Bombast: The Tribe
Taza, Son of Cochise
Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise (54) is one of those Production Code Hollywood movies that’s a lot more interesting if you just ignore the last couple of minutes, which attempt to settle all of the insoluble uncertainties stirred up throughout its runtime. The film, a Western, was Sirk’s second collaboration with Rock Hudson, who plays the title role, the eldest son of the Chihuicahui Apache chief, and I was able to see it recently as part of Anthology Film Archives’ ongoing “This Is Celluloid” series. (The print will screen once more, on the evening of June 8.)
Taza (Hudson) takes responsibility for the continuation of his father’s peacemaking policy towards the white settlers after the old man’s death, while his brother, Naiche (Rex Reason), goes into open revolt, resulting in the Apache being corralled onto the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, with Taza’s consent. While Taza attempts to carve out a measure of self-regulation for his people within the boundaries that the white man has laid out, befriending the sympathetic cavalry officer Captain Burnett (Gregg Palmer) and organizing an Apache police force so that they may mete out law-and-order on their own terms, Naiche and the venerable Geronimo (Ian MacDonald) stir up open rebellion. The film ends with pigheaded Brigadier General George Crook (Robert Burton) leading the cavalry into an ambush led by Naiche, only to be saved in the eleventh hour by Taza, who has decided to go to war with the whites against his own people. This final reconfirmation of fraternity between Taza and Burnett, a case in which cooler heads prevail for the good of the many, coexists rather uncomfortably with an earlier scene in which the cavalry ride into the Chihuicahui camp to investigate the killing of three “White-Eyes” settlers, only to find the perpetrators already duly being punished by Taza. The cavalry nevertheless decide to take the perpetrators into custody, and manage to blunderingly kill one of them in doing so. After this brazen act, Sirk pans across the faces of Apache witnesses—real Native American faces, limited (as was often the case) to moments like this rather than speaking roles, but bearing a crushing judgment in their mute witness.
Hudson, one supposes by virtue of his tanned and broad shouldered physique, had been asked to play Native American before, as “Young Bull” (tribe unidentified) in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (50), and he would also occasionally don the bronzer for Arab subjects. By the time of Taza, however, Hudson was on the verge of a career breakthrough which would solidify the meaning of a “Rock Hudson part”—six months later, he and Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession would be released. Today we bridle at this sort of casting-against-racial-type—see for instance the brouhaha surrounding Cameron Crowe’s casting of Emma Stone as an “Allison Ng” in Aloha—and not without reason, for in theory it takes a role away from an ethnically appropriate actor. In practice, however, when casting whites in non-white parts has been off-limits, Hollywood has just gone and made more white-people roles, and now gives a wide berth to exoticism of all stripes, save for occasional Caucasian-studded Orientalist offerings like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Exodus: Gods and Kings.
The Western is a genre that, more than any other, has been connected to white chauvinism, but it’s also the only genre that, during its heyday, consistently gave the impression of the United States being what it actually was and is—an ethnically diverse polyglot experiment in democracy in which misunderstandings and outrages abounded and violence was frequently the first resort. The absence of Native American actors in primary roles was a constant, while the portrayal of Natives varied depending on the material and talent involved, though I suspect it was nevertheless true that the average American moviegoer living in the Golden Age of horse operas had a better general grasp of the diverse tribes and their customs—even as received in a Hollywood bowdlerized fashion—than the contemporary multiplex customer, who may, however, be able to tell you a great deal about Hobbits, HYDRA, and the rites of the Na’vi.
The Apache were particularly popular subjects, and one supposes this is because they continued to actively fight against the U.S. government’s imposition of the reservation system after many another Native people had surrendered, throughout the 1870s and 80s, the prime years of the Western. One encounters in Taza a host of real-life places and characters which recur throughout the Apache Westerns. The names “Fort Apache” and “San Carlos Reservation” crop up time and again, while the terrain covered includes the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, and the mountains of the Mexican state of Sonora, into which the raiding parties disappear. Taza is based on a real historical figure, as is Naiche —the former died of pneumonia in 1876 during a visit to Washington, D.C., only two years after assuming chiefdom of the Chihuicahuis from his father; the latter carried on fighting alongside the indomitable Bedonkohe leader Geronimo, and was with him when he was imprisoned at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. Cochise, the Chihuicahui chief who carried on war against the encroaching forces of both Mexico and the United States until 1872, appears on his deathbed at the beginning of Taza, played by Jeff Chandler, the same actor who had played the chief in Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow (50)—which I suppose makes Taza a sort-of sequel. Rounding out the repertory cast is Gen. George Crook—portrayed as a bit of a blundering fool in Taza—who had fought against the Pit River tribes, “Snake Indians,” Yavapai and Tonto Apache, Sioux, and Lakota, with a pause to help put down the Confederacy somewhere in there, before taking up command in Arizona in 1882.
In discussing the Apache in the Western movie, reasons of brevity suggest that I should limit myself to the modern (that is, synch-sound) version of the genre, and as it happens the history of the Apache in Westerns coincides with the genre’s second and definitive breakthrough moment in the sound era, after The Virginian (29). The film, of course, is John Ford’s Stagecoach (39), which rides along on the perilous eastward journey of a stage from Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico, as Apache “stirred up by Geronimo” are on the warpath and at large. While used as an instance of the prototypical classical Western, if updated to fit with the style of the period and released 35 years later with plotting and characters intact, Stagecoach might very well have fit in with the then-current cycle of “revisionist” Westerns, revealing as it does the hidden nobility of the social misfits crammed together in the coach—a jailbird, a drunk, a “tinhorn gambler,” and a prostitute—while reserving its bile for the most outwardly respectable member of the crew, Berton Churchill’s blowhard banker, given to making pronouncements like “what this country needs is a businessman for president.” It is less concerned with giving an even-handed portrayal of the Apache who, in what will become a common pattern, are rather less seen than spoken about in hushed tones. This seems to me not “problematic” but dramatic necessity—cutting away from the interior of the coach for an ethnographic documentary about the disappearing ways of the native peoples would make for a balanced film, but not a very effective one.
The jailbird I mentioned is the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne in the role that made him a star of the first order, at the beginning of an over 20-year collaboration with Ford. Wayne didn’t appear in his next Western for Ford for nearly another decade, by which time the Kid’s still-youthful good looks and spry physicality had begun to give way to the mesa-like heft for which Wayne would be remembered. The film was Fort Apache (48), the inaugural movie in Ford/Wayne’s so-called “cavalry trilogy,” in which Wayne plays Captain Kirby York, a seasoned Civil War veteran who, despite extensive experience with the local Native peoples in Arizona, is passed over for promotion to command the garrison at Fort Apache. The post instead goes instead to martinet Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), by virtue of his West Point pedigree, who quickly sets about undoing all of the goodwill that York has built with the Apache, and his insolence sets off an ultimately suicidal war with Cochise (Miguel Inclan). Wayne would return as York (or a slight variation thereof—the character’s name is spelled “Yorke”) in the ultimate “cavalry” film, Rio Grande (50), also based on a James Warner Bellah story, this time leading a pursuing party into Mexico after a mixed band of Chihuicahui, Mescalaro, and White Mountain Apaches raiding from across the border. The same action is carried to a perverse extreme in Sam Peckinpah’s dive into French-controlled Mexico on the tail of the Apache, Major Dundee (65), a film which makes similar observations about the psychology (pathology, if you prefer) behind the Indian Wars, seen as a means to reconcile the divided North and South against a common enemy. (In Major Dundee it’s Charlton Heston’s title character and Richard Harris’s ex-Confederate Captain Tyreen; in Rio Grande it’s Wayne’s Yorke, who burnt the Shenandoah Valley with Sheridan, and his long-estranged reb wife—the cavalry band plays “Dixie” as the credits roll.)
