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    Native American Screen History

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    By 1972, Charles Bronson, a Pennsylvania native of Lithuanian descent, had logged substantial mileage portraying Native Americans in Westerns directed by noteworthy filmmakers. He did so twice in 1954. For Apache, director Robert Aldrich’s first color feature, he played Hondo (no relation to the John Wayne classic of the year before), an Apache who allies with U.S. Cavalry forces amassed to track and capture the fugitive holdout “last warrior” Massai (Burt Lancaster). Months later, he memorably played a warrior chief himself, renegade Oregon territory Modoc leader Kintpuash, aka “Captain Jack,” so named for appropriating the uniform of the U.S. Army officer he killed, proving a spirited and brainy adversary to Indian fighter-turned-peace commissioner Johnny MacKay (Alan Ladd) in Drum Beat for director Delmer Daves. He was more conciliatory, enlightened and quite impactful in Samuel Fuller’s powerful Run of the Arrow (1957) as Sioux chief Blue Buffalo, who accepts embittered Civil War Confederate veteran O’Meara (Rod Steiger) into his tribe in that undervalued Western’s prefiguring of Dances with Wolves. Eleven years hence, after his star had risen considerably, he shared star billing with Anthony Quinn and Anjanette Comer as a halfbreed who leads marauding Yaqui tribespeople terrorizing a Mexican village in Guns for San Sebastian (1968, directed by Henri Verneuil). Forty-five years ago today marked the arrival of a film that gave him top billing and a role that formed the template of the lone, taciturn justice seeker that propelled him into the superstar realm: Chato’s Land (1972), the first of six outings (to later include Death Wish and its first two sequels) with director Michael Winner. With minimal dialogue and maximum physical dexterity, he plays the half-white/half-Apache Pardon Chato, who only wants to mind his own business and have a drink at a dusty, ramshackle bar in New Mexico territory. But a taunting, trigger-happy racist sheriff won’t let him and an inevitable eruption of gunplay turns Chato into a fugitive on the run from a posse composed of righteous reprobates who’ll one by one discover the consequences of challenging a man who instinctually knows the surrounding, unforgiving natural wilderness like a spirit-animal. In Menacing Face Worth Millions: A Life of Charles Bronson, author Brian D’Ambrosio quotes lean, mean and by now veteran “red man” portrayer Bronson’s thoughts on the project: “I wanted to play the role because I wanted to play an Indian as an Indian should be played. I’ve not seen an Indian played realistically on the screen yet. I want to give a good, clean-cut and fair identification of the Indian. After all, the Indian was as wrong as the white man.” It’s almost a contradictory star vehicle if you consider Stuart Galbraith IV’s observations in his evaluation last year of Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray: “Probably Chato's Land isn't as highly regarded because Winner is so routinely dismissed by critics, and perhaps by Bronson fans because, as it turns out, he's not its central character. Though [he’s] top-billed, the movie really isn't about his half-breed Apache Indian at all, but rather about the posse that pursues him. Of its 100-minute running time Bronson is onscreen perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, and probably says fewer than a hundred words, half of those in unsubtitled Apache. But the film itself is superb, an understated allegory to an America then mired in an unwinnable Vietnam War. Its best quality is writer Gerald ‘Gerry’ Wilson's script. As he did in Lawman, Wilson tells a familiar story, of a posse pursuing an outlaw, with an unusually high-degree of authenticity and verisimilitude, with characters that are rich and distinctive. In most Westerns, for instance, posses are generally little more than a faceless mob, with one or two heroes/bad guys leading them, with maybe a sidekick or juvenile male tossed in with the heroes, or a sadistic lieutenant with the bad guys. The posse in Chato's Land consists of about 15 men, all of whom are different from all the others, with widely varying motives and attitudes.” That cretinous cohort, whose diverse character quirks and squabbles foreshadow their undoing, includes a vaingloriously sinister Jack Palance, plus the deeply talented bench of James Whitmore, Simon Oakland, Richard Jordan, Ralph Waite, Richard Basehart, Roddy McMillan and Victor French. But if not dominant in screen time, Bronson majestically towers over the story and scenery in a laser-focused performance utilizing the fewest words that he ever uttered in his Native American depictions. TT’s Julie Kirgo nails his Chato’s Land effect thusly: “He was…an almost scarily spare actor, his physical charisma riding roughshod over virtually everything but the purely visual. We give him credit for anger, hatred, tenderness; but it’s just possible that we were – and still are – reacting to a physiognomy like no other.” He makes visiting Chato’s Land on TT disc both bruising and breathtaking.