Run of the Arrow
Better late than never; luckily for me, I had taped a copy of Samuel Fuller’s 1957 Western, Run of the Arrow
when it first aired a couple of weeks ago on TCM, and since I had the day off from work, I decided to review the film again. It holds up nicely, though it’s not among my favorite Fuller films; I had not seen it previously to it’s airing on TCM, as it was not part of the Samuel Fuller retrospective that the UW Cinematheque programmed a few years ago (personal Fuller favorites, his masterpieces Park Row
and The Big Red One
, and his great films Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street
, Shock Corridor
, The Crimson Kimono
, The Naked Kiss
, and Forty Guns
; I’m still kicking myself for missing The Steel Helmet
for a date that went pretty badly, we’re my priorities?) so I jumped at the chance to see this film when it aired.
I love Samuel Fuller’s films and find them endlessly fascinating; while often saddled with B-movie budgets and actors, as well as crafting a pulpy, declamatory style of writing/narrative, that is off-putting to many people, his technical wizardry (and not just in his showier, subjective effects like the camera strapped to the characters in the prologue to The Naked Kiss
; simply put, the way that Fuller moves his camera in such confined spaces in Park Row
, is masterful) and willingness to tackle tough, controversial subjects in the 1950s and early 1960s, especially race, sex, and violence, in new and interesting ways, makes Fuller among the most (if not the most) interesting and modern director (as well as writer-producer) of the postwar auteurs. Fuller’s muckraking style may point out more contradictions and ask more questions than they can possibly answer in a 90 minute movie, but there certainly provocative, which is say better than the namby-pamby, safe liberal sentiments of his contemporary Stanley Kramer, or his copycats. For one thing, Fuller had the guts to actually link sexuality and race together in his films, two subjects that usually go hand in hand in American culture and history; that’s one reason why Fuller’s films still seem relevant today, some of the things that his characters say and do wouldn’t seem out of place in the modern-day film.
Bizarrely enough, Samuel Fuller
, if he was given any consideration at all, was usually pegged as a reactionary (kind of like the politically misunderstood John Ford), partly on the basis of the genres he typically worked in, the war film, Western, and crime drama, but mostly because of Pickup on South Street
(which I think is one of Fuller’s weaker films, despite the performances of Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter), probably Fuller’s best known film, prior to his recent renaissance, due to Thelma Ritter’s Oscar nomination for her role as a world-weary, information broker. It also featured a cadre of traitorous Communists as the film’s chief villains, which did not endear Fuller in some quarters (interesting historical anecdote, when the film was released in France, they changed the film in dubbing to make the villains atypical gangsters). Actually, Fuller was one part Cold War-liberal and one part anarchist. His characters are loners, existing at the fringes of polite society, individuals, who, like their creator, operate largely alone, doing things there way, society, the military, the government, the criminal element be damned. Just think of Phineas Mitchell, the 19th century visionary journalist who founded his own newspaper (The Globe
, which is a reoccurring fixture in many Fuller films) his own way, or Barbara Stanwyck’s cattle baroness Jessica Drummond in the kinky, Freudian Western Forty Guns
, who established her own little empire. Rejects, losers, two-bit criminals, weary dog-eared soldiers who’ve seen it all, whores, psychotic patients, and rebels, all have featured as protagonists in Fuller’s films. Add to that roster Private Sean O’Meara, 6th Virginia Volunteers, Infantry (played by Rod Steiger), who declares to his mother: “I don’t have to do anything. I am a rebel because I want to be, not because I have to be.”
