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Johnny Hawks, a former Indian fighter, returns to the West after the Civil War. He reacquaints himself with the Indian band led by Red Cloud. Red Cloud's beautiful daughter has now grown into womanhood... Unscrupulous whisky traders are after the gold on Indian land. Hawks averts serious bloodshed by convincing Red Cloud to make a treaty... Hawks leads an Oregon-bound wagon train through Indian territory. When he slips away to see the chief's daughter, trouble between braves and whisky traders flares up anew, putting the wagon train and the nearby fort in peril...Written by
Kirk Douglas did most of his own horse riding and, at one point, broke his nose attempting a stunt that called for him to make his horse fall. Instead of leaning back in the saddle when yanking the horse's head around to the side, Douglas leaned forward and took the full force of the horse's heavy head right in the face. See more »
In the beginning of the film, after Red Cloud shows to Johnny Hawks two men hung by the feet, Hawks stands talking to Red Cloud and Grey Wolf. Then his hands appears either grabbing the holster or by his sides, alternately, when it cuts from one shot to another. See more »
There can be no friendship between Red Man and White. The fight is to the end. Ride back to your people. There is no room for you here.
You've grown a big mouth since I saw you last, Grey Wolf, but I didn't come here to talk to a big mouth. I've come to talk to a big man.
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The "Indian Fighter" of the title is Johnny Hawks, a man who made his name fighting Indians. The film, however, does not deal with this part of Hawks's career. The Hawks we see here is more of an Indian Peacemaker, a man determined to prevent war from breaking out between the Indians and the white man. He is tasked with leading a wagon train to Oregon, and this promises to be a difficult task, as the wagons must pass through Sioux territory at a time of tension between the Sioux and the whites.
Gold has been discovered on Sioux land, but its whereabouts is currently known only to Indians themselves. Worried about the prospect of an influx of white American gold prospectors, the Sioux leader Red Cloud has decreed death to any of his people who dare reveal the secret of the gold to the whites. Hawks's task is made more difficult by the facts that his party includes two unscrupulous gold-hungry individuals, Chivington and Todd, and that some of the Indians, particularly the whiskey-crazed Crazy Bear, are prepared to defy their leader's edict, even at the risk of their lives. A complicating factor is Hawks's love for Red Cloud's beautiful daughter Onahti.
Hollywood's traditional view of the American Indians were that they were primitive, bloodthirsty savages and that the opening up of the North American continent to settlement by the white man was simply part of the march of progress and of the triumph of civilisation over barbarism. Films were still being made from this viewpoint in the 1950s- the Gregory Peck vehicle "Only the Valiant" is a good (or bad) example- but occasionally Hollywood did acknowledge, in Westerns such as "Broken Arrow" or "Apache", that there was another side to the story. "The Indian Fighter", which was produced by its star, the politically liberal Kirk Douglas, is another example.
When Hawks points out that the Indians could exchange the gold for things that they value, such as horses and blankets, Red Cloud retorts that to do so would mean losing things that they value even more highly, such as the right to live undisturbed on their ancestral land. Although there are bad Indians, such as Crazy Bear, the general message of the film is that westward spread of white settlement may have represented Manifest Destiny and the advance of civilisation to the white man himself, but to the red man it represented an unwelcome intrusion into his world and the loss of all that he held sacred. The use of the name "Chivington" for one of the villainous whites is significant; the Chivington of this film is a fictional character, but his name is borrowed from the real-life John Milton Chivington, a US Army officer infamous for his obsessive hatred and brutal treatment of Native Americans.
As in "Broken Arrow", the main Indian characters are played by white actors. In the case of Onahti, played by the Italian Elsa Martinelli, this may have been to keep the censors happy; the Production Code officially banned the depiction of what it called "miscegenation", but there seemed to be an unofficial rule that relationships between white men and Asian or Native American women were tolerated if the woman was played by a white actress. ("Broken Arrow" also features a romance between a white man and an Indian maiden, played in that case by Debra Paget). In the case of the male characters, however, I could not understand why Native American actors could not be found, especially as the white actors who play these parts were not (unlike Jeff Chandler in "Broken Arrow") major box-office names.
I would not rank this film as highly as "Broken Arrow", which is one of the seminal Westerns of the fifties. Douglas made a good number of Westerns, but apart from the modern-day "Lonely are the Brave" and possibly "Gunfight at the OK Corral" I would not regard any of the ones I have seen as falling among his really great films like "Champion", "Lust for Life" and "Spartacus". There is nothing wrong with his performance here, but he never really catches fire as he could do when he was at his best. The action scenes are well-handled, but the plot is not the most exciting and the Onahti sub-plot is a bit of a distraction. This is perhaps a middle-ranking Douglas Western, rather better than, say, "The Big Trees", but not as good as "Along the Great Divide", and certainly not as good as "Lonely are the Brave" or "Gunfight at the OK Corral". 6/10
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