Each Monday, I share reviews of Westerns I’m studying to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Thirty: The Indian Fighter & The Legend of Ben Hall
The Indian Fighter
I have wanted to see this movie for years because of one reason. No, not Kirk Douglas but its under-appreciated director, Andre DeToth.
However, my expectations of seeing a “true” DeToth picture were disappointed. This bares little resemblance to the wonderful cynical films he made like Play Dirty and Hidden Fear, or the solid Western genre efforts he commanded such as Day of the Outlaw and The Springfield Rifle. The Indian Fighter is a big budget exercise from the filmmaker, one that has really terrible parts and a few good, almost redeeming, features.
I’ll start with the good bits. First off, there could have been a whole movie about Elisha Cook’s cameraman. He is by far the most interesting character in the film and that subject/focus is one I’ve never seen in a Western. Unfortunately, he’s one of the most minor supporting parts in this film.
I like the last twenty minutes of The Indian Fighter more than the first 60. Kirk’s character finally makes some solid “hero” decisions and the fate of the villains (Walter Matthau is very effective as one of them) is well-handled.
However, the rest of the film is flawed and problematic. Kirk’s flirtation and romance with the Native woman is totally blown. Not only is the way he manhandles her into kissing childish and clumsy, it also just doesn’t make sense for making their eventual dynamic believable. Furthermore, what is supposed to be a powerful conclusion about interracial relationships is totally undermined by the fact that the actress playing the Native is Italian! Yes, I get this is old Hollywood but what the hell is the point is making that point if you’re going to cast a white person? If only DeToth could have slipped some of his subversive cynicism into this.
On top of that complaint, the white characters just don’t get their due punishment in this film. Other than the obvious targets at the end, let’s think about the course of events here. It’s the military commander who carelessly lets out the scoundrels out (who have already proven themselves to be liars and instigators of tension). He is therefore responsible for the deaths of his own people and the deaths of the Natives who rightfully attack the fort. This is never brought up because this film is not Paths of Glory, though if it had more of that great movie in its bones, this could have been a masterpiece. Unfortunately, it’s another tired “Indian” Western, the subgenre of the Western in most dire need of renewal. Hostiles had a chance of doing this and miserably failed. When I look at Westerns that focus on the affairs of Native Americans, the only one that really breathes new life into the subgenre is Dances With Wolves, a film that may have been briefly overrated but has gone many years now as a misunderstood Western that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I especially recommend the extended cut which I watched recently. Sadly, no film since then has come even close to redeeming this corner of the Western genre.
Back from that tangent, I will suggest one ending that might have really redeemed this picture. Kirk’s character is also guilty of neglect and saving a white man who caused these tensions, not once but twice. When Red Cloud brings this up at the end and suggests that his daughter be murdered to fulfill the law, it could have presented an incredible opportunity for the storytellers: Kirk offers to sacrifice his own life, not only to save hers but to pay the punishment for what the whites have done and to keep the secret of the gold hidden forever. Of course, I knew there was no chance the film would take risks like this. Even a modern day film wouldn’t have the balls. But this would have been a powerful ending… Kirk burning for the sins of his kind while the Native woman (if only she’d been played by one) wondering off, secretly bearing his child. Maybe I’ll make it someday.
Seen on Amazon Prime.
The Legend of Ben Hall
This ambitious undertaking is not getting as much attention as it deserves. Though hardly perfect, The Legend of Ben Hall is as good as every Jesse James movie I’ve ever seen (The Long Riders being the only exception) and presents the promise of great future work from both its star and direction.
Jack Martin leads this long, epic outlaw tale with a star-like assurance. He is Ben Hall in every scene, the cracks never showing through his performance over the close to 2.5 hour runtime. I am stunned this has not catapulted Martin into bigger roles but then again, we live in a time where films like this are flying under the radar all the time, getting lost on Walmart shelves and giant streaming libraries.
The only complaint I have about his character is the way his obsession and dynamic with his ex-wife is portrayed. Biddy, played well enough by Joanne Dobbin, never convinced me that she would keep Ben Hall from moving on to other loves and a less dangerous life. Hall meets two other women along his journey who present much more alluring and convincing reasons to risk your life but he keeps going back to Biddy. She is ultimately the reason given for his desire not to flee and it’s the one part of the film I didn’t buy. Where’s the passion? Where’s the unhealthy addiction to this person that drives one to defeat? It’s there in name but not in heart. Perhaps it’s the casting or it could be the acting/writing/directing but ultimately something here didn’t work for me.
Otherwise, director Holmes has crafted an impressive Western and it’s equally admirable that expanding this film from a short to a feature over years of production is never evident. It all flows from scene to scene and never feels as long as it is.
There is some irony in the title of his movie: it could actually be renamed The Mostly Factual Account of Ben Hall. I haven’t researched the true events in detail but it hardly feels like a legend, only venturing into exaggeration a few times. Holmes seems to be working towards an accurate, event by event, story of an outlaw. It’s something I admire and can also relate to, having tried it with my own Blood Country and trying it again with Texas Red, The Woman Who Robbed the Stagecoach, and the Natchez Trace Films. In terms of study, The Legend of Ben Hall is a very helpful movie to look at as I prepare for my 12 Westerns.
Seen on Amazon Prime.