During “Lunch Breaks”, before I return to my blog writing, if I have not yet competed the current day’s post, I habitually simultaneously eat lunch and watch television, careful not to drop any accompanying debris on the bed I am reclining on, as Dr. M is the proverbial “Princess and the Crumb.” (In the name of “domestic harmony”, I have been known to sweep away crumbs I am personally unable to detect. Both visually and posterially.)
A station I regularly turn to for mindless, midday distraction is The Westerns Channel, which, as the branding suggests, shows exclusively cowboy pictures – feature films – the acknowledged classics as well as cheapo, grind-‘em-out “quickies” which I generally prefer – along with never-seen-since-their-original-airing TV series, such as Wanted, Dead or Alive, starring Steve McQueen. During his trademark extended silences, you can almost hear him thinking, “I’m just marking time here till they discover I’m a movie star.”
Recently, I caught the tail end of Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), starring Rock Hudson. Some might object to this casting, but I vociferously disagree. Why shouldn’t a closeted gay man play a Native American?
In this movie – possibly less than historically accurate but what movie isn’t? – Taza, Son of Cochise (in real life he was probably simply called Taza) is a sympathetic character, the scion of a great chief, trying to keep peace between “The White Man” and the Apache.
Until the end of the movie when everyone feels bad for being totally wrong about him, nobody trusts Taza, the Chiricahuas he’s affiliated with believing he is a duplicitous traitor siding with the enemy, the military he works for believing he is a duplicitous traitor siding with the enemy.
The other enemy.
That’s the thanks you get for being a peacemaker. (The Indian Maiden liked him, but she didn’t know he was gay.)
There were a lot of Indian pictures in the fifties. The movies desperately needed them. The Nazis and Japanese had been defeated. The Commies were around, but their actions were generally covert, rather than conventionally combative. Middle Eastern terrorism was confined to the Middle East. Who exactly was there to battle?
Movies, specifically “action pictures”, require a “Hated Adversary”. You can’t massacre your neighbors – that’s disgusting. The temporary lull in international barbarism was leaving a gaping hole in the “Us”-Versus-“Them” narrative scenario.
Without a “Them”, who exactly were we supposed to kill?
Enter the Indians – who, at least cinematically, had never substantially exited – barbarous obstacles to western expansionism. As we – the cowering moviegoers if not the actual settlers themselves – came to understand…
“When the drums stop… ‘BOOM-boom-boom-boom, BOOM-boom-boom-boom, BOOM-boom-boom-boom’… they attack.”
I had nightmares about those “BOOM-boom-boom-booms.” Although, realistically, 1950’s Toronto appeared safe from imminent Indian attack. Of course, when you mistakenly lower your guard…
The most terrifying “Indian Picture” I ever saw – I do not know the name of it because there were so many of them at the time and besides when you’re a kid who cares? – I would describe thusly:
Ninety minutes of thrill-packed anxiety.
Here’s the situation.
It’s the dead of night. Surrounded by Indians with no outside assistance in sight, the townspeople are huddled together in some building, the drums beating rhythmically in the distance. And then, yes: When those drums stopped… they attacked.
What was truly terrifying was the way the way they attacked. High on the walls were these arched windows. Suddenly, out of the terrifying silence (because the drums had stopped beating), a war-painted Indian appears in the window, and with a primal, piercing shriek, he comes hurtling down, menacing the panicked townspeople below. Although truthfully, how much “menacing” can you actually do when you leap into a building filled with people alone?
But that wasn’t the point. The primal shrieking, the war paint, the chilling ferocity… you could have a heart attack waiting for the next Indian to show up! Not just the townspeople – the audience! If I thought about it, which I most likely didn’t, I never thought the Indians were bad. They were scaring the pants off me!
Why did audiences accept these one-sided representations? We did not know any better. Historians knew, but who listens to historians? And even historians, their publishers knowing that there are way more descendants-of-settlers book purchasers than descendants-of-Indian book purchasers…
You know what? I’m going to stop this right here.
I’ll be honest with you. This post was supposed to go in an entirely different direction. I had this serious intention in mind, offering “The Winning of the West” situation as an example of “True Believers” on both sides demonizing the opposition, distorting facts and omitting salient evidence, to the ultimate detriment of their respective positions. I would proceed then to advocate an assiduous even-handedness, not for the sake of some “politically correct” idea of “balance” but as the most honest method of reaching an accurate assessment of the truth.
I would then “open up” my argument, offering paralleling examples in equally contentious areas of dispute, arguing that we “turn down the heat” in the service of “turning up the light.”
I think I’ll leave that for another time.
When I feel braver.
And it is not such a nice, summery day.