It is interesting that Fuller decided to make the protagonist of this story a recent Irish immigrant (recent enough that both he and his mother, played by John Ford regular Olive Carey, still have their Irish accents); you can surmise that O’Meara and his family came to the US to escape poverty and oppressive colonial rule. It’s never clearly explained exactly why O’Meara, being a recent immigrant, is such a passionate supporter of the Southern cause, or at least his version of the Southern cause, which, when he attempts to rationalize his stance, amounts to freedom from Northern laws and government (which comes up in a discussion with a Yankee captain later in the film, an interesting conversation that I’ll address later), compartmentalized away from the uglier racial aspects of the civil war. Bost mostly, O’Meara is motivated by hatred as he says to his mother “I hate momma...I hate”; he saw his father and both of his brothers killed on the battlefield, burying them himself, and he makes allusions to the scorched earth tactics of the Union army. O’Meara can’t accept defeat after four years of warfare, he believes the South has lost it’s pride, that he has lost his pride; he can’t even accept the idea that Gen. Lee begged for a pardon. O’Meara refuses to be reconstructed, several times he tells people “I am not an American,” and continues to wear his Confederate hat, even after he joins the Sioux nation. Early in the film, O’Meara bitterly tells his mother, “I want to tell you something mother, I’ll hang, I’ll hang before I recognize that flag.”
O’Meara, lost in hatred, is a man without a country, even after he joins the Sioux; O’Meara may tell everyone that he is a Sioux, but no one truly believes him, not even his wife, Yellow Moccasin, who tells him “You are a man of two countries, but you can’t kill Americans. If you kill or do not kill, you will always be unhappy as a Sioux. A man must choose to live with his conscience. In my heart, you were never a Sioux, to all of us, you were never a Sioux...you were born an American, and what you were born you will die.” The thrust of the film is of O’Meara learning to let go of his hatred, and accept Reconstruction; in more symbolic terms, it’s clear that Fuller intended the film to be some sort of allegory. At one point, Capt Clark tells O’Meara “Let’s get one thing straight, Lee’s surrender [which O’Meara witnessed] was not the death of the South, but the birth of the United States,” a line repeated in voice-over at the end of the film.
The film actually begins with a shot of a battlefield, strewn with the corpses of Union and Confederate troops, the camera tracks to the left, surveying the destruction, as red titles appear on screen first “PALM SUNDAY,” then “APRIL 9, 1965” and finally “APPOMATTOX, VIRGINIA.” The camera continues to track leftwards as the titles fade; Victor Young’s foreboding score begins to play, and another title appears “THE LAST DAY OF THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES.” As the title fades, an exhausted Union calvary officer rides limply into the shot from the right side of the frame. A shot fells him from his horse, Rod Steiger stands up from behind a wagon wheel and approaches the body, rifle in hand; searching the body, he finds food and realizes that the man is still alive. The score breaks into a dirge-like rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The main titles appear, and O’Meara brings the wounded man to a field hospital at Appomattox Courthouse, where he witnesses the aftermath of Lee’s surrender to Grant. O’Meara a sharpshooter, impulsively picks up his gun and aims it at Grant, but the doctor’s admonishment causes O’Meara to stop (the score breaks into a mournful rendition of “Dixie”). We learn that this is the first Yankee in four years that O’Meara missed, due to a warped bullet, which the doctor digs out of the Union officer. Later, after the war has officially ended, O’Meara is given the bullet back, fixed to shoot again, by a former comrade; as a token, they had it inscribed “Private O’Meara, 6th Viriginian Volunteers, who shot this last bullet in war, and missed.” O’Meara wears the bullet around his neck, letting it dangle above his heart.
