direct an adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow book, Ragtime, prior to filming Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Interestingly, Doctorow had initially turned down the job of writing the screenplay of his book, but reconsidered upon visiting the set of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, where he was encouraged by the "sense of creative participation with cast and crew." But it was Altman, and not De Laurentiis, who wanted to bring Doctorow on as a screenwriter; when the producer discovered that Altman was planning a six-hour adaptation of Ragtime, he fired him from the project. Nevertheless, the 1970s ultimately proved to be a period of great creativity and output for this truly original, American director and Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians remains a fascinating, thematically rich entry in the Western genre.

Producer/Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Robert Altman, Alan Rudolph
Art Direction: Jack Maxsted
Cinematography: Paul Lohmann
Editing: Peter Appleton, Dennis M. Hill
Music: Richard Baskin
Cast: Paul Newman (William F. Cody), Burt Lancaster (Ned Buntline), Joel Grey (Nate Salibury), Kevin McCarthy (Maj. John Burke), Harvey Keitel (Ed Goodman), Geraldine Chaplin (Annie Oakley), Allan Nicholls (Prentiss Ingraham), Bert Remsen (Crutch), Frank Kaquitts (Sitting Bull), Will Sampson (William Halsey), John Considine (Frank Butler), Shelley Duvall (Mrs. Cleveland), Pat McCormick (Grover Cleveland), Denver Pyle (McLaughlin).
C-124m. Letterboxed.

By Genevieve McGillicuddy

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teaser The Indian Fighter (1955)

The Indian Fighter (1955) was the first film to be produced by KirkDouglas's production company, Bryna, and in many ways, it was a family production; Douglas took on the leading role, named the company after his mother and hired his ex-wife, Diana Douglas, toplay one of his leading ladies. The advertising on the film poster proclaimed that The Indian Fighter possessed: "The vastness of Shane, the violence of Red River, the drama of High Noon, and the MIGHT of Kirk Douglas." And, surprisingly, the hype wasn't far from the truth for The Indian Fighter is a fast paced entertainment that also gives a sympathetic portrayal of the American Indian, showing them to be more than just faceless savages. As an exception to American movies of that era, we see the Indiansas having a strict code of honor and a deep concern for their families.

Beautifully photographed by cinematographer Wilfrid M. Cline, the story follows Johnny Hawks (Douglas), an Army scout, as he guides a wagon train into Oregon. Along the way the train is detained by a group of Sioux Indians who are distrustful of whites after being cheated by them in the past. Hawks signs a treaty with the tribe's chief, Red Cloud (Eduard Franz), and falls in love with Onahti, a beautiful Indian woman (played by Italian model turned actress, Elsa Martinelli). Trouble erupts when two white renegades (played by Lon Chaney, Jr. and Walter Matthau) kill a tribal member, forcing Hawks to take extreme measures to restore peace in the area.

Douglas's wife, Anne, had seen Martinelli in a layout she had created for Vogue magazine, and even though the model had never acted before and was not at all familiar with Indian culture, the Douglases thought she would make a very appealing Indian maiden. But when Douglas phoned the model to offer her the part, she didn't believe that he was who he claimed to be. According to his autobiography, The Ragman's Son, Douglas recalled that Martinelli said, "No, no beeleeva you, no beeleeva you." She had just come back from seeing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and thought somebody was playing a joke on her. I said, 'Really, I am Kirk Douglas, and I want you to come out and test for a part in a movie I'm making.' "No, no. You no Keerka Doogalas." I didn't know what the hell to do. Then she had an idea. "You Keerka Doogalas, you singa da song inna da movie." Over the telephone, I had to audition for Elsa Martinelli, three thousand miles away. I started to sing, 'Gotta whale of a tale to tell you, lads.' Elsa started to shriek. "Dio mio! Keerka Doogalas! Keerka Doogalas!" I arranged for her to come out to California to test. She was gorgeous and had a wonderful gamine quality that was perfect for the part." Martinelli gave what is probably her best American film performance in The Indian Fighter, including the then controversial scene of her bathing nude in a stream. Although she went on to star in other high profile films like Howard Hawks' Hatari (1962) and The V.I.P.s (1963), Martinelli eventually became disenchanted with the Hollywood system, and returned to Europe in the mid-sixties to continue her film career.

In his autobiography, Douglas wrote "I did most of my own riding in Indian Fighter, but occasionally, for long rides, or snatching something up from the ground, I used a stuntman. Bill Williams was an excellent rider [he was later killed doing a stunt for The Hallelujah Trail, 1965], and in silhouette looked a lot like me." Nevertheless, Douglas managed to break his nose in a horse fall during one stunt for the film but his physical injuries were minor in the scheme of things. His real interest in making The Indian Fighter was to raise awareness about the plight of Native Americans. It was a view shared by his director, Andre De Toth, who said in De Toth on De Toth (edited by Anthony Slide), "I wanted to make the audience feel the country, understand the Indians, see their pride, feel their code of ethics, without using speeches to do so. They were not Hollywood Indians, but real ones, with dignity and honor."

Considered a director's director by many of Hollywood's top filmmakers, De Toth is one of thoseartists who toiled for years in and out of the studio system, but never did enoughinternal politicking to establish himself as a major player in the movie industry. His best known film is probably House of Wax (1953), which is a remarkable achievement when you consider that it was shot in the 3-D process by a one-eyed director. Born in Hungary, De Toth directed several films there and elsewhere in Europe before emigrating to the United States in 1940. Before leaving, he witnessed, and filmed, the invasion of Poland by the Nazis. But capturing reality has always been the aim of De Toth and even though he clashed often with Douglas during the making of The Indian Fighter, both men realized they shared a common bond - a need to bring a sense of truth and reality to the screen.

In recalling his working relationship with Douglas in De Toth on De Toth, the director said, "He was, he is, a great pro." He also said that, "Douglas gave me one of the biggest compliments I ever had, trusting me with his money and his mother's name, in spite of which he wasn't veryfond of me, and he still isn't╔but it puzzles me why he treats TheIndian Fighter as if it was never made. Never mentions it. Wise Ben Hecht [the screenwriter of The Indian Fighter] solved that puzzle too, years later, and after the fourth martini in his home in Oceanside, [said] "Hell, the picture wasn't done his way." Yet, De Toth is mistaken about Douglas's view of the film for the actor devotes several pages to it in his autobiography, noting its successes; Walter Matthau's supporting performance, the discovery of Elsa Martinelli, and the successful launch of the Bryna Company, Douglas's production outfit.

Producer: Kirk Douglas, William Schorr
Director: Andre De Toth
Screenplay: Frank Davis, Ben Hecht
Art Direction: Wiard Ihnen
Cinematography: Wilfrid M. Cline
Editing: Richard Cahoon
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Johnny Hawks), Elsa Martinelli (Onahti), Walter Abel (Capt. Trask), Walter Matthau (Wes Todd), Diana Douglas (Susan Rogers), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Chivington), Eduard Franz (Red Cloud), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Briggs), Alan Hale, Jr. (Will Crabtree).
C-89m. Letterboxed.

By Joseph D'Onofrio

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