My review title is a paraphrasing of Captain Jack, as a priest apparently is attempting a death-bed conversion: one of the few bits of humor in this otherwise serious drama of the Modoc War of 1872-3.
As was usual for this era, in a western with a claimed historical basis, the amount of fictionalization is grossly understated in the opening claim. This film presents a mixed bag of fairly accurate history, unnecessarily garbled history, and pure fiction, relating to the last series of confrontations between the small Modoc tribe of the CA-OR border region and European settlers and the US army. While many Modocs had reluctantly accepted the reservation offer of 1864, some, including the featured 'Captain Jack', refused to sign the treaty, and returned to their homelands rather than live with their traditional enemies: the Klamath. Eventually, this group agreed to move to the reservation, but continuous harassment by some of the Klamath instigated their eventual return to their home territory. Unfortunately, meanwhile, Europeans had settled on some of their traditional land, leading to continuous conflicts, until the remnants of this group were rounded up and taken back to the reservation.
Alan Ladd plays the very conflicted hero: Johnny MacKay, who subdues Captain Jack: the last remaining renegade leader, in a shooting-wrestling personal confrontation, including a fight while being swept down a river. Ladd isn't exactly my favorite action actor: usually appearing as less than dynamic: a quiet forcefulness. Upon reading about the history of the Modoc War, I can conclude that this character is based on a blend of several historical personages, plus a strong dose of pure fiction. He presumably represents the lone survivor of the Modoc reprisal massacre of a wagon train, known as the Bloody Point massacre. The most important historical personage contributions to his character are Alfred Meacham: Superintendent of Oregon Indian Affairs during part of this time, and the 2 army scouts who captured Captain Jack.
One of the major failings of this film as good history is the refusal to recognize the critical importance of the failure of the US government to act on Meacham's recommendation that the Modoc be given their own reservation, adjacent to their shared reservation with the Klamath, as the obvious means of peacefully ending the problem. This could have saved many lives on both sides, as well as being much cheaper than waging the war and making this movie! It was a very Pyrrhic victory for the US government, as sometimes dramatized in this film...Also, MacKay several times incorrectly claims that Captain Jack signed the 1864 treaty, thus his return to the Lost River region is in violation of that treaty.
The friend-enemy relationship between MacKay and Captain Jack is complex and the heart of this story, with MacKay's romance with the fictional Nancy Meek in the background: the latter pair's future plans symbolizing the recent settlers in the Modoc's former homeland. Charles Bronson is good as Captain Jack.
The Modoc woman Toby is misrepresented as unmarried and proposing marriage to MacKay. Also, she dies in the ambush at the peace conference, in contrast to the historic Toby...Isabel Jewel becomes the first random victim of Modoc revenge, as the stagecoach driver's talkative sex-crazed new wife: the type of role Isabel was typecast to play, in a long career as minor low-life characters.
As the film points out, Captain Jack was by no means a bloodthirsty savage. In fact, the reason he and a few others were hanged had to do with one incident, in which he personally killed General Canby, in an ambush at a peace conference. This centerpiece scene is presented with appropriate tension. As dramatized, he did this very reluctantly, only at the urging of other leaders, including Hooker Jim(Modoc Jim , in the film). Hooker Jim had previous led various raids against settlers, as well dramatized in the film, and was wanted for murder. He hoped, by killing important leaders at this conference, the army would give up. Instead, this incident caused national outrage. Ironically , Hooker Jim was granted a pardon for his murders, in return for helping in the hunt for Captain Jack's bunch: not brought out in the film.
By being filmed in the rugged scenic country around Sedona , AZ, the film cannot fully convey the extreme difficulty of capturing the Modocs holed up in the treacherous lava tube cave country of present Lava Beds National Monument....,Victor Young provides some good background music to accompany the scenic country, but the film includes precious little humor.
While Charles Bronson, who plays Captain jack, and Marisa Favan, who plays Toby, clearly don't look fully like Native Americans, Rodolfo Acosta, who plays the historic Scarface Charlie, Anthony Caruso, who plays the fictional Manok, Frank DeKova and Perry Lopez, who play other Modoc leaders, were more successful in looking like possible Modocs. Richard Gains plays the historic Dr. Thomas: prominent spokesman for a peaceful solution: one of those murdered in the 'peace conference'. Eliza Cook plays Blain Crackel: an outspoken pro-Modoc, secretly supplying them with repeater rifles, but ultimately shot by a Modoc, as a random victim... Robert Keith plays Crackel's opponent: the stage driver who advocates revenge upon the Modoc, especially for killing his sexy wife.
General Canby had previously been most noteworthy in his successful patient defense of New Mexico Territory against an invasion by a Confederate army, in a bid to ultimately capture the Colorado gold fields to the north. Previous to this, he had been unsuccessful in stopping raids by Navajos on settlers in and near their territory. Just finding the guilty, in their vast rugged territory, usually proved impossible.