O’Meara heads west, into Sioux territory, where he meets an elderly Indian scout named Walking Coyote, who is returning to his tribe so he can die in peace. Accurately diagnosing O’Meara as a “Johnny Sore Loser,” he nevertheless strikes up a friendship with O’Meara, teaching him the Sioux language and customs (which he picks up incredibly fast). O’Meara wants to becomes a Sioux; after learning that Sioux is a French word for “cutthroats,” O’Meara tells a bemused Walking Coyote that “cutthroats should stick together.” Walking Coyote is generally exposition guy, providing the basics of Sioux culture for the benefit of the audience and O’Meara. He’s also a rather comical character, who delivers one of the best lines in the film, when asked why he never became a chief, “Eh, I can’t stomach politics!” Soon afterwards, O’Meara and Walking Coyote are captured by a bunch of young Sioux warriors, led by a young warrior named Crazy Wolf, out looking for trouble (it’s pretty funny to hear Walking Coyote complain about their lack of respect for elders, it was better in my day....). They decide to kill them, but Walking Coyote asks to be granted the Run of the Arrow. Crazy Wolf shoots an arrow into the distance. The rules are simple, O’Meara and Walking Coyote walk to the arrow in their bare feet, when they reach the arrow, they have to run for their lives from the Sioux warriors. If they get away, they are free, if not, well....and of course, no one has ever survived the run of the arrow. And if anyone interferes with the run, they will be punished by being skinned alive. The run is exciting, alternating extreme long shots of the runners followed by the warriors, with close-up, blurry shots of the running feet (apparently, this sequence was shot this way because Rod Steiger sprained his ankle right before filming, so Fuller was forced to use a stand-in; according to Fuller, the critics who even bothered thought he was trying to be arty). It certainly looks painful as they run across jagged rocks, hot sand, and brambles; Walking Coyote dies of a heart attack during the race, and O’Meara narrowly escapes when he is found and hidden by a young Sioux woman named Yellow Moccasin (Sarita Montiel, though I read today on the Internet that all her dialogue was dubbed by then RKO contract player Angie Dickinson), as well as a young boy named Silent Tongue.
They secretly take him back to their village and bandage his feet. Realizing the danger he has put them in, he stumbles out of their teepee and pretends that he escaped on his own, before collapsing from fever. Nursed back to health by Yellow Moccasin, who falls in love with him, O’Meara decides to join the Sioux band led by a chieftain named Blue Buffalo (played by an incredibly buff and bronzed Charles Bronson), marrying Yellow Moccasin and adopting the mute Silent Tongue. On their wedding night, Yellow Moccasin asks O’Meara about the bullet hanging around his neck, which he explains to her. In close-up he intones the inscription written on the bullet and their is a dissolve to a US Calvary trooped (there is a voice-over sound bridge with the words “...and missed.” appearing over the shot of the calvary column).
While it is not explicitly stated, several years have passed in the interim, as the film switches gears. The US wants to build a fort to guard the routes to the Montana gold fields; the calvary troop is meant to be an escort for the engineers, who are led by Capt. Clark (Brian Keith). The leader of the calvary, Lt. Driscoll, is a vainglorious, smarmy, racist braggart played by Ralph Meeker (who, as you may have guessed, or if you have seen the film, since there is a close-up earlier in the film, is the same Union calvary officer that O’Meara shot). Lt. Driscoll is out looking for a fight, and resents “having to wet nurse Army engineers and civilian carpenters.” Or as the pragmatic Capt. Clark describes him, he is a “frustrated Custer.” Gen. Taylor strikes a bargain with the Sioux chief Red Cloud, in return for peace, the US Army will be allowed to build a fort in a spot of Red Cloud’s choosing, far from the Sioux hunting ground. Red Cloud demands that one of his warriors be assigned to act as escort and guide; he picks O’Meara. Soon after meeting, O’Meara and Driscoll recognize each other, a moment highlighted by a reprise of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in the underscore.
Unfortunately, the renegade Crazy Wolf begins to harass the Army column, sniping at soldiers with bow and arrow, as well as ambushing isolated supply wagons. The only thing holding back Driscoll from a rampage is Capt. Clark, who wants to avoid war with the Sioux at all cost (the film’s biggest anachronism is probably the way it treats the upper echelons of the US Army, both Capt Clark and Gen. Taylor are weary and wary of war, which is very believable, especially since they were created by a WWII veteran, but their respect for the Sioux, and utter lack of racism, seems to be a bit of historical revisionism; a better portrait of high-ranking officer who is more like Lt. Driscoll is Henry Fonda’s character in John Ford’s Fort Apache
). Clark, an honorable man, tells O’Meara that he trusts both him and Red Cloud, and after one of the soldiers sacrifices his life to save Silent Tongue, who fell in some quicksand (we learn from this same soldier that most of Driscoll’s B Troop is not composed of regular calvary soldiers, but irregulars recruited as Indian fighters), O’Meara sort of befriends Capt Clark.
