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Race & Hollywood: Native American Images On Film
Remind Me


Along with Broken Arrow (1950), the story of Cochise, Apache (1954) was the beginning of a new approach to the representation of Native Americans on screen. The sympathetic view of the plight of the oppressed Apache nation and the portrayal of the main character, the warrior Massai, as a complex individual rather than a bloodthirsty savage, was the main factor in attracting Burt Lancaster, a lifelong liberal and social activist, to the project. A major box office star for nearly a decade thanks to his good looks and athletic abilities, Lancaster had already begun his strategy to escape typecasting and find projects that were meaningful and different. Early in his career he formed his own company to find and produce worthwhile projects, and in 1952, he and business partner Harold Hecht purchased Paul Wellman's 1936 novel Bronco Apache with an eye to producing it as a Lancaster vehicle.

Wellman's story told of Massai, derived from a historical figure who waged a last stand against the encroaching U.S. Army and white civilization in the late 1880s. Upon the surrender of Geronimo, Massai is captured after attempting to disrupt the peace negotiations between the Apaches and the U.S. government. Placed on a train transferring him to a Florida reservation, he escapes and makes the arduous trek back to his homeland to be reunited with his squaw, Nalinle, but her father betrays him and he's again captured and sent to Florida. This time his escape is marked by a thirst for vengeance not only against the white people but also against all Indians like Nalinle's father who collaborate with them. Fleeing with his pregnant woman into the hills, Massai prepares for a final showdown with the Army. But at the last moment, he hears the cries of his newborn child and decides to live in peaceful coexistence with his enemies.

To bring the story to the screen, Lancaster and Hecht chose writer James R. Webb and director Robert Aldrich, a Hollywood maverick and outspoken liberal himself, considered by Hecht to be unusually gifted at creating intense psychological drama and one who could make a project look more expensive than it actually cost. Thanks to Lancaster's consistent box office clout, United Artists gave the star the sweetest deal it had made with anyone since Charles Chaplin, taking a smaller distributor cut of the picture and giving Hecht-Lancaster $12 million to produce seven films, five of which would star the actor. The studio balked, however, when it became apparent the production team was going way over budget and was planning to take Massai's story to the most tragic possible end. The original finale was going to have the warrior, walking away from the soldiers to a life of peace with his family, shot in the back. Although that ending might have been truer to the fate of most of the Apache, especially those who were openly rebellious against white authority, UA feared audiences would not appreciate seeing one of their favorite stars die. They put considerable pressure on the production, and the ending was changed, much to Lancaster and Aldrich's everlasting regret.

Whether it can be credited to the "happy" ending or not, Apache proved to be a major hit, the top-grossing Western of the year and a confirmation not only of Lancaster's commercial appeal but his ability as a producer who could match himself to the right vehicle at the right time. The film opened a month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, and its success vindicated Lancaster's assertion that it had been produced "to make a broader statement on the injustice of racism." And nobody seemed to mind that the warrior Apache had blue eyes. Lancaster, Hecht, Aldrich, and Webb immediately re-teamed for another Western, Vera Cruz (1954). This time no one interfered when Lancaster decided to play - with considerable relish - a bad guy who is gunned down in the end by top-billed co-star Gary Cooper.

Director: Robert Aldrich
Producer: Harold Hecht
Screenplay: James R. Webb, based on the novel by Paul Wellman
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Editing: Alan Crosland Jr.
Production Design: Nicolai Remisoff
Original Music: David Raksin
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Massai), Jean Peters (Nalinle), John McIntire (Al Sieber), Charles Bronson (Hondo, as Charles Buchinsky), John Dehner (Weddle), Monte Blue (Geronimo)
C-88m. Closed captioning.

by Rob Nixon



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