Film Review

The Indian Fighter (1955)

IMDB link
Running time: 1h 28min
Directed by André De Toth
Written by Robert L. Richards (story), Frank Davis (screenplay), Ben Hecht (screenplay)
Starring Kirk Douglas, Elsa Martinelli, Walter Matthau

The Indian Fighter is a western from the 50s starring Kirk Douglas, and that should already be a fairly good description of the film. There is conflict brewing between the Sioux and the white man, and it is up to Johnny Hawks (Douglas) to resolve it. Meanwhile, he seems to be more interested in sexually assaulting a Sioux girl half his age. Watching it in 2021, The Indian Fighter is a thought-provoking film, something that its creators probably did not set out to accomplish. Apologies in advance to those few who dare venture further: this review contains barely coherent ranting about masculinity, heroism, and their portrayals. Is it all highly problematic or just good old fun?

First a bit of background. Kirk Douglas (1916-2020) was a legendary actor of Hollywood, who is especially known for (in a long list of credits) starring in Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), both films directed by my favorite director of all time, Stanley Kubrick. But aside from those two famous films and The Indian Fighter, I do not believe I have watched any other movie with him. As in Paths of Glory and Spartacus, Kirk certainly seems like a proper movie star in The Indian Fighter – despite whatever my complaints about the movie, he carries this film by his screen presence. While I was not overly impressed, I have no complaints about the acting in the film overall. I will note that I enjoyed Michael Winkelman as Tommy Rogers, the 9-year old settler boy who naturally idolizes Johnny Hawks because he is so cool in his eyes.

Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas, right) is almost at home with the Sioux

In my review of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), I wrote about my history with/knowledge about westerns, so I shall not write at length about that here, but it should be noted that The Indian Fighter comes before Clint’s dominant reign in the genre, around the same time as when western icon John Wayne was huge. It is interesting to place films on a timeline, and think about how they have affected each other; movies such as The Indian Fighter or Rio Bravo (1959) can be seen as the forefathers of later entries in the genre such as Unforgiven and The Proposition (2005) – an Australian western which I highly recommend, by the way. My knowledge of film history is imperfect, but it is fun to try to piece it together and think about how famous/popular/iconic films have influenced those that came after. Of course, I do not think The Indian Fighter is regarded as being part of the upper echelons of the genre, but I imagine that it is a fairly good representation of westerns in the 1950s, and since it had Kirk Douglas in it, it is not irrelevant by any means.

The conflict between the “red man” and the “white man” is at center stage of the story, the following lines of dialogue exemplifying this: “There can be no friendship between red man and white, our fight is to the end!” and “Indians ain’t people, they’re wild animals!”. I enjoyed the writing and the dialogue for the most part. The Sioux are depicted as being at harmony with nature, which the advancement of the white man is disrupting – I do not know how historically accurate The Indian Fighter is, but it felt sufficiently believable. The film shows, however naively, that there are shades of grey to both sides; both the natives and the white men have weak, stupid, and/or evil individuals among them. Neither group is completely in the right or in the wrong, and Johnny Hawks stands awkwardly in the middle of it all, trying to stop the escalation (while he is not distracted by attractive members of the opposite sex, that is).

The white devil corrupts the noble savage with alcohol in exchange for worldly riches

[Rant begins] It should also be taken into account how the norms and views of the times shape entertainment. In 2022, The Indian Fighter can be viewed casually or with a fair amount of criticism. I can only imagine the reactions if young modern day viewers would be made to watch Johnny Hawks, the supposed hero of the story, sexually assault a Sioux girl and best their warriors in combat. But of course it is all just fine in the end, as the girl eventually gives in (after futilely trying to stab him, which he just laughs off), and Kirk’s character is kind of in-between the white men and the Sioux. Johnny Hawks is sympathetic to, even a friend to (some of) the Sioux, and thus his own people have some mistrust for him. The white man’s civilization is depicted as flawed, hindered by greed and disregard for nature and other people, and Johnny Hawks is opposed to their lust for gold and its destructive consequences. In comparison, while there are some bad apples in the bunch, the Sioux are portrayed in a fairly positive light (there is, of course, the trope of the noble savage to take into account here). So there is some complexity to The Indian Fighter, despite how much incongruity there is when it is contrasted with modern sensibilities. Would the protagonist of a modern high budget Hollywood film be shown doing the things that Johnny Hawks does in such a nonchalant way, and not get his comeuppance in some way? No need to answer.