The two of them have a somewhat heartfelt, man to man discussion about the Civil War, and more specifically what the Civil War and it’s aftermath meant to O’Meara. It’s a nice scene, full of exposition, but it’s played beautifully. Rod Steiger passionately defending his positions, struggling against his natural empathy toward the reasonable, thoughtful and pragmatic Capt Clark (Brian Keith plays the entire scene drinking an apparently horrid cup of coffee, spending most of the time grimacing as he drinks it, finally throwing it to the ground). The conversation is worth noting in full, not only as it relates to history, but to contemporary events that were swirling around the film’s release in 1957 (desegregation, Little Rock, etc.). The scene begins in a long, two-shot, with O’Meara standing, a bit deferential, with his hands clasped behind his back, at the left side of the screen, slightly behind Clark, who is sitting at the right side of the screen.
Clark: “But why there’s fighting. Thats, thats what’s important”
O’Meara: “Think we were wrong?”
C: (after a long pause) “Well blood, and kin, and home are worth fighting for, sure, but no man can put that above his country.”
The camera pushes in, reframing the two of them in a tighter, medium two-shot, as Clark hands O’Meara a cup of coffee, who proceeds to sit down close to Clark.
O: “You don’t understand, sir. Wait a minute, we had a right to fight for our rights.”
C: “Well Lincoln had to keep the Union together.”
O: “No, Union be damned, Union be damned, now. There’s something you Northerners don’t understand. We don’t like it. We don’t like you making up laws. We don’t like it, do you hear. We never liked it. Tell us what to do, how to think, what to think, who to live with it. No sir, we don’t like it and we’ll fight it. And we’ll go down fighting. But at least we go down, like a, like a free, white Christian country.”
C: (makes a harrumph noise and looks skeptically towards O’Meara) “Free, white, and Christian, huh? Burning crosses and hiding under pillowcases, and terrorizing families, free, white and Christian, huh?”
O: “I don’t know anything about that, sir.”
C: “Oh yeah, it’s always the other fellow.”
The rest of the conversation, which goes on for a few minutes more concerns Clark and O’Meara discussing the fact that O’Meara is really a man without a country; with Clark telling him a story about Philip Nolan, a traitor, who was imprisoned aboard US Navy ship for 55 years and never saw his home country again, clearly intending the story as a word of caution to O’Meara (the camera pushes in again, reframing them in an even close two-shot as Clark begins his story, conveying the sense of intimacy and rapport that the two characters have; every time the camera pushes in and reframes them, the discussion gets more personal). Their conversation pretty much ends with a statement of the thesis of the movie:
O’Meara: (leaning forward, hands crossed as if in prayer): “I don’t know, sir. I’m a reb, and I’ll die a reb, even if the North considers Lee’s surrender the death of the South.”
Clark: “Let’s get one thing straight. Lee’s surrender was not the death of the South, it was the birth of the United States.”
The next day, O’Meara leads the troupe to their final destination. Work begins on the fort, even after Lt. Driscoll protests and challenges Capt Clark’s decision. However, soon after the work begins, Crazy Wolf attacks a supply column. Capt Clark, O’Meara, Driscoll, and some troops go to investigate, and Clark is killed by an arrow in the chest (in an earlier scene, Clark had exposed his back to the camera, with a pointed shot of Crazy Wolf lurking in the hills above). Clark’s last words to Driscoll are “Don’t use me to start a war.” O’Meara rides off and captures the fleeing Crazy Wolf, but he gives him a chance. A Run of the Arrow. O’Meara shoots his arrow far and the race is on. The second run of the arrow, is a reversal of the first. O’Meara is the pursuer and Crazy Wolf is the pursuee; the screen direction is even reversed, with the runners going screen right. The sequence is shot in a similar style, alternating long shots with shots of the runner’s feet. However, Driscoll violates the run, by shooting and wounding Crazy Wolf. Afterwards, O’Meara beats Driscoll unconscious and takes Crazy Wolf back to the village.
