14 August 1999 | Varlaam
Well-constructed, panoramic entertainment
I had noticed this video for rent several times, but had always thought that the cover photo showed Kirk Douglas with Natalie Wood. Much to my surprise, it turns out not to be Natalie at all, but someone far more unusual, Elsa Martinelli, someone it seems I know best as Charlton Heston's love interest in "The Pigeon That Took Rome", the slim but pleasant comedy from 1962.
In fact, this film is "introducing Elsa Martinelli", a fresh import from Italy at the time. Bell' Italia indeed. Elsa introduces herself to us in the opening scene by undressing completely to go for a quiet dip in the river. So it's going to be la dolce vita along the riverbank, it seems...
As the beautiful long-haired Indian maiden, Elsa finds herself teamed with Kirk, brandishing his chin and his triangular physique. The Wild West lives up to its name, not only with the Indians' fiery attack on the army fort, the film's climax, but also with the steamy roll in the "surf" by our two principals, a couple of years after "From Here to Eternity".
The film offers Elisha Cook an unusual part to play, a photographer who had worked with Matthew Brady during the War, and who now wants to immortalize the West with his camera as advertising to attract settlers. The film understands the dichotomy of preservation and destruction that his character represents.
Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney are the bad white men, while Alan Hale (Gilligan's Skipper) and Frank Cady (Green Acres' Mr. Drucker) round out a nostalgic supporting cast.
Produced by Kirk Douglas's own production company, Bryna, "The Indian Fighter" can't help but have a social conscience. It does show the strong influence of the message Western -- in its interracial romance, Cook's proto-Ansel Adams character, and so on -- but without sacrificing the adventure elements of the story.
The film boasts some spectacular Oregon scenery. It's not the Monument Valley desert landscape we're used to seeing in so many other epic Westerns when directed by John Ford, but rather mountainous and riverine terrain, more like what Ford showed us in "How the West Was Won" (1962).
André De Toth provides good solid Cinemascope direction, letting the widescreen process work its own wonders on the audience. The film however does betray more brutality than I would have expected, especially for its day.
All in all, an adventure story intelligently and attractively handled, with some depth for those who care to look.