Between my last review (Battling Butler (1926)) and this, I feel like I am writing about (what some would call) toxic masculinity a lot. I think it is important to examine our perceptions and expectations, so there is perhaps, hopefully, some value to this endeavor. I do not want to join the screaming hordes on Twitter, whatever their views may be, but I will ramble about the topic here. Obviously, the action and the Western genres feature strong, masculine men, who often resolve conflicts with violence – though they are usually given justification for doing so. As far as I am aware, it was not until fairly recently, in films such as Unforgiven (1992), where there is more emphasis on introspection. Additionally, in recent times there has been a push to make female heroes of these genres just as tough as their male counterparts, which, apart from a few notable exceptions (the best examples of which are James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)) in my opinion does not usually work. But let us not get into that as well. One could write books about masculinity and heroism and their depictions in the content we consume, after spending years of researching (or consuming) it. Many of the films I enjoy and have reviewed are quite stereotypically male in nature, featuring both physically and mentally strong men. Thousands of years of storytelling has given us the image of the strong (male) hero, and that is still being put on screen time and time again, only with some adjustments appropriate for the times.

Johnny Hawks gracefully accepts the knife Onahti (Elsa Martinelli) offers him as a gift

What is all this rambling going to lead to? I do not know, but perhaps I will realize when I get there. I suppose watching films such as The Indian Fighter can raise thoughts that the creators at the time had no intention of raising. It is a simple story and it naturally did not try to tick off as many boxes of political correctness as one might expect from films these days. It was made to be in harmony with the main stream sensibilities of its time, but the times have obviously changed, and thus the film is less easy to watch casually. While I think that the altar of political correctness is not worthy of every sacrifice, seeing how Kirk goes about his forceful seduction of the Sioux girl was off-putting and did not (in retrospect) fit the general tone of the film. At the same time I do not want to shame the film for being a product of its time and try to erase it from existence. Well, I guess I am shaming it by writing about it here. And there is little need to attempt to erase it, as most people will never have even heard of it, nor will watch it.

Do we need all our protagonists to be heroic and morally superior beacons of virtue at all times? Of course not, and it makes things more interesting, but The Indian Fighter definitely goes a lot further than many others, despite it seemingly not being a big deal in the film. Our main character is thus despicable while also being presented as likable and somewhat noble, resulting in a more complex character. He is not just a generic hero, but the film never really seems to address his misconduct. It is much easier to condone and indeed enjoy the so-called hero taking the law into their own hands and brutally killing people in revenge, instead of watching them sexually harass with no remorse and no consequence. But again, she was only playing extremely hard to get, and he naturally, by virtue of being such a magnificent Don Juan, knew that from the get-go. I should perhaps note that in recent years there have been more and more grey depictions of fictional characters doing both horrific or disgusting things, and later contrasting this with the good they might do/understanding their motives (e.g. Game of Thrones (2011-2019) and Jaime Lannister), where the sympathies of the viewer are shifted as time goes on. But in The Indian Fighter I got the clear impression that what Johnny Hawks did was not at all something controversial. He is just a Manly Man and he knows exactly what he wants and what women want, even if they themselves do not. Real people are a mix of good and bad; real heroes and real villains are rare if not nonexistent. At least Johnny Hawks is a more complex character than John Matrix (Commando) or John Wick. [Rant ends]

The film is technically competent. The music is very old school, dramatic Hollywood, and it works for an old school western. The stunts done with horses are pretty neat, I was impressed by some of them. The action scenes are a mixed bag; at times convincing, at times not. The film looks good and the locations lend a certain visual spectacle to it. There is more I could write about, but I do not have much willingness to do so, given the amount of verbal vomit I have already poured out of myself for this review.

In conclusion, The Indian Fighter is an interesting film in some regards, but perhaps not enjoyable to many these days. While the film is merely good instead of being great, it is most certainly thought-provoking, despite whatever the intents of the filmmakers. Fans of old westerns will likely enjoy it, but they will probably have already seen it. There are plenty of much better, more enjoyable westerns, so I would recommend The Indian Fighter only to those who want more out of the genre or of Kirk Douglas.

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 0

Would I want to rewatch this film? If in the right company in the right time with enough booze, it could be considered

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