Top critical review
Years Ahead Of Its Time
on March 17, 2003
What are some of these reviewers thinking? I just watched this movie for the first time, and considering the period, this has got to be one of the most progressive films ever to come out of the 1930's. Yes, like most, I inwardly cringed at the sight of `Isaiah' whistling and shining shoes during the opening credits, but I really felt that the character wound up being much more than a stereotypical clown (this is NOT Gone With The Wind). Consider the societal constraints under which the creators of this film worked, and I should think its obvious that they did what they could, perhaps subversively. Back then they just couldn't have a black character or a full blooded Indian character who spoke for and defended himself, but they could find a way to espouse more liberal views through the character of Cravat. In the end, by way of his actions, Isaiah certainly becomes a more heroic character than Mammy or Uncle Remus. Likewise, the treatment of womens' roles and Indian rights are amazingly far ahead of their time -even going so far as to touch on interracial marriage and the potential of women to be stronger and even more efficient than men -which at a time when the suffragists were still alive, has got to be commended. And don't forget that Dix's character is part Indian. How many films prior to `Broken Arrow' portrayed Indians in a positive light, let alone made them the hero?
There is a lot of talk of Dix's overracting and praise for Dunne. I thought Dix captured the blustery over the top persona of Yancey Cravat (who was based on a real-life gunslinging attorney who was a son of Sam Houston -the courtroom soliloquy to save the prostitute is culled directly from historic record) perfectly. I particularly liked the scene where he `crows' at the bad guy in challenge. Yes, Dunne did a fine job as well portraying a character who represents all the economic and social intolerance of the period. Moreso because with the help of her firebrand husband she manages to evolve and change (and even become a Congresswoman!) beyond these small views. But I don't think Dix deserves all the criticism, nor Dunne all the credit. Yancy Cravat doesn't seem true to life because he is BIGGER than life. Nobody complains about George C. Scott's rendering of Patton, because we know Patton really was that way. Is it incomprehensible to think that such giant characters, dandily dressed and sporting pistols and purple words ever walked the land before 1930? All this talk of dating (at the risk of sounding dated) is a lot of hooey. When you watch a movie like this you've got to put yourself in the mindset of the audience of the period, or of course you're always going to think its `aged badly.'
The film is shot well. The Land Rush is great, as is that scene where Dunne runs through the spattered men of the oil field at the end (it reminded me of Claudia Cardinale walking through the slew of rail workers at the end of Once Upon A Time In The West). There are shots during the emigration of the Cravats from Kansaas which also stay in the mind. The lantern hanging from the rear axle of the wagon, only illuminating the turning wheels on either side, while Cravat lowly sings his signature tune was a stroke of genius, and the Kid and his gang riding out of the dark and empty land into their campsite is well done. The sound on the VHS is a little bad, with a lot of background hiss occassionally overwhelming the dialogue. I hope if this ever gets to DVD they can fix this.
I think this is an important film that has been sorely overlooked because of the decline of the western in popular culture and the finger pointing of the PC crowd. You've got to look deeper than the veneer, but I really believe this to be an astounding achievement historically, cinematically, and in the portrayal and ultimate breaking of racial stereotypes. Best Picture of 1930. I would've given it four stars, but the VHS copy isn't great. O mighty masters of DVD transfer, except Cimarron into thy trust! Amen!