Five years after Fort Apache, Wayne again played a staunch ally to the Native peoples in Hondo, the fourth film for Wayne’s Batjac productions—directed for the most part by John Farrow, though when Farrow was scheduled to be elsewhere, Ford stepped in to film the climactic shoot-out, in which a bedraggled cavalry troupe and some fleeing settlers circle the Conestogas against a superior force of Apache braves. (It was released in 3D—as, indeed, Taza had been intended to be, hence the requisite “Comin’ atcha!” effects in both.) Again there’s a green West Pointer (Tom Irish) leading the cavalry charge against the Apaches, up in arms in the first place because the whites violated a treaty. Hondo, who now rides dispatch for Gen. Crook, lived among the Apache for five years, had an Apache wife, even claims to be part Indian himself, and speaks eloquently for the merits of their culture. (He also travels with a dog, Sam, who’s been taught to sniff out and despise Indians—the technique for training described is not dissimilar to the one described in Sam Fuller’s 1982 adaptation of Romain Gary’s White Dog.) When the settler woman whom Hondo takes to looking after, Angie (Geraldine Page), asks him about the meaning of his wife’s name, Wayne recites a monologue which appears more-or-less intact in the novel of the same name, written by Louis L’Amour as a tie-in to the film, though his story “The Gift of Cochise” had originally inspired it:
“You can’t say it except in Mescalero. It means Morning, but that isn’t what it means, either. Indian words are more than just that. They also mean the feel and the sound of the name. It means like Crack of Dawn, the first bronze light that makes the buttes stand out against the gray desert… It means like you get up in the first light and you and her go out of the wickiup, where it smells smoky and private and just you and her, and kind of safe with just the two of you there, and you stand outside and smell the first bite of the wind coming down from the high divide and promising the first snowfall. Well, you just can’t say what it means in English. Anyway, that was her name. Destarte.”
Later, after he has helped to decisively rout the Apache, Hondo delivers a somewhat more terse eulogy: “End of a way of life. S’too bad, it’s a good way.”
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see the word “wickiup”—the Apache term for what’s more commonly called a wigwam—without hearing it in the cracked cadence of Jimmy Stewart, as delivered in Delmer Daves’ gorgeous Broken Arrow, perhaps the prototypical white ally narrative, which preceded both Hondo and Taza. In it, Stewart plays Tom Jeffords—again, a verifiably real historical figure, the man who’d been instrumental in brokering a peace treaty with Cochise and the Chihuicahui Apaches. Cochise is played by Chandler, a Brooklyn Jew, while Geronimo is played by Jay Silverheels, probably the most prominent Native actor of his generation, thanks in no small part to his role as Tonto in the Lone Ranger television series. As in Taza, which pits the title character against the belligerents Naiche and Geronimo, here the conflict is between the reasonable Cochise and the warlike Geronimo, favoring in both cases the middle road. (If either film had been made 15 years later, we might detect a transparent metaphor for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and there is certainly a sense that both are interpreting and even predicting central issues of the Civil Rights movement in Western drag.) Both films are conciliatory rather than revolutionary, which does not make them necessarily worse than the film which proposes revolutionary action—if that were the case, Fight Club would be a greater movie than Metropolis—unless your criteria for judging an aesthetic experience depends upon its offering an ideology that corresponds to your own.
The apotheosis of the white ally in the mold of Capt. York or Hondo or Jeffords—and a thornier conception of the idea of racial reconciliation—appears in Martin Ritt’s Hombre (67), newly available to Blu-ray via Twilight Time. Adapted from a 1961 source novel by Elmore Leonard which freely rearranges the plot elements of Stagecoach, Hombre stars Paul Newman as John Russell, a white who has lived most of his life among the Apache—firstly because of happenstance, secondly because of choice—and has adopted their habit of approaching the world from a position of contemplative taciturnity. Coming down among the blessings of civilization long enough to settle the affairs of his former guardian, Russell winds up on a stagecoach whose passengers include one Dr. Alex Favor (Frederic March), the former agent of the San Carlos Reservation, who’s high-tailing it to Vera Cruz with a saddlebag full of greenbacks earned by starving the Native population with cut-rate beef. “You’ll learn something about white people… we stick together,” one of Russell’s traveling companions warns him, chafed by his high-handedness, to which he gives a rejoinder that’s one of the finer line readings of Newman’s career: “They better.”
