The other night I watched Devil’s Doorway and was so moved by it that I wrote the following. The film is available on DVD from the Warner Brothers Archive Collection.
Anthony Mann’s first Western the noir-flavored Devil’s Doorway (1950). He would be known for a blend of brutal action and a psychological tension that seems reflected in the barren landscapes of the American West. (adapted from TCM.com).
Devil’s Doorway was nominated for two major awards. The New York Film Critics Circle Awards for 1950 nominated it for Best Film. The Writer’s Guild of America nominated writer Guy Trosper for Best Written American Western in 1951.
There are a number of themes interwoven through the film.
Theme One: the treatment of the American Indian by whites and, especially the United States Government, in the nineteenth century. In order to make a point, the Indians are all extremely idealized.
Sub-theme One A: forcing the American Indian tribes onto reservations.
Theme Two: racism.
Theme Three: the treatment of women in the nineteenth century.
Theme Four: the clash of cultures in the American west during the 2nd half of the nineteenth century. The post war United States is growing quickly. The railroads are allowing people to travel unimaginable distances. Nomadic tribes are being forced from their land by eager settlers.
Sub-Theme Four A: cattlemen versus sheep herders; a common theme in Western movies.
Devil’s Doorway is an entirely different take on the traditional cowboys and Indians or cattleman versus sheepherders movie. The story is told from the viewpoint of an Indian, Lance Poole or Broken Lance as he is known to his own people.
It is hard to imagine that there was ever an Indian as perfect as Broken Lance. Director Anthony Mann idealizes him to a fare-thee-well and manipulates our responses brilliantly. Lance is a civil war veteran who has fought in some of the worst battles of the war, including Antietam and Gettysburg. He is also a holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor for unspecified achievements. During the war, Lance stopped thinking of himself as an Indian. He was a soldier who fought with other soldiers. He led a squadron of white men and they all ate from the same pan. Lance looks forward to a changed world where red and white men can live in peace.
Lance is also Robert Taylor who, throughout his career was seen as a man of honor and integrity. Despite playing a few bad guys, he was the quintessential good guy. Mr. Taylor fought to the death on Bataan, rescued his elderly mother from the Nazis in Escape, comforted the dying Marguerite in Camille. Audiences knew all this. The trailer for the film promises “Robert Taylor as you like him.” Nor were his blue eyes a problem. Everybody knew he had blue eyes.
Lance is welcomed home by his friends and they share a drink at the local saloon. Then his father (Fritz Leiber) and other family members arrive. The father is far from optimistic—he expects trouble between his Shoshone brethren and the white settlers who are pouring into Wyoming from drought ridden mid-western states.
Before meeting his father, Lance encounters the villain of the piece, played brilliantly by Louis Calhern. Verne Coolan is a lawyer who has come west for his health, or so he says, and coughs delicately from time to time. He hates Indians; he says they smell. His ultimate solution is to lynch them all. If it weren’t for Calhern, Coolan would be just a caricature.
Lance’s family owns 50,000 acres in a secluded area known as Sweet Meadows. The family has owned this for generations, although they haven’t ever had a legal title. You enter Sweet Meadows through an area called the Devil’s Doorway.
The first sign of significant trouble comes when Lance’s father falls seriously ill. Lance sends a messenger to bring back the doctor. The doctor won’t come. Lance rides into town to find the medical man playing cards with Coolan. He physically grabs the uncooperative medical man and gallops back to Sweet Meadows, only to find his father dead.
When we first see Lance, he seems thoroughly Americanized. His hair is short, he wears a Union Army uniform and speaks easily and fluently. As time goes by, he becomes more Shoshone. He grows his hair, wears a bead pendant around his neck. Eventually he ties the hair back with a head band and wears Indian clothing. His speech becomes more measured, especially when he is at home.
Lance’s problems are caused by the Homestead Act. This act allowed people to claim homes in the Western territories by settling on 150 acres of land. They also had to build a house within a specified length of time. Verne Coolan sees this as an opportunity to make trouble. He contacts sheep herders from the drought ridden states of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. They are desperate for land with water and food for their sheep. They flock (pun intended) to Wyoming and to Sweet Meadows. Coolan informs them that, since Wyoming has become a territory of the United States, Sweet Meadows is up for grabs. He even escorts the first of them to the Devil’s Doorway.
There is no way Lance Poole can accept this. Sweet Meadows is his ancestral land. His ancestors, including his father, are buried there. He turns back the first homesteaders with superior force. He also tries to find out what his legal situation is. Unfortunately, Verne Coolan is one of only two lawyers in town. The other is O. Masters. This turns out to be Orrie Master, female attorney. Lance is horrified and dashes out of her office. Then, on the stairs, he reconsiders (Paula Raymond). Robert Taylor captures this moment with his eyes and a hand gesture. Lance returns and Atty. Masters agrees to help him.
Director Mann is fair in his treatment of the sheep men. They are not villains but desperate men trying to feed their families. Coolan has sold them a lie—Sweet Meadows is unoccupied and there will be no trouble settling there. Marshall Thompson is very effective as a young sheep herder who wants no trouble while trying to earn his living. So the two sides are not good guys and bad guys, they are men trying to do what they think is right. Lance wants to protect his heritage and the settlers want to live peacefully—which is the last thing Verne Coolan wants.
