Monday, February 15, 2010

'Run of the Arrow' (1957)

"Perhaps his best movie is Run of the Arrow (1957): a story of longing, epic scenery and romantic music. Desire and violence are incarnated in some of the most beautiful erotic male nudes since the Renaissance – Indians, savage, strong and free. It starts “April 9, 1865” with the South’s surrender at Appomattox."
- Tag Gallagher

First we have a cheap, ugly RKO logo in colour(this is a 50s RKO film, post-Howard Hughes' rape of the most creative of the big 5 Hollywood studios). Then before anything else, we are inside the world of the film. Like all Fuller films, it does not begin it starts. The credits will come soon of course. The film begins in a long take. The camera pans slowly and deliberately from right to left, showing the remnants of a battlefield, one by one we come across small details. We come across a fallen corpse, his bag says C. S. A.

Titles form on the screen slowly in synch with the rhythm of the tracking shot...telling us inch by inch...

...the day...

...the date...
...the place...

..and then we are told the significance of this day. We got the hint from the the C. S. A. mark stitched into the bag. But the shot's not over. As slowly as it pans left, a horse moves in parallel across the trail of corpses and beneath the legend of the titles.

And right before the cut, we see the horse and its rider in side-profile. From the C. S. A. stitched on the dead soldier's bag to the U. S. branded on the black stallion's rear end. In between we have red-lettered legends that tell the audience the significance of this day. Significance imposed on the reality of the morning of the last day of the Great Civil War by layers of posterity. For the men who died on that morning, all latter-day significance was irrelevant, what mattered was their survival. The same is true for the exhausted Yankee soldier who droops on his saddle. The atmosphere around the opening scene is stark and primal. The legends on the screen specify the event but the landscape could be set on the Trojan plains of antiquity for all we know, save for the markers on the bag and the horse and the costumes.

After the credits, we see the surrender of General Lee to General Grant. We see it from the point of view of O'Meara(Rod Steiger). O'Meara is the Confederate soldier who shot the last bullet in the Civil War. His target was the drooping Yankee soldier on the black horse(Ralph Meerker who returns later on in the film). His bullet hit but not fatally and he brings the wounded soldier to a CSA medic tent wherein he observes the histroic surrender. As he witnesses the surrender, he takes aim with his rifle towards General Grant only to be held back by the medic in the tent where he's placed. It's a scene that is quintessential Fuller, whom Serge Daney perfectly described as "war correspondent and mad educator". Run of the Arrow explores one the most perplexing of all questions - What is America? and by extension What is an American? and of course "What makes a man wander?/What makes a man roam?/What makes a man leave bed and board/and turn his back on home?"

Fuller disliked most Westerns and his four films in that genre attack and deconstruct the genre from the ground-up. He had nothing but loathing for Jesse James and the myth-making and aggrandizing piled up by decades of pulp writers, so he made the best Jesse James film, I Shot Jesse James wherein the "dirty little coward" Robert Ford is elevated into a tragic hero worthy of Brutus and Judas; The Baron of Arizona concerns the manner in which a brazen conman converts a democractically governed state into a private feudal kingdom through the creation and manipulation of false documents. Forty Guns explores the twisted sexual politics of gunplay and cattle-ownership in black-and-white 'Scope. Run of the Arrow, the only one in colour(Technicolor to be precise), is both the most traditional and the most modern of the four films.

Steiger's O'Meara is from the Deep South but after the Civil War, he is too full of hatred to conform to the Union into which his people are being reluctantly accomadated into. So he goes West, to the land that has not yet become part of the Union. Along the way he comes across Walking Coyote(Jay C. Flippen, excellent). Walking Coyote is like O'Meara, a renegade who walked away from his land, his people, his tribe. He could have become chief of his Sioux clan except for the fact that - "I can't stomach politics!"

The key scene is when Walking Coyote and O'Meara rest under the night skies. It's a single take, a two-shot held for 2 and a half minutes.

In this exchange, a Christian White Confederate finds a common bond with a Sioux wanderer who became a Scout for the Union. They discuss music, love-songs, the possibilities of female companionship and then O'Meara asks Walking Coyote, "What does Sioux mean in your language?"/"It's a French word, means cutthroat". Coyote tells him that the Sioux which have many tribes used to be called Lakota until the Chippewas described them as "Sioux", cut-throat, to the French on account of their practise of cutting throats of their fallen enemies before scalping came into fashion. In Fuller's film, this historical evolution of ethnic identity becomes a moment where two renegades from their own tribes become comrades.

He rhymes this scene with a later exchange between Captain Clark(Brian Keith) and O'Meara. This starts as a medium shot before resting to where Clark and O'Meara are seated on a wooden table. This take extends to four minutes and 30seconds.

In his exchange with Captain Clark, who represents to him and the audience, the tolerance and virtues of the Union career soldier he lets forth his bitterness and angst at being a sore loser. Clark calls him out of his attempt of becoming a Sioux to vent his feelings for defeat :"You're not the only Johnny Red fighting a one-man war against the United States, you know? Some of them went down to South America."(John Ford of course made a film about one such figure in 1956, one year prior to Fuller's film)

It is in these two conversations which rhyme dialectically with each other that one finds the essence of the film and the essence of Fuller. The first one is about O'Meara's fascination with the romanticism of finding a new people, a new community and becoming one of them and the second one is the pragmatic consideration of the new reality of Post-Civil War America, where Lincoln's Union is fit for all. America is a land where people come to create new identities and find their own home. O'Meara fights the Civil War because of what he sees as Yankee tyranny of telling the South how to live their lives(the issue of slavery doesn't enter into his mind at all) whereas Captain Clark sees the United States' promise as being refreshed with Lee's surrender. With Walking Coyote, a fellow-renegade-from-his-own-people he shares the dream of being an individual, of charting out one's own course.