Even as the abovementioned movies speak—quite movingly, in some instances—of the plight of the Apache, their central characters, though their allegiance may be complicated by mixed blood (Hondo), intermarriage (Broken Arrow), or upbringing (Hombre), are identifiably Caucasian. This is also generally the case when the characters are meant to be of Native blood, as in Taza, or the following year’s Apache (54), directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Burt “Boit” Lancaster as Massai, an unreconciled Chihuicahui Apache who had managed to escape the train transporting Geronimo and other Apache undesirables to Florida, the exact circumstances of his death lost in the fog of legend. Both Apache and its close relation, the Aldrich/Lancaster reunion Ulzana’s Raid (72), are a means to unearth historical brutality as well as for filmmaker and star “to express their alone-against-all worldview”—a matter I’ve written at some length elsewhere.
In earlier films, we hear a great deal of the legendary cruelty of the warring Apache, but we actually witness something of it in post-Production Code seal Westerns like Ulzana’s Raid and Chato’s Land (72). A confrontation that occurs early on in Hombre—a couple of redneck cowpokes trying to run unwelcome Natives out of a “white bar”—is the starting off point of Chato’s Land, directed by an out-of-control zoom lens Michael Winner. In this case the unwanted client is Chato, a half-Apache played by Charles Bronson, who takes exception when a lawman refers to him as a “redskin nigger” and puts a hole clean through the offending peckerwood. Back when Bronson was still Charles Buchinsky, a raw Lithuanian-American out of the Alleghenies, he’d appeared as the Indian scout Hondo in Apache (Aldrich’s original ending for the film had him shooting Massai in the back) and he’d played Sioux chief Blue Buffalo in Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (57); for whatever reason Hollywood has always tended to regard Eastern Europeans as especially ethnically flexible. Despite the fact of Chato being the purported hero of the film, we spend most of our time with a pursuing posse of unprincipled white rabble led by Captain Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance), a veteran of Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood’s Texas Brigade who also logged time “with Tom Jeffords, chasin’ Cochise.” Between occasional glimpses of Chato going about his inscrutable Apache business, we’re treated to Whitmore and his men griping and pondering “God knows what God was thinkin’ when he made the Apache” while their ranks are gradually winnowed.
Chato’s Land was the first of six collaborations between Bronson and Winner, their most famous being Death Wish (74), and it’s considered one of Winner’s best films, which is a little like having to choose your favorite rash. Bronson’s loyalty to the likes of Winner and J. Lee Thompson meant that his screen career was ultimately less interesting than it might have been, for he is best remembered from his one-off work with other directors, including Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen, 67), Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, 69), Richard Fleischer (Mr. Majestyck, 74), and Walter Hill (Hard Times, 75).
Hill would go on to make the last Apache Western of note, Geronimo: An American Legend, in 1993, during a brief vogue for Native American subjects which followed the box-office success of Dances with Wolves (90) and Last of the Mohicans (92) (In fact Hill’s film was one of two dueling Geronimo films made that year—I have not seen the other, a TV movie starring Joseph Runningfox and Adan Sanchez.) Hill’s Geronimo gives more of the Apache perspective than a great many of the movies which preceded it, and stars a full-blooded Native American actor, Wes Studi, as Geronimo, although it does filter the story at least partially through the perspective of an outsider—that green West Pointer, once again, this time 2nd Lieutenant Britton Davis (Matt Damon). The film begins with Davis and 1st Lieutenant Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) convincing Geronimo to give up the ways of war and settle into the farmer’s life—this is a piece of artistic license, perhaps loosely based on an 1877 incident in which John Clum, Indian Agent on the San Carlos Reservation, briefly brought in Geronimo, here to serve as a means to establish an early intimacy between Gatewood and Geronimo.
