Made for TV in 1989, one would think Lonesome Dove would have had no problem portraying the villainous Blue Duck with a Native actor. Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves was released the following years and cast all of the Native leads with American Indians, but the TV producers of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel chose to cast Frederick Forrest in the role and change him from a full blooded Comanche to a half breed in what had to be one of the most chickenhearted casting moves in the history of modern television. And while yes, the real life Blue Duck was of mixed heritage, McMurtry’s character was not. Take a look a the picture. Nothing more need be said.
Few directors killed off more Native Americans in his films than John Ford. Near the end of his career in 1964, Ford made what many have called an apology to the American Indian, an attempt to right 50 years of prejudicial film making. The truth is, Ford’s film were not so much racially stereotyped toward Indians, as that they simply told the story from the settlers/cavalry point of view. The Indians in his classic films such as The Searchers and Fort Apache were always brave, ferocious warriors, a worthy adversary to John Wayne and Henry Fonda.
In Cheyenne Autumn, Ford told the story from the other side. It was well intentioned, but unfortunately suffered from spotty storytelling. The films is great in parts, those dealing with white characters studies such as Karl Malden as the psychotic fort commander and Jimmy Stewart with a nice turn as Wyatt Earp. But what really killed the film was bad casting. In the first major motion picture to give a sympathetic portrayal of the First Americans, Ford loaded up the leads with Hispanics and Italians. Take a look at the trailer and prepare to be appalled. The worst maybe Sal Mineo, a fine actor, but every time you see him, you wonder when James Dean and Natalie Wood are going to show up. Look for Richardo “Khan” Montalban as well. The movie bombed at the box office.
Though I found the movie above average years ago and am a huge fan of Ford, I find the scenes with the Native characters exceptionally difficult to watch these days. The film was gorgeously made, with wonderful Western vistas. It’s just too bad they couldn’t have filled it with the people who lived there. On the plus side, Cheyenne Autumn laid the groundwork for later films like Little Big Man and a host of others that did it better.
Elvis Presley played Native Americans twice. The first effort was actually a serviceable film, Flaming Star 1960 directed by Don Siegel who would go on to direct some of Clint Eastwood’s best movies. The film’s heart was in the right place, but Elvis as an American Indian? Really? C’mon. Katy Jurado plays his Native mother.
And if you thought that was bad, take a look at this. Stay Away Joe 1968 Elvis looks like he’s been dipped in cocoa. And yes, that is Burgess Meredith done up in dark face as well.
Welcome to the first in a series of blogs about Hollywood’s ongoing desecration of Native Americans in which we review the portrayal of American Indians in film and television. We invoke the name of Tonto as the iconic B Western character was actually portrayed by the seminal Native actor Jay Silverheels who became a mentor and teacher for many young Native actors. Our first entry is a classic from 1969 with an all star cast – of white people, of course.
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here 1969 Robert Blake, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross
Based on a true story! Aren’t they all? Anyway, this gloomy tale of 1909 Arizona is actually very well made. The story centers around a Paiute Indian named Willie Boy who murders his girlfriend’s father and runs off with her to the mountains, inspiring a manhunt led by the square jawed man of few words, Robert Redford doing his best Gary Cooper impression. Well written and directed with a haunting soundtrack. The only thing wrong is the casting and boy did they ever get it wrong. Certainly Robert Blake had the credentials as a certified whack job to play the part of the angst ridden Willie, but his Little Rascals/Bronx accent kinda sounds out of place, you know what I mean? But worst of all is Katherine Ross, that great All-American 1960s beauty, the object of Dustin Hoffman’s lust in The Graduate, cast as his Indian girlfriend. Her acting comes off as wooden and she looks like she was dipped in a lovely batch of cocoa. In fact, her makeup job is about one step away from an Amos and Andy black face job. Makes you shiver to look at it, it’s so horrendous. Classic Native American actor Ned Romero does appear in a supporting role. Directed by Abraham Polonsky who had been a victim of the Hollywood blacklist. Polosnky used his experience as an outsider to give Willie some actual depth of character. This was one of the first entries in the New Wave Westerns of the late sixties that attempted a more realistic, gritty approach to what had become the tired medium of America’s beloved Western mythology. It’s a museum piece, a must watch for hardcore fans of late sixties Westerns. And a great soundtrack by Jazz artist Dave Grusin that really stays with you for a long time. And, of course, it’s a magnificent entry in Tonto’s Hall Of Fame. IMDB Link