Prelude to World War II: Racial Unity and the Hollywood Indian

By Aleiss, Angela | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Prelude to World War II: Racial Unity and the Hollywood Indian


Aleiss, Angela, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


World War II laid the foundation for a reevaluation of the American Indian's screen image. Even before "tolerance," "brotherhood," and "unity" became catchwords in a society engaged within another world conflict, the movie industry had responded to the growing fascism in Europe with more ambiguity in its Indian portrayals. Like Black Americans who would find a place in the racially integrated units of Hollywood's war films (years before actual military desegregation), movie Indians would form a political alliance with their white counterparts.(1) Previous images of menacing warriors who blocked Westward expansion gradually began to fade into one in which Indians stood as allies -- rather than as enemies -- alongside America's frontier heroes.

Several scholars have noted the transformation of the Indian's screen image throughout the second world war. John A. Price observed that "the decline of Indian stereotyping seems to have begun during World War II when the Germans, Italians, and Japanese replaced the Indian as the major villains," although he argues that both Geronimo (1939) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941) contain unsympathetic portrayals of their Indian leaders (170).(2) Ted Siminoski concluded in his dissertation, "Sioux Versus Hollywood," that the Sioux's image reversed from a villain to a hero during the war. He explains, however, that the most dramatic shift occurred immediately after World War II when racially liberal attitudes began to influence minority portrayals (6061). Donald Kaufmann points out that unscrupulous whites often misled otherwise friendly Indians in World War II Westerns, but these Native portrayals were merely "caught up in a fad for sympathetic treatment" along with other minorities (499).(3)

While these scholars agree that World War II reshaped the Indian's screen images, several points require further clarification:

1. As studios grew more circumspect about antagonistic Indian/white relations in light of growing European fascism, Americans and their Canadian/British allies would evolve into models of racial diplomacy. Selective Service was enforced by 1940, and scenes of the U.S. Cavalry killing Indians en masse could easily equate American militarism with Gestapo leadership.

2. The pro-interventionist politics of Hollywood studios helped to create a mindset that would reshape the Indians' image at least two years before America's entry into the war. The prevailing anti-fascist mood in the movie industry (best exemplified by the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, with its roster of studio moguls and liberal screenwriters) peaked in 1936, and studio executives freely trumpeted their anti-Nazi ideology in many pre-forties films.(4) National unity was a powerful weapon against fascism, and Blacks, Indians, and Mexicans soon joined their white counterparts in the movies' effort to "racially integrate" the home front.

3. These "friendly" Indian portrayals were more enduring than a fad. The wartime image of Indians-as-allies would eventually give way to a postwar assimilationist theme: many Westerns further developed the Indian/white brotherhood concept, with Broken Arrow (1950) often cited as the most significant example.

Three popular Westerns mark a visible change from the "hostile warrior" stereotype and thus represent the first stage of a trend toward interracial harmony. Susannah of the Mounties (1939), North West Mounted Police (1940), and They Died with Their Boots On (1941) were each produced by major Hollywood studios whose large budgets and aggressive promotion would introduce the films' more complex Indian/white relations to a wider audience.' All three films include star performers -- Shirley Temple, Gary Cooper, and Errol Flynn -- and their established box-office reputations would bolster the picture's popularity and thus secure these newfound racial themes within the Western genre.(6) Individually, each film exemplifies thematic characteristics that would serve as prototypes for later Indian-theme Westerns; taken together, they reveal an industry struggling to redefine its Indian/white relations in a rapidly changing world. …

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