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August 2010

White Feather

cast: Robert Wagner, John Lund, Debra Paget, Jeffrey Hunter, and Eduard Franz

director: Robert Webb

98 minutes (PG) 1955
widescreen ratio 2.55:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail
[released 9 August]

RATING: 7/10
review by Richard Bowden

White Feather

Largely overlooked by many fans, or dismissed as an inferior imitation of Broken Arrow (1950), White Feather is a characteristic widescreen 1950s' western still worth investigating. Robert Wagner plays Josh Tanner, a surveyor on contract to check out real estate prospects out west likely after an imminent peace treaty with a number of Indian tribes. As he arrives an unexpected bond is forged between him and proud Cheyenne warrior Little Dog (Jeffrey Hunter). Soon Tanner's relationship with the Indian tribe deepens as he meets Appearing Day (Deborah Paget) the daughter of the Cheyenne chief, all the while tensions surrounding the changes brought by the treaty signing grow.

"What you are about to see actually happened," claims central character Tanner at the start of the film (his narrator's voice only appearing again at the close, rounding out events), attempting to inject some historical verisimilitude into proceedings. Whether the accuracy of events is real or not, White Feather met the regular casting expectations of its time as all of the principal Native American parts are played by white actors. This is not necessarily a major distraction once one accustoms and, to do him justice, Jeffrey Hunter brings suitable restraint to the pivotal role of Little Dog. His father Chief Broken Hand, portrayed by Eduard Franz, is similarly successful.

It's important as White Feather is a film all about the dignity of the Native American - an example of a group of westerns which viewed the Indians in a more sympathetic light through the 1950s, particularly the aforementioned Broken Arrow, Devil's Doorway (1950), The Indian Fighter (1955), and so on. Even John Ford tried to make amends for earlier representations of the native as 'savage' in Cheyenne Autumn (1964). It's been Hollywood's process of reclaiming the native as a subject of respect and regard that has continued right down to the present, through Dances With Wolves (1990), onto the western-inspired Avatar.

The latter of course features an alien tribe due to be ejected as their holy tree is growing above a valuable mineral site. In White Feather the Indians have to move on so that gold can be abstracted. The native is seen often as a tragic figure, but one representing a proud and honourable heritage likely to be threatened or pass away. White Feather feels sympathy for them in precisely articulated terms, as the Indians "haven't got a chance really... they must be all alone," later seen displaced as a people, heading towards a 'promised land' - "I wonder how long they can live on a promise?"

Comparisons with Broken Arrow have been always been to the present film's disadvantage and, for the most part, I would agree, even though a detailed comparison would be out of place here. Delmer Daves (co-writer of White Feather) certainly directed the earlier movie to greater effect, although the present 1955 production benefits greatly from the cinematography of the great Lucien Ballard, who later went on to work with Peckinpah. (Director Robert Webb, incidentally, made an excellent western, The Proud Ones, shortly after this one.)

Wagner's somewhat distant, disengaged manner, which brought dividends in A Kiss Before Dying of just a year later, is less effective. Even the Indian maiden Appearing Day's character is largely a reprise, cast with the same actress even, of the Soneseeharay part in Daves' earlier piece. In fact some of the weakest scenes in the film lay around her character. Her sexual gaucheness is unconvincing, and she is given too few moments to properly secure the heart of outsider Tanner. Forward yet coy, she lacks the frankness and hedonistic dimension of the similar relationship in The Indian Fighter, despite laying naked under a fur pelt on a bean sack in the store room at one point, awaiting Tanner's surprised discovery - a mildly surprising moment for such a time.

But, away from such slight embarrassments, there are things to admire in White Feather that have dated better, not least the excellent treaty signing scene. Here Chief Broken Hand, realising that the "time of killing is over," has agreed with several other tribes to finally settle for peace and then leave his lands, ending his proud struggle against the encroaching whites. There is a particular poignance to the moment just before he appends his mark to the key document. The chief's face is proud and childlike at the same time as he looks towards Tanner and those gathered who witness his subjection: a brave warrior for once lost and alone in his familiar prairie home.

Of course, this is just as much an opportunity for potential reconciliation as defeat for the Indian nation, especially once the antipathy of Little Dog towards any settlement is removed. More to this, actors Hunter and Wagner look reasonably similar when on screen, no doubt ensuring a box-office friendly doubling-up of romantic interest for contemporary female audiences. But as they appear frequently together, the one impulsive, the other calm, 'educated' and 'savage', red man, white man and so on, there's a feeling too that, they just represent opposite sides to the same coin. And when, at the close of the film, we learn that Little Dog's sister goes on to marry Tanner and gives him a child who enters an American military academy, there's a sense that the coming together, started by the peace treaty we have just seen, is complete.

White Feather's budget must have been reasonably substantial, for its widescreen is frequently filled with many extras, notably in the moments towards the end when, De Mille-like, the Cheyenne leave their homeland as a nation exodus. Together with fine location work and a solid-looking Fort Laramie outdoor set, it all adds considerably to the viewing pleasure. Lucien Ballard's cinematography is splendid, done full justice in the widescreen release (although the transfer is a little soft and I had to adjust my TV settings to get the best of it). Sadly, this region 2 release is bare of any extras, not even a trailer, let alone the things which grace the region 1 version. But for those who enjoy 1950s' genre pictures, the recommendation should still be strong enough.

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