19 May 2010 | bkoganbing
The Charismatic Leader Came Too Late
Although by today's standards The Vanishing American is over the top and melodramatic it still has a fine message about the American Indian and their place in the American dream. The sad truth was that this continent did belong to them and we took it from them.
Nothing to be either proud or ashamed of. A society that ranged from hunting and gathering to the beginnings of agricultural gave way to a to an industrial and full blown agricultural society. Just the sociological way of things. Everything gives way to something in time.
That being said, the tragedy of the American Indian was not often told in these years from the Indian point of view. As a writer Zane Grey was steeped in western lore and if a white man could tell the story he could.
After a prologue showing the subjugation, we see the desert tribes of today living on government handouts, trying to maintain respectability but the victims of a corrupt Indian agent played by Noah Beery. That was the way it was back then, under Democratic or Republican administrations, the Department of the Interior was a patronage trough and characters like Noah Beery were more common than we would care to admit.
Richard Dix plays a charismatic leader of his people who actually forms an Indian battalion to fight in what was called then, The Great War. It was reasoned we fight for America as good Americans we'll be treated as such when we return. Instead its business as usual as Beery has banished the tribe to desert scrub lands. Time to return to the fighting ways of our ancestors maybe.
As Dix's character is presented and he specialized in playing noble heroes on the silent screen and when talkies arrived, the personal tragedy of this tribe is that Dix comes along about four generations too late. He's the kind of leader who might have made a difference back in the day, but can only see the futility of what his tribe is about to do.
The Vanishing American shot in what became known as John Ford's Monument Valley was a big budget item for Paramount back in the day. It's got the sweep and grandeur of a John Ford western and a little bit of the influence of Paramount's number one director Cecil B. DeMille in this one who made a spectacle film or two of note.
Though melodramatic, The Vanishing American should still be viewed for the lessons it imparts to today's audience.