In Fuller's pessimistic examination of tribal identity, both of O'Meara's spiritual comrades die. Walking Coyote dies with nobility. When cornered by a gang of angry wild Sioux hunters, he initiates the Run of the Arrow; a ritual where condemned men may retain their lives if they can outrun, barefoot across the wild plains, their chasers armed with arrows. Old and overweight, Walking Coyote borrows some time for O'Meara to run ahead until he dies from exhaustion, his corpse catered over by a Sioux who wears Coyote's Union hat.

There's no heroism in Captain Clark's death. It happens suddenly without warning and with no immediate outcry from his unit until he falls off his horse with an arrow in his chest. In the wake of his death, Lt. Driscoll(Ralph Meeker) takes control of the unit. Driscoll, when he is introduced to us, turns out to be, logically enough in Fuller's dialectical use of rhymes and repititions, the Union soldier on the black horse in the pre-credits scene. In that scene, O'Meara shoots him with what turns out to be the last bullet of the Civil War inflicting what is a non-fatal wound which he then brings to the medic thereby saving Driscoll's life. Driscoll is a "frustrated Custer" as per Captain Clark's opinion. While the Army wants to negotiate with the Sioux so that they can make a Fort in a reasonably alloted plot of land, Driscoll wants to charge on and plunder the field and give the "injuns" a piece of his mind. Upon Clark's death, he does just that. (If this turn in the story seems overly familiar it's because James Cameron stretched the plot of the third section of Fuller's 85 minute epic to the entirety of a 3hour 3D science fiction film currently playing in theatres). The death of Clark, the ascension of Driscoll allows for a bloodbath-in-the-making.

Yet as he has always has done all his life, Fuller surprises us. It's not as we would expect, a denouement where the evil Driscoll leads a massacre charge against the persecuted Sioux who have a right to defend themselves and we are allowed to identify with the persecuted people in their battle against the bad guys. It's Driscoll and his fort that is attacked. And it takes the point of view of the bad guy. After a montage showing the construction of the Fort over land not alloted in the negotations, O'Meara enters the Fort under a white flag and urges Driscoll to see reason and leave the Fort. Driscoll doesn't, he knocks out O'Meara but before anything else, the Fort is attacked. For the final battle, the ostensible hero of the film is unconscious lying beneath a heap of corpses. The violence that ensues is in its intensity and rhythm with few parallels in Westerns.

Even if the Sioux are right and the army is wrong, the sheer chaos and insanity of the battlefield is what registers over and above the ethnic and group conflicts. When the film cuts to O'Meara's point of view through his bleary eyes, we see shaky images that we understand reminds O'Meara of the earlier war he had fought. The film comes full circle when after the slaughter, Driscoll is tied around a pole and for his insults to the Sioux people he has to be skinned alive before everybody else.

The Sioux warrior bearing the knife intones to Driscoll, "I saved your life for this ceremony!" But as the cross-cutting with O'Meara turning his eyes away from the screams of Driscoll indicate, he's speaking for O'Meara.

O'Meara shot Driscoll with the last bullet of the Civil War only to take him to a medic and save his life. The bullet which was gifted to him as a souvenir is tied around his neck.

In the exquisite cutting of the scene, we watch O'Meara slowly loading his rifle as Driscoll continues screaming. Chief Blue Buffallo(Charles Bronson) watches this but does not stop him perhaps because he understands that this action performed by O'Meara is the key ritual of the entire film, the one where he truly defines his identity.

He fires and kills Driscoll out of mercy, the bullet-which-missed at last entering Driscoll's thick skull.

By performing this action, O'Meara has cast himself out of his new community, the Sioux. Once again, O'Meara has to leave his new family and his new identity behind, he leaves with his Sioux wife, Yellow Mocassin(Sarita Montiel, dubbed by Angie Dickinson) and their adopted son Silent Tongue(Billy Miller). But he parts ways with the Sioux in friendship and accompanies the survivors of the massacre back to their army camp. A better way of parting than he recieved at the end of the Civil War. That's the small hope that Fuller finds in this otherwise brutally violent and pessimistic film. One doesn't walk away with all the answers but one leaves without asking the wrong questions and think about the troubling unanswerable ones.

* This piece was written as part of the online Film Preservation Blog-A-Thon which began on the 14th of February and ends today. The Self-Styled Siren is one of the hosts of this event and if you wish to help in the restoration of rare, neglected films such as this one(which was released on DVD in the UK, though now out-of print) or others just like it, then...proceed here... I had contributed earlier to the event with a piece on two of Walsh's best films. Among the films which I would like to see restored and re-issued(it's presently available on TCM channel's broadcasts) is Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb, on which I wrote about last year.


  1. Arthur: Thanks for the interesting post on a movie I now have to look for. I remember in the late 70s when Sam Fuller was making a comeback that led to the "The Big Red One," that there were many interviews with him. He was a remarkable person.

  2. He was indeed. I saw him shoot "White Dog," and he guest lectured at a film class I taught in the summer of 88.

  3. Really...I was born in the summer of 1988, on a Friday the 13th, to be exact.

  4. And I was born in the blizzard of 1947. February the 18th to be exact.

  5. I just found this after looking for some reviews on Run of the Arrow via Blogger... but I had no idea this was submitted for the Film Preservation blogathon, which I actually participated in (I wrote something on Kubrick's Fear and Desire).

    Regardless, this is the best analysis I've read on Run of the Arrow to date. I'm thinking about writing something about this movie myself and if I do I'll be sure to refer to your piece here. Great job, Arthur.

  6. This is the best in-depth review I know of one of my favorite films.

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