7 November 2011 | audiemurph
A surprisingly wonderful silent about American Indians
What a great surprise this movie is. This silent is a sleeper, a classic, wonderful film that does all the great things a soundless movie is capable of doing. Most importantly, this may be one of the most genuinely sympathetic movies ever about American Indians, because it does so without preaching, without portraying them as these mystical, magical humans, that, because they do things like use every piece of the buffalo they kill, are somehow better than all of us. You know the stereotype. It seems like Hollywood has never found a smart middle ground when it comes to portraying Indians: they are either savages or god-like innocents, but never normal. In The Vanishing American, the Indians are just regular people, largely pushed and pulled by fate and the inexorable spreading of the white way of life.
Here, we see the hurt inflicted on Indians in small ways, like a farm being taken by the Indian Agent from one man while he is away at war, or a tribe member taken to be a servant of the Agent, and dying in his service, and the pain this causes his survivors; we feel the sadness of the characters without being forced through a lecture.
At the same time, the movie is epic in nature, taking us through several millennia of time, and staging those massive battle scenes containing hundreds of extras that the silents, to me, do more effectively than the talkies ever could (perhaps it is the inherently haunting nature of all silent film that makes it seem so).
Richard Dix is acceptable as an Indian leader, but Noah Beery steals the show, playing one of the slimiest and sleaziest villains ever; he even kicks an Indian sitting at his office's doorstop, and not once, but twice, to get him out of the way!
This movie also takes patriotism very seriously; tears come to the school teacher's eyes when her class of young Indians says the Pledge of Allegiance. Religion, too, is treated with seriousness, as modern Hollywood never does; Christianity and the New Testament are held with reverence, but again, not too preachy.
I highly recommend this film to all silent film affectionados, as well as those interested to see a unique and oddly progressive film about Native Americans that was made in the 1920's.
Some small thoughts: (1) Early in the film, some Indians meet up with Spanish Conquistadors. The Indians are much more naked than we normally see them; No clothing at all up their hips: a little unnerving! (2) During an early battle scene, an invading tribe is attacking the cliff dwellers; the invaders climb tall ladders to reach the upper ledges. At one point, several ladders full of climbing invaders are seen; one of the ladders is pushed back, and a ladder full of invaders falls backwards, the men on it doomed to fall to their presumed deaths; if you look closely, though, the men on that ladder are clearly dummies.
(3) When Kit Carson's soldiers first hurry off to battle, the first carriage we see pulled by horses and supporting a cannon clearly loses a wheel as it flies down a hill. (4) Racial incongruity #1: The white Richard Dix, with make-up on to darken his features to make him look like an Indian, wearing a soldier's World War I uniform and fighting in the trenches. Racial incongruity #2: an Indian Chief introduced in a title, played by
(5) When the Indian children in the school recite the Pledge of the Allegiance, they have their arms extended out in a manner that to modern eyes may seem like a fascist salute; is this how they used to do it? (6) At one point, Richard Dix is standing on one of the great stone arches of the American West, tossing feathers from his staff into the wind; the first feather he tosses is blown by the wind back to him, and sticks to his arm! He quickly swipes it away, though, and continues his scene.