Starring: Richard Dix, Lois Wilson, Noah Beery
Plot: History, as portrayed in this film, has been a succession of conquests of stronger races over weaker ones. As played out on the stage of Monument Valley long ago, tribes of Indians defeated the ancient cliff dwellers, then came the Europeans to conquer the Indians. Now, in the early 20th Century, a tribe of Navajo live on a reservation overseen by an Indian-hating agent. When they are betrayed after heroically supporting a white man’s war, talk of revolt begins to brew.
This excellent movie far transcends its own genre, with a resourceful and detailed production that makes for a worthy treatment of some thought-provoking themes. Adapted from the Zane Grey novel, it easily does justice to the interesting story, but it is much more than just a good melodrama. Ambitous in its scale, in its time-span, and in its themes, it puts the main story into a context that is as interesting to watch as it is challenging to many of the common conceptions about the history of the American West.
The main story features Richard Dix as a Native American on a reservation, who must contend with a wide range of persons from the ‘white’ races. Dix succeeds in making his character interesting, believable, and sympathetic. In particular, he does well with portraying the inner torment and longings of a perceptive and capable man who is forced by his environment to keep a lot of things inside.
The ‘white’ characters work well, and they are well-chosen so as to avoid a simplistic portrayal of those who went west. Noah Beery plays the villainous Booker effectively, making his ill intentions clear even when his character is at his most charming, yet at the same making it believable that such a reprehensible character could so often gain the upper hand. Lois Wilson is rather meek, but she works well with Dix in the relationship that is at the center of the story.
All of that would be good enough (and it doesn’t even mention the beautiful scenery and photography in Monument Valley), but what makes the movie even better is that it is set in a broader context, which places the lengthy, heart-rending clash of cultures in the American West into a sweeping, far more comprehensive picture of the unending struggle of human cultures and societies as they rise and fall through the centuries. It balances a number of perspectives, and believably shows how complex the interplay between different cultures can be.
The lengthy prologue, often detailed and interesting in itself, paints a convincing and often harrowing picture of the nature of human societies in their struggles and rivalries through the ages. It adds a depth rarely seen to the eventual conflicts between the expanding USA and the Native American nations, and even if it were made today, it would be a bold statement that challenges stereotypes of all kinds. True indeed is the movie’s theme that human cultures come and go, and that those standing strong today will someday pass away, with only the earth itself remaining always.
This movie surely deserves to be much better-known, for its top quality production of some often challenging material, its interesting story, and its themes that are worthy of careful and honest consideration. If it were filmed today, some of the details would probably be handled differently, but that is to a large degree a matter of style or fashion. The specific details are far less important than the movie’s impressive depth and quality.