Rehabilitating Arrowhead (1953)
Right, Arrowhead (1953) is a film which is almost universally panned; long subject to vitriolic attacks from critics but it’s resolutely unfair to chastise a film which so accurately attempts to reflect guttural conflict that still characterises the world today.
What I think irks most critics is the utter malice on display from our protagonists, Charlton Heston and Jack Palance. Heston plays an Apache-hating scout and Palance, clad in rather hilarious make-up, an Apache bent on rebelling against the ‘white eyes’. Heston’s character is thoroughly unlikeable: no hero. But his role is not even that of an anti-hero; he’s a full-blown racist and to blame for igniting the violence in the film by executing Apache go-betweens without question or hesitation. However, Heston must finish what he starts in the film’s logic, and that’s why he ends up in some people’s eyes as “the hero”. But it’s unanswerable that the screenplay demonstrates the contempt in which he is held by all. The army come to a regrettable conclusion that they need this seething ball of bile in order to prevent massacre, but it’s a wrenchingly difficult choice and the audience is never comfortable with it.
On the other hand, the Apaches whilst brutal are still shown as honourable – governed by their code – but inflexibly beholden to faith and belief which brings about their downfall. Palance – clad in make-up – is a bit theatrical but well-juxtaposed next to his more cautious and peace-seeking father.
The film has two particularly callous scenes. The first is Palance’s shooting of his unarmed – and welcoming – ‘blood brother’ from childhood, a white man who now runs the local stagecoach. The second is the suicide of Heston’s half-Apache scheming mistress; followed up with Heston’s sadistic utterance “there’s a dead Apache in here….get it out”. It’s hard and uncompromising stuff.
Ray Rennahan’s gorgeous photography of the landscapes, and use of colour filters to simulate the coming dawn are evidence of a dichotomy between the topography of a graceful land and the chilling racism that exists on its plains.
It’s high-time Arrowhead was rehabilitated; and it’s resonance with current affairs is not be sniffed at. This is a dark film – and perhaps so bleak that you think it may have been unintended by the producers – but whatever its motivations, Arrowhead is an unforgettable and misanthropic movie experience with a punchy aesthetic.