Academic journal article Film & History

The "Ache for Home" in Anthony Mann's Devil's Doorway (1950)

Academic journal article Film & History

The "Ache for Home" in Anthony Mann's Devil's Doorway (1950)

Article excerpt

In the year 1950, a post-war revival of the Western genre marked a major shift in the way Hollywood represented Native Americans, with the release of Delmer Daves' color production of Broken Arrow in July and Anthony Mann's first Western, Devil's Doorway, a few months later. Both films examine and then negate the possibility of cross-racial romance, set that romance in the immediate post-Civil War period, and feature a male hero who is a returning Civil War veteran. Although Devil's Doorway has received considerably less critical attention than Broken Arrow, it is by far the more radical film in its depiction of frontier politics.

Devil's Doorway functions as a drama of re-integration and disintegration, in which the returning war veteran disrupts the already-uneasy balance of power in his home community. Indeed, the very idea of "home" becomes destabilized by the violence of what Rene Girard has called the "Warrior's Return." The film has been discussed primarily as an allegory for early civil rights, but Devil's Doorway resonates with the problems facing returning Native American veterans after World War II, including poor reservation conditions, chronic local prejudice, racist and outmoded government supervision, land use crises, and, most importantly, a federal assault on tribal lands, sovereignty and treaty rights. Tapping the post-war assimilationist sentiment that drove the new federal Indian policy of Termination, (1) Devil's Doorway combines Western, film noir and "social problem" genres to convey the contradictions inherent in the 1950s treatment of minorities, particularly forced assimilation and forced segregation, and the use of images of Indians as both legitimizing signs of military potency and figures of generative sacrifice to the national destiny. (2) In particular, the film presents Indian land as contested space, and articulates contradictory post-WWII views of reservation land as the locus of national post-war desires for an imagined "home" and simultaneously a "concentration camp" from which Indians must be liberated.

The Drifter

Devil's Doorway tells the story of Broken Lance, or Lance Poole (Robert Taylor), a Shoshone Indian and decorated Civil War veteran who returns to his Wyoming homeland, Sweet Meadows, only to find that unchecked prejudice and greed have come with territorial incorporation and the railroad. Because of the new Homestead Act, Lance is unable to claim ownership of Sweet Meadows, although he has worked the land successfully for years as a profitable cattle ranch. The town's lawyer, Verne Coolan, is a racist who works to destroy Lance and the other Shoshones in order to open their land for white settlement. Lance hires Orrie Masters, the only other lawyer in town, to petition on his behalf; as a woman lawyer, Orrie understands something about social prejudice. But Coolan precipitates a fight by inviting desperate sheepherders to settle Sweet Meadows. There is a suggestion of romance between Orrie and Lance, but their relationship is also combative as they argue over whether Lance should compromise with the sheepherders. In the climactic shootout, Lance and a group of reservation Shoshones hiding at his ranch are surrounded by vigilantes and, later, the U.S. cavalry; the women and children are allowed to go back to the reservation, but the Shoshone men are killed in the fight. In the final scene, Lance puts on his cavalry uniform and marches out to salute the cavalry leader as he falls forward in death. Masters utters the closing line, "It would be too bad if we ever forgot ..."

Guy Trosper's script for Devil's Doorway--which Mann called "the best I have ever read"--went through radical alterations between 1946 and 1949 from a Western that pits a drifter against a big cattleman to a re-activation of the silent era's sympathetic and reformist Indian Western subgenre (Simmon). (3) Trosper's initial short story, entitled "The Drifter," emphasized conflict between big cattlemen and small ranchers, as well as the role of assertive women in the west. …

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