Judge Paul Corupe really prefers his oaters without a side of hateful prejudice.
"Anything Toriano's for, I'm against!"—Ed Bannon (Charlton Heston)
Based on the exploits of Union scout Al Sieber, Arrowhead is a bit of cold war nastiness that serves up a subjective version of the Old West with a side order of racist polemic. As Sieber stand-in Ed Bannon, Charlton Heston proves to be the bigoted voice of reason that saves the peace-loving American Cavalry from being duped into total obliteration by a sadistic Indian played by Jack Palance. Sourced from a novel by W.R. Burnett, the hardboiled pulp writer behind classics such as The Asphalt Jungle and High Sierra, Arrowhead is just as its title suggests: a pointed attack aimed at a very specific target.
Facts of the Case
On the eve of the Apache's peaceful relocation to Florida, Chief Cavalry Scout Ed Bannon (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes) guns down a pair of Indian messengers before revealing their hidden war paint to the rest of his disbelieving unit. Although officially fired for jeopardizing Apache-Cavalry relations, Bannon hangs around Fort Clark to drink the Colonel's whiskey and warn the Cavalry leaders about Toriano (Jack Palance, Shane), the Apache chief's son who has returned to his people from the East. Having spent his childhood on a reserve, Bannon sees Apache treachery and spies everywhere, from the Cavalry's sole Indian Jim Eagle (Pat Hogan, Pony Express) to Spanish (Peter Coe, Sands of Iwo Jima) and Nita (Katy Jurado, High Noon), the half-breed Apache-Mexicans who perform menial tasks for the soldiers. As it turns out, Bannon's suspicions are correct: Toriano plans to renege on the Apache's impending surrender, ambush the Cavalry, and lead the Indians in a violent war on the white man.
"I don't hate 'em," explains Ed Bannon, "I just know 'em." Well, if any film can be accused of "knowing" Indians, it's Arrowhead, a film that manages to be consistently offensive from the opening massacre to the end credits. Taking extreme care to "qualify" Bannon's rampant paranoia and xenophobic mistrust by frequently referring to his time spent living on an Apache reserve, Arrowhead is less a narrative film than it is a reactionary condemnation of unfamiliar, savage cultures.
Like the alien invasion sci-fi films that started landing on screens in the early 1950s, Arrowhead is primarily concerned with the threat of outsiders on the American way of life. However, apparently missing the contradiction that the Cavalry are actually the invaders who have overrun the Indians, Arrowhead offers a backwards twist on the familiar formula: instead of a selfless teenager or progressive scientist trying to stop the military from heedlessly annihilating the Martian messengers of brotherly love, Ed Bannon is the lone voice of antagonistic reason in an army filled with lily-livered bleeding hearts. It's surely more than just a coincidence that Bannon's vigilant attempts to convince his superiors of the secret agenda of the "peaceful" interlopers bears a strong resemblance Senator Joe McCarthy's unfounded and self-serving communist witch hunt that had been making headlines since 1950.
Predictably, the pursuit for peace is quickly exposed as a foreign ruse and Bannon is vindicated when Toriano lives up to the very heights of cruelty. Within days of his return, Toriano shoots down his blood brother and teaches his tribe a "Ghost Dance" to help them massacre the white man. On discovering the Apache's planned betrayal, the Cavalry agrees to dispense with their treaty and follow Bannon's plan of attack. Although clearly meant to be a sympathetic hero, Bannon shows few qualities that even a diehard McCarthy sympathizer would admire, and the film unwittingly paints a repellent picture of his brand of visionary leadership. In the end though, the ultimate irony of the film is that Ed Bannon is really not that different from the bloodthirsty Toriano. Both have spent some time in each others shoes—Bannon on the reserve and Toriano at an Eastern university—and both are consumed by an unreasonable hatred and suspicion that has perverted them into equally cold-blooded killers.
When all is said and done though, Arrowhead is at least well put together by Charles Marquis Warren, the creator of seminal Western TV shows Rawhide and Gunsmoke. Shot in Texas, where Al Sieber himself rode, Warren fills this Technicolor western with realistic locations and a few exciting action set pieces. There's little depth in the shots, a technique that tends to emphasize Heston's intense, if slightly overstated, performance. Lean, tan, and sporting a long crop of black hair, Palance is virtually unrecognizable as Toriano and puts in a decidedly strong showing as the Indian brave, easily rising above the unlikable script.
Paramount's barebones library releases tend to be a mixed bag when it comes to quality, but Arrowhead falls on the right side of the law. Presented in its full-screen theatrical ratio, the film's strong Technicolor hues come through beautifully. Although occasionally subject to grain, especially in day-for-night sequences, the print is rarely blemished by dirt, scratches, or artifacts. The mono soundtrack is also much better than expected, relatively free of hiss and reasonably dynamic considering the age of the film.
Of course, it's easy to look back and dismiss the film's undertones as the product of a "simpler" time, but even for the 1950s, this is needlessly provocative; an intrinsically unlikable film in which hard-nosed politics trump both historical accuracy and the possibilities of the story. To put it simply, Arrowhead has a mean streak a mile long and an inch deep, and despite the fact that this film is nicely crafted and strikingly rendered on this DVD, it's simply not possible to overlook the bitter taste that Arrowhead leaves in your.
Ed Bannon and Toriano are sentenced to hard labor as a pair of goofy cops in a mismatched buddy comedy, where they can learn something about each other, and God willing, themselves.
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