I Saw A Film!
Back when Charles Bronson, a son of Lithuanian working class folks, could wear buckskins and pass for a Native American (half-breed!), and in his early fifties look as lean and powerful as an olympic wrestler, he had already been a major European action hero. This film wastes no time with a bigot’s set up, the sort of racism that hasn’t yet dissipated in much of rural America, buying the authority figure, a sheriff no less, a bullet from our deadly protagonist.
Soon a posse forms to hunt down the shooter, headed up by the ever charismatic Jack Palance, usually a serious heavy in films, winds up a more a balanced character as he sports his former captain’s bars in his old Confederate uniform. He’s joined by some great faces, among them the dad from The Waltons (Ralph Waite), Simon Oakland, who would often be yelling at Jim Rockford on that old show, and Richard Jordan, who would– in a decade– be Duncan Idaho in Dune, and the blue clad antagonist in the post-apocalyptic roller-skate fantasy Solarbabies. Here Jordan portrays a younger hot-headed psychopath, but, psychopath is a sliding scale when talking about the human condition before our last century. There’s also James Whitmore who once played Admiral Halsey in Tora!x3, as a much more level-headed addition to the posse, who immediately points out that the dead sheriff was a bigoted redneck with a badge. Still the posse wants its hanging, and expects to catch up with Chato, pretty fast.
Like so many underestimated scenarios (the Civil War, WWI and WWII come to mind — people presumed they would take only a few months at most) Chato leads our posse of bickering and difficult personalities on a desperate ride. He’s meant to be a type of Apache, a southwest expert, knowing well the desert and its dangers.
Why does Palance’s Captain character need to spend an hour squeezing himself into his old Civil War uniform? He spends a bit of time talking about being overwhelmed. Losing the war because there were just more of them. One feels like he’s a more serious version of Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Riko living endlessly in a past lost opportunity of football greatness. The Captain here, while saddled up in his grays and seeming perfectly natural to an audience of viewers a century later, well, maybe it was normal for a person to be entirely consumed by one moment of a lifetime. We do like our military salutes for old veterans funerals when that bit of service may have encapsulated only a few months of a long and rich life, and would probably embarrass the deceased with its unwarranted pomp. Nothing wrong with it, but those same hilarious boys who rolled around Italy lampooning the Victorian powers that waged the war (see: Thunderbolt (1947)), would in their old age (if they survived) often suddenly become entirely sober about what it was they were doing and stand at aged attention with a salute for the flag.
I digress, of course, as that’s mainly what these reviews are about, what films make us think and feel. It isn’t long before our Chato is revealed to not be running from the posse, but instead, shadowing it, and disrupting its chances at surviving. The chess game begins. First he knifes their water bags forcing them into a mission of finding the nearest water. The posse employs a local Mexican (Chato respects this knowing its their only chance) who Richard Jordan mistreats, indulging further racism. Before long, however, the posse manages to locate family important to our protagonist. Inevitable horrors occur. This is how the US forces brought Geronimo out of the mountains as well. You can bet we would not be proud of how that was accomplished.
Now that Chato has been riled, he seeks his revenge (a dish best served only for entertainment purposes). He shoots horses, a big Western movie no-no, hobbling the ability for the posse to move, and lures them into plenty of situations in which he has the high ground and his pursuers have little option but to be targets.
There isn’t much more to this film. We are gratified to have the half-breed win out over the worst of human anti-social behaviors. It is unfortunate that so much killing and tossing around of rattlesnakes is necessary, but the fantasy element of this sort of film is basically the fact that this so seldom occurs. Hateful bullies rarely get their comeuppance and so being treated to it with a hero like Bronson feels righteous, even if extra bloodthirsty.
You can see this film free on Hulu (USA) and is at least a respectful Native American portrayal. I don’t know how many actual Native American actors were available for these roles back in the day, but you can be sure if access to a money-making star like CB was available that’s what would get made. In Little Big Man the lead is Hoffman, and in Dances With Wolves it’s Costner. Cher sang Half-breed and the crying Indian was used to make us feel shitty about pollution. Our fascination with Native Americans needs to be revived and informed. We weren’t there just because hippies wore headbands.