Broken Arrow: the First Pro-Indian Hollywood Western

Based on a true story, adapted from the novel by Elliot Arnold, Broken Arrow (1950) is a moving fable on respect, which takes on a universal dimension thanks to the talent of its director, Delmer Daves. It tells the story of a tolerant man – the very convincing James Stewart – struggling for peace and respect in a cruel and violent world.


In the late 1870s, in Arizona, frontiersman Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) meets a badly wounded Indian by accident. The Whites and the Apache Indians have been at war for over a decade, but instead of killing the Indian and getting his scalp, Jeffords saves his life. He begins to realise Indians are just as human as Whites. Then, after learning the Apache language and cultural habits, he meets Cochise (Jeff Chandler), leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe in order to establish a dialogue and ask him to let the mail go through the Indian territory, even if the war does not stop.

Broken Arrow is an original Western, not because it completely reverses the conventions of the genre, but because it provides a new representation of the Indians. In fact, Delmer Daves’ desire was to present the Native Americans as human beings, and not as savages. This was an entirely different approach compared to the previous Hollywood Western films that were made. That is, excluding John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) which, very likely, was a major influence on Daves’ Broken Arrow. Far from adopting a Manichean perspective, Daves chose to present both sides, the Whites and the Indians, in an equal manner. There are aggressive, belligerent Indians, as there are aggressive, belligerent Whites.

The ethnological aspect of the film is also to be noted. Several times, Tom Jeffords witnesses various rites and dances specific to the Apache Indian culture. In these scenes, there is not any mockery: it is only the observation of something different. Daves uses his camera in order to show things as they are, with no judgment. James Stewart is perfect as the western loner discovering with respect a world he did not know anything about.

A beautiful photography reveals the wilderness of Arizona, a hostile land witnessing men’s cruel fightings. But this land is also shown as a place of flourishing nature, with which men can live in harmony. For instance, the secret romantic meetings between Tom Jeffords and Soonseearhay (the lovely and moving Debra Paget) always happen on the riverbanks or in the forest nearby, in a peaceful environment that shelters their love.

As for the screenplay, it is well-written and convincing. The rhythm of the film is cleverly maintained thanks to a fine balance between action scenes and quiet moments, for example when Tom Jeffords and Cochise exchange their views on the differences of their cultures, or talk about war and peace. These conversations, brilliantly led by the stunning James Stewart and Jeff Chandler, often reveal catchy and humorous dialogues.

The music throughout is well conducted, even if its illustrative role remains conventional. Nonetheless, its efficiency cannot be denied during the action sequences, or, on a different note, during the poetic scenes between Morning Star (Soonseearhay), and Tom Jeffords.

This groundbreaking Western marked a turning point in the Hollywood representation of Indians, and contributed to present Delmer Daves as one of the first pro-Indian Hollywood film directors. Through the true story of two men coming from opposite worlds, Broken Arrow is a humanist Western tale that conveys a universal peace message. It is a call to dialogue and an ode to tolerance, inviting everyone to live in harmony with different peoples.

Broken Arrow (1950)

James Stewart (Tom Jeffords)
Jeff Chandler (Cochise)
Debra Paget (Soonseearhay)
Basil Ruysdael (General Oliver Otis Howard)
Will Geer (Ben Slade)
Joyce Mackenzie (Terry)
Arthur Hunnicutt (Milt Duffied)
Robert Adler (Lonengan)
Trevor Bardette (a passenger on the stagecoach)
Chris Willow Bird (Nochato)
Raymond Bradley (Colonel Bernall)
Iron Eyes Cody (Teese)

Director: Delmer Daves
Screenplay: Michael Blankfort (based on a novel by Elliot Arnold)
Producer: Julian Blaustein
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Director of photography: Ernest Palmer
Distribution: Twentieth Century Fox
Running time: 93 min

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