Geronimo: An American Legend
The screenplay by Hill and Larry Gross (from an uncredited first draft by John Milius) shows as much fidelity to historical record as can be expected within the limits of good dramaturgy. Gatewood is based on a real figure, as is Chief of Scouts Al Sieber, played in Apache by John McIntire, here by Robert Duvall, and of course our old friend Brig. Gen. Crook, seen in a much more benevolent light as portrayed by Gene Hackman at his most bluff and paternalistic, by turns affable and bearish. Beginning with the killing of a medicine man and the mutiny of Apache scouts at the 1881 Battle of Cibecue Creek, Hill’s film roughly follows the known timeline of Geronimo’s War, through Crook’s replacement by General Nelson A. Miles and Geronimo’s final surrender in September of 1886, followed by his transportation to Florida, along with the loyal Apache scouts who’d fought with the cavalry, an action which Crook complained bitterly about, to no avail.
The Apache in Geronimo are seen to speak among themselves in their own language, and Studi, a Cherokee who’d appeared in both Dances with Wolves and Mohicans, gives his own eulogy, rather more poignant than Hondo’s. (More recently Studi’s high-profile appearances have been limited to the likes of Avatar and A Million Ways to Die in the West.) For the most part, however, Westerns tell us about the Apache rather than allowing us to observe them, and certain patterns emerge in what’s said. The Apache are brave, and respect bravery in others: Angie’s son in Hondo and a loudmouthed prospector in Geronimo are both spared for daring to stand up to the braves, while Jeffords and Gatewood win the respect of Cochise and Geronimo, respectively, by coming among the Apache alone and unarmed. They are stealthy, to a degree that verges on the supernatural: “You don’t see ‘em and you don’t hear ‘em; it’s like an act of God” goes a line in Chato’s Land, while one of the Stagecoach passengers has it “You don’t see any sign of them, they strike like rattlesnakes.” They are honest, and so enraged by white dissimulation: per Hondo, “there’s no word in the Apache language for lies,” while Palance’s Quincey muses “Apache don’t give his word easy, when given, I’ve never known him to break it.” Finally, once insulted, they are excessively brutal with their foes: The advice given in Geronimo—to save the last bullet for yourself when fighting Apache—is graphically illustrated in Ulzana’s Raid, and only happenstance keeps John Carradine from blowing Louise Platt’s brains out in Stagecoach. As Kent Jones wrote of the Apaches in Stagecoach and Rio Grande, they are the “Platonic ideal of the enemy,” and in watching American films dealing with the Apache Wars, more than in any other Westerns dealing with the Indian Wars, one encounters the sneaking suspicion that the White-Eyes might not have deserved to win.
The Apache are, one notices, very often getting the shit end of the coup stick. I had wanted to write something about the Apache nation in cinema after watching Taza, Son of Cochise, and while as a general rule I like to give topicality a wide berth with this column, I can’t very well be blamed for having topicality thrust upon me. About a week ago, an item in The New York Times reported that men and women from the San Carlos Reservation had been camped out at Oak Flat, an Apache holy place, to protest an act of Congress which gave Resolution Copper Mining, an “Australian-British mining concern,” the title, and permission to effectively decimate the site. The deal was apparently slipped onto the National Defense Authorization Act in a last-minute rider by Arizona Senators John McCain and the hilariously-named Jeff Flake, a move which brings to mind a certain gag in The Simpsons. (“Wait a minute, I want to tack on a rider to that bill: $30 million of taxpayer money to support the perverted arts.”) Proof positive, should anyone need it, who’s driving this stagecoach.