Television Westerns, Termination, and Public Relations: An Analysis of the ABC Series Broken Arrow, 1956-1958

Article excerpt

In hindsight we can easily say that the native people of North America were oppressed by three major forces: These were the government, religion and Hollywood....1

Chief Leonard George

Depictions of Native Americans in American literature, film, and television often veer from denigration to veneration, rarely landing between these two extremes (Scotch 1960: 58-62; Berkhofer 1978: 71; Stedman 1982: 248-50; Wilson 1998: 41). As Peter Farb once explained, "Two images of the Indian - as Noble Red Man and as Blood Thirsty Savage - have prevailed in the minds of whites in the past 500 years, and feelings have tended to shift back and forth between the two" (1968: 245).2 It has been a simple - and serviceable - formula. The Native American was either an innocent child of nature or a murderous enemy of society.

In the mid-1950s, however, although still trading at times on the Noble Savage trope (as did the 1950 movie on which it was based), ABC-TV's Broken Arrow (1956-1958) tried to break this mold, presenting Native American characters - the Chiracahua Apaches - in a realistic and reasonable manner. Apache characters appeared, it seemed, as individuals rather than as an undifferentiated mass. Their attitudes, ranging from pragmatic to rebellious, were not monolithic; they behaved as might any group of men (there were few women here) when threatened by encroachment. Many of them were undecided. They were not implacably hostile, nor were they submissive. They were willing and able to engage in rational discourse and to negotiate honorably. Sometimes they were confused. Cochise, their leader, was rarely hot-headed or emotional. He would take time to mull over his decisions and operate according to the Apaches' unwritten laws and what he saw as their best interests.3

In September 1956, when Broken Arrow debuted, The Lone Ranger was entering its seventh and final season, also on ABC. Comparisons between these two series illustrate how the western genre had changed in only a few years. Broken Arrow was more ambivalent than The Lone Ranger, a melodrama that tamed the Native American for its younger viewership.4 Moreover, while The Lone Ranger purported to be only loosely based on history, Broken Arrow insisted that it was an accurate depiction of actual events, thus raising the political stakes of its depictions. This paper investigates that claim as it examines Broken Arrow's influence on the still-developing myth of the American West during the mid-1950s and the series' influence on the nation's domestic politics. Although conceptualized as a radical text, Broken Arrow eventually served as a public-relations vehicle for the U.S. government; it provided Euro-Americans with an honorific simulacrum of history; and it obscured the actual treatment of Native Americans during the Cold War years.

The Myth of Multicultural America

The western genre had long served as a flattering self-portrait of the EuroAmerican march across the continent. Although Hollywood had undergone intermittent cycles of "pro-Indian" films (Aleiss 2005: 15-38), Native Americans usually were depicted as homicidal maniacs with white settlers as their innocent victims, a classic example being John Ford's Stagecoach (Ford 1939). During World War II, however, this approach was suddenly moderated (Aleiss 2005: 70; Buscombe 2006: x). Fascism, with its racist overtones, had made depictions of the killing and displacement of minorities unpalatable, especially to many Jews in the film industry. The Roosevelt administration thus enlisted Hollywood executives and film producers in a program of creating "a mythic multicultural America in order to persuade a somewhat reluctant populace to unite in the war against the Axis" (Hoffman 1997: 45). The federal government was interested in promoting national unity as well as in recruiting minorities for military service. In tune with the shocks of the Depression, "[s]cheming businessmen and crooked bankers began to replace Indians as the frontier's villains" (Aleiss 2005: 70). …