Inspecting Hidden Gem #19: Devil's Doorway
U.S.A. / MGM / 1950 / B+W / 84 minutes / Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
During America's Civil War years the Union Army welcomed Native American volunteers to fight on their side. If these soldiers thought that their inclusion signalled an end to the shameful treatment they received from the American Government they were dead wrong. Stripped of their land, many were forced to march long distances to settle on reservations and, if "lucky" enough to survive, faced further hardships like starvation, disease and abusive treatment once they arrived.
Hollywood typically ignored the extreme injustices perpetrated on Native Americans (i.e. broken treaties, stolen land) and atrocities (such as murder, rape and imprisonment). If Indians did make an on screen appearance they would most often be presented as faceless savages and aggressors without any of the humanity lavishly afforded to the whites.
There have been exceptions in Tinsel-town: John Ford showed courage in portraying the aftermath of a U.S. Cavalry lead assault on a reservation including innocents (not to mention providing Indian Chief Scar with a legitimate human dimension) in The Searchers (See: Opening Up a Treasure). Later in his career Ford addressed their unfair treatment (including perhaps some of his own past cinematic transgressions) on a wider scale with Cheyenne Autumn. In Apache (1954), Robert Aldrich gave his central character strong motivation and justification for his extreme response. The Sioux were portrayed with complex individualised character and dignity in Sam Fuller's unique 1957 western Run of the Arrow. Don Siegel's underrated The Flaming Star (1960) demonstrated the Texan frontier life's prevailing racial intolerance toward Native Americans in harsh realistic terms and Ralph Nelson in 1970's Soldier Blue would go all out in depicting the shocking details of horror inflicted on the peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers at Sand Creek, by Colorado Territory militia in the infamous massacre of 1864.
In 1950 two films also bucked the "white-wash" trend, presenting the Indian's perspective most forthrightly. One was Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow, in which James Stewart as Tom Jeffords tries to negotiate peace between settlers and the Apaches, via their honourably portrayed chief Cochise played by Jeff Chandler. Daves' work was commendable and one of the very few sympathetic portrayals of the Indians' plight up to that time, but its tone was optimistic and might as well have been a Disney fantasy compared to the other film released that year: Anthony Mann's stark and spirit crushingly pessimistic Devil's Doorway.
The Civil War is over. Returning home to Medicine Bow, Wyoming is Congressional Medal of Honor winner Lance Poole, a full-blooded Shoshone (dedicatedly portrayed by Robert Taylor). Instead of being greeted with honour and respect for his Country's distinguished service, he's confronted with some of the townspeople's strong racial prejudice: It seems he can barely get a drink at the bar, medical help for his elderly father or even think about romance with a white woman. Then there's Verne Coolan: a scheming lawyer (Louis Calhearn, who might as well be an attorney after his convincing performances in this and The Asphalt Jungle) who deeply covets the great amount of beautiful land Poole owns, the entrance to which is the film's title, Devil's Doorway. Poole seeks out his own legal representative, Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond) who will first petition the Government for a redress of its policy regarding Indians owning land and then try and have the Cavalry stop Coolan's takeover by force. But will she make it in time?
This practically unknown gem of a film is the great Anthony Mann's first and best Western, and he made many... (great westerns that is). The actors are all superb. You can read every thought, feel every emotion the characters experience, even the marginal, unsympathetic ones. The gutsy, no punches pulled screenplay is by Guy Trosper (a Wyoming native himself and lost to us way too early at age 52) who would go on to co-author another fine and unusual Western, One Eyed Jacks, not to mention adapting what is probably cinema's best espionage film, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The gorgeous black and white cinematography is courtesy of Mann's frequent collaborator John Alton, heretofore most recognised for his sensational work in the film noir genre, including Mann's excellent T-Men and Raw Deal. A special note of gratitude goes to Producer Nicholas Nayfack for his courageous assistance in providing us with this most remarkable motion picture.
These talented collaborators successfully brought to light one of the most personal tragedies ever witnessed on film: that is, one man's fight to protect his home. And what a fight it is at the film's climactic showdown, filled with action and suspense. The excitement that might have prevailed, however, is totally offset by the terror of it all, including the constant threat of extreme violence to those who have already suffered so much at the hands of hate. Although we are spared the graphic visual specifics of this violent conflict, its fundamental horror is no less powerful than Sam Peckinpah's homestead protection finale in Straw Dogs.
Of all the films on my Top Ten List of Westerns, this is by far the least seen or recognised. That's in part due to the film's lack of commercial success. Audiences must have heard about the film's negative views toward their Country's Native American relations, its defeatist tone (including a bombshell of a climax rich in tragic irony), and stayed away in droves. Its unceremonious release as a "B" feature (on the second half of a double bill) didn't help. Broken Arrow's pleas for tolerance plus its compassionate and articulate representative Jeffords met with a positive audience response, but who wanted to witness one man's journey into hell on earth, containing frightfully realistic scenes of greed, racial bigotry and judicial indifference? Devil's Doorway, however, remains the far superior cinematic drama, unsurpassed in poignancy and not so much because it valiantly exposes the hard truth of history but because this time... it's personal!
How To Best Appreciate This Gem:
Hidden Gem #19 is available on this "Made On Demand" DVD from Warner Archives. This is an excellent transfer: