It's always a tragedy when a potentially important motion picture is lost and, therefore, can no longer be seen. An even worse tragedy is when an important film DOES survive, and yet is rarely shown. Such is the case of REDSKIN, a superb drama from the late silent era that currently exists in the film archives of the Library of Congress.
The title of the film is not meant to be degrading to American Indian. It refers to the film's hero, Wing Foot (Richard Dix), who is a Navaho educated at the school of white man. In the course of the story he experiences prejudice from both the whites (because of his race) and the Navahos (who disown him because of his upbringing. Thus, Wing Foot is looked upon as neither Indian nor white, but simply a "redskin."
I've only seen this film twice: The first more than ten years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the second in 1999 at UCLA. Other than these extremely rare screenings, REDSKIN seems to have been giving very little exposure to contemporary audiences. To my knowledge, it has never been shown on television, even in this age of cable and satellite channels. Nor has it been made available on videocassette, laser disc, or DVD.
What a tragedy! REDSKIN is an excellent film in many ways - from its production values, to its well-written story, to the effective performance by Richard Dix, the film's talented and now woefully neglected star.
What impressed me when I saw it the first time - an impression reinforced by the second time - was that here was a film that dealt sympathetically with the American Indians in an era of filmmaking that far too many people THINK was one where Indians were shown as murderous savages.
Not only does REDSKIN avoid this stereotype, but it also sidesteps the more contemporary, "politically correct" stereotype offered in LITTLE BIG MAN and DANCES WITH WOLVES. In those films the Indians are generally depicted as being mainly peaceful and morally right, while the whites (save the main protagonist) are seen as the bloodthirsty savages - greedy bigots with little or no redeeming values. Instead of showing the red man as evil and the white man good - or vice versa - REDSKIN presents good and bad in both. The government agent who beats Wing Foot in the beginning of the picture eventually emerges as a decent man - some one who made a mistake and later regretted it. At the end he redeems himself by aiding Wing Foot in his attempt to register his oil claim.
Want more? REDSKIN presents not only the conflict between whites and Indians, but also BETWEEN the Indian races (Navajos and Pueblos are shown to dislike each other). How many other films do this?
If all this isn't enough, REDSKIN is important for its use of Technicolor photography. Roughly two-thirds of this film used color. Although at the time Technicolor had only a two-strip process which could not register the blue spectrum (skies appear white), the red spectrum was fully present, and quite breathtaking in capturing the ruddy hues of the Arizona locations. Color was used for the scenes taking place on the Indians' land, while black and white was used only in the scenes in the white man's world.
REDSKIN has been praised by the late William K. Everson in his book THE HOLLYWOOD WESTERN, while in THE WAR, THE WEST, AND THE WILDERNESS, author Kevin Brownlow states that it is a film "long overdue for rediscovery."
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