Driscoll assumes command and leaves the engineers and civilian workers little choice. They will find a new site for their fort. He chooses one, well-suited to defense, outside of the agreed upon area, forcing the Sioux’s hand. They will attack, led by Blue Buffalo. Back at the village, as the Sioux leaders discuss war and killing the Americans, O’Meara comes to the realization that he is not really a Sioux. His conscience is preventing him from doing so. Lt. Driscoll, on the other hand, a glory hound, only dreams of gaining promotion and his own regiment by starting a war with the Sioux. Work quickly begins; Fuller conveys the construction through a few shots that dissolve into one another, set to a jaunty work tune. But they don’t have much time, before O’Meara arrives under the flag of truce.
A gun-toting Driscoll confronts the “Johnny Reb” at the fort gate. O’Meara conveys a stark warning; the Americans must all surrender in five minutes, they will be promised safe passage, or they will die. Driscoll ignores O’Meara (O’Meara tells Driscoll to stop playing “soldier boy and give your men a chance,” saying this isn’t Appomatox), who then takes his plea to the rest of the troop. Driscoll knocks out O’Meara and decides to hang him for treason, but then the Sioux attack begins (O’Meara is saved by a milquetoast engineer, one of Clark’s lieutenants, but he is killed by an arrow). The Americans are surrounded and outnumbered 10 to 1 by horse-riding Sioux warriors who attack en masse in two waves (the attack is kind of the reversal of the final attack in The Searchers
; there are some interesting shots from the battle, including a cameraman atop a horse, with his camera bouncing all over the place(, overwhelming the fort’s meager defenses. The Sioux warriors slaughter the defenders and burn the fort to the ground. The Sioux rip down the American flag and burn it, until a soldier leaps on the flag to put the fire out (he’s promptly killed). Driscoll is one of the last Americans standing; he’s wounded and captured by the Sioux. Fuller’s camera, in a wide, crane shot surveys the destruction wrought by war; again, the veteran soldier conveys the consequences of war.
Driscoll is tied to a post by the Sioux. For violating the run, Crazy Wolf begins to skin Driscoll alive. Crazy Wolf begins cutting Driscoll below the frame, and for the most part, the brutality of the act is conveyed by the off-screen screams of agony, very effective, as it makes an already relatively graphic scene that much more. The Sioux look on impassively, this is their law (though eventually, Blue Buffalo, begins to look away from the scene). O’Meara on the other hand, is clearly distressed by the horror (he’s shot repeatedly in close-up as the screaming continues), and tries to look-away. He makes a decision, grabbing the bullet hanging around his neck, the same bullet that he earlier shot Driscoll with, the same bullet that ended the Civil War, and loads his gun. He stands up, takes aim, and fires, killing Driscoll. This time, the bullet is not fired in hatred, but in mercy.
O’Meara realizes he can not live with the Sioux any longer, and leads the remaining survivors out of Sioux territory. Yellow Moccasin (by the way, I guess the rules that apply to O’Meara do not apply to her or Silent Tongue, since they follow O’Meara away with the Americans; I guess the film can’t be as progressive as I wanted it to be) hands O’Meara the tattered remnants of the burned American flag, symbolizing his taking responsibility as an American. Blue Buffalo salutes O’Meara by raising his spear, who leads the train. As the camera, on a crane in extreme long shot, pulls back, watching the defeated Americans leave, Blue Buffalo, still saluting, O’Meara enters the frame from the bottom. There is a cut to O’Meara riding his horse, looking forlorn riding into an uncertain future (much like the United States), and as stated before, Clark’s voice can be heard in voice-over intoning his earlier words to O’Meara. Red titles appear on screen, which fades to black, they read “THE END OF THE STORY CAN ONLY BE WRITTEN BY YOU.” A typical Fulleresque move. The end to a very interesting movie.