One of the best sequences in the film is a visit Lance pays to town to sell his cattle. He gets $36 dollars a head or $18,000 total. Lance Poole is a very rich Indian. While herding his cattle through town, Lance encounter a flock of sheep owned by Rod MacDougall (Thompson). The cattle easily push the sheep aside and as Lance rides by he tells MacDougall, “this is cattle country.”
Lance meets an old friend, Zeke Carmody (Edgar Buchanan), who has just been appointed U.S. Marshall. He pulls his pal into the saloon where they are met with a sign saying “no liquor allowed for Indians” which Zeke admits to posting, according to territorial law. Coolan is there and starts his usual anti-Indian commentary. His sidekick, Ike Stapleton (James Millican) moves from words to actions. Stapleton shoots away Lance’s glass of water on the bar, shoots off his hat and tries to make him dance by shooting at his feet.
At this point Lance has had enough. He attacks Stapleton and a fight ensues. There is no music and the fighters are shown in close up at about eye level. It is brutal. Eventually Lance has Stapleton down and starts to strangle him. His brother, Red Rock, played by James Mitchell pulls him off and the two leave.
Orrie Masters has been trying to help Lance and drives out to Sweet Meadows to bring him up to date, accompanied by her mother Mrs. Masters (the ever delightful Spring Byington). Unfortunately, the news is all bad. Indians are not United States citizens. They have no rights, including owning property. They are wards of the state. Orrie Masters lectures Lance on obedience to the law. Furious, Lance responds that Orrie is lucky to have something to believe in, the Law, and doesn’t need to think for herself or take any responsibility for her actions.
Things go from bad to worse. The Indians repel a mass migration of sheep men with dynamite, guns and arrows. There are a lot of deaths. Lance leads his men into battle as he did his squad in the war. They win at a great cost, including the death of Marshal Carmody, Lance’ old friend. At another point in the film, MacDougall draws on Lance and is wounded.
In the meantime, Orrie is working through the law, including a petition in Lance’s favor, but fails completely. She makes more visits to Sweet Meadows and during one of them a small contingent of Shoshone arrive at the ranch. They have escaped from a reservation and need asylum. Reluctantly, Lance agrees. Orrie urges him to compromise and give up part of his land. He refuses, but later thinks about it.
There is an undercurrent of sexuality between lawyer and client. Lance and Orrie have feelings for each other that can never be realized. Lance remarks that their relationship might work in 100 years.
The violence is all Coolan needs. He is appointed Marshal and raises a posse to take out the Indians. Horrified, Orrie contacts the local fort and asks for the army to intervene. The posse surrounds Lance’s ranch and blow parts of it up with dynamite. They kill everyone they can. Orrie rides out to the posse and tells them the army is coming. Why risk themselves when the professional soldiers can do the job? Coolan is unimpressed.
The Indians attack by stealth during the night and Lance silently strangles Coolan. The next morning the firing begins again. Orrie sees the suffering of the women and children from the reservation. The cavalry arrives and Orrie drives out to them. Lt. Grimes (Bruce Cowling) agrees to spare the women and children if the men surrender. Lance accepts and a tragic procession leaves Sweet Meadow, led by Lance’s young relative Jimmy (Henry Marco).
Lance pulls on his uniform jacket with the Congressional Medal of honor and walks haltingly toward Lt. Grimes. The Lt. salutes as the medal requires him to. He asks where the other men are. Lance replies, “we’re all gone,” and collapses. Orrie crouches beside his body and says that she hopes that the treatment of Indians won’t be forgotten. The end.
The acting is superb. Robert Taylor has the right facial structure and dark hair for an Indian and his skin is darkened with make-up. The photography by John Alton uses chiaroscuro to great effect in the extreme close-ups of Taylor’s face, especially his eyes. Taylor projects emotion quietly—through the eyes, the mouth and hands. He should have had at least an Oscar nomination.
Paula Raymond is fine as Orrie. She just doesn’t have enough to do. She is beautiful and her profile fits Taylor’s perfectly. Edgar Buchanan, James Mitchell and others give the viewer fully rounded and believable characters.
This is not a cheerful cowboys and Indians film. Nobody wins. The Indians all die or are forced onto reservations, the sheep herders who survive can settle but at what cost? Coolan doesn’t live to profit from his despicable actions. But it does make you think, and not a lot of films do.
While Devil’s Doorway was completed in October of 1949, it was not released until nearly a year later. The studio was unsure how the film –sympathetic to the American Indian–would play. They also knew that 20th Century Fox was working on their own pro-Indian movie, Broken Arrow. Broken Arrow was released first to critical and box-office success. Devil’s Doorway was seen as an imitation. Despite that, it is a more complex and visually superior film. (adapted from Charles Tranberg, Robert Taylor, a Biography, BearManor Media, 2011, pages 199-200)
Note: I have consciously avoided the term “native American.” It seems to me that anyone born in this country is a native American.
And a few promotional shots:
And lobby cards: