Friday, March 6, 2009

Review – Redskin

March 6, 2009

Redskin – U.S., 1929

If there is a message in Victor Schertzinger’s well-made silent film Redskin, it may be this: that good and evil, knowledge and ignorance exists in all cultures. It is not a by-product of one’s nationality, ethnicity, or religious practices. For every decent, righteous character in the film, there is an intolerant one; for every one capable of change and forgiveness, there’s one who cannot forget past grievances or callous acts. If left to the latter group, the future would be much like the past, filled with battles, crying widows, lonely orphans and a continued overreliance on mysticism and ritual. This is the past in which Chahi (Bernard Siegal), the Navajo Medicine Man, grew up, and it is not surprising then that he is highly suspicious of not only neighboring tribes such as the Pueblo but also Whites. We’re told that he was so distrustful of Western medicine that he would not allow a White doctor to be called when a young mother was sick, a decision that ended in tragedy for her young son, potentially the Navajo’s future chief, Wing Foot (Richard Dix). To this young boy, Chahi imparts this advice: shun the ways of the White Man and the education that they will try to impart on you.

Doing so proves difficult, as the Navajo are, for all practical purposes, powerless to completely isolate themselves from the outside world, a fact that a young soldier named John Walton (Larry Steers) alludes to when he comes to take Wing Foot to school. After initially refusing to allow him to be taken, Chahi eventually relents, for as Walton tells him he is too smart to make Walton return with the army. Before Wing Foot departs, though, Chahi makes him promise to learn all he can but return “an Indian.” And yet that is the first thing that John Walton and the school’s teachers seek to strip from him. When he refuses to salute the American flag, John Walton personally whips him, although he appears to have thought that the mere threat of such a punishment would have been enough to scare Wing Foot into complying. Walton’s action has two unintended consequences: It causes Wing Foot to be branded “the Whipped One,” a nickname that he will never live down, and it shocks Walton’s girlfriend so much that she breaks off their engagement. Ironically, Walton’s unfortunate act also brings together Wing Foot and a Pueblo named Corn Blossom (Julie Carter), who despite coming from different and warring tribes soon form a bond that eventually grows into a deep romance.

It is a romance fraught with obstacles. Neither of their tribes accepts it, and in Corn Blossom’s case, her family will stop at nothing to separate her from Wing Foot. At the same time, Wing Foot makes the painful discovery that being enrolled in an Ivy League school is not the same as being accepted at one. He is referred to not by his name but by the term “Redskin.” In addition, a woman who insists that Wing Foot dance with her mocks his heritage – perhaps unintentionally - by performing a stereotypical version of a Native American dance. It is something that Wing Foot can only watch with growing unease. Later, his own tribe shuns him for advocating the use of western medicine and science over many of their long-held traditions and practices, much in the same way that Paul Robeson’s character would be years later in his 1936 picture, Song of Freedom. If this were not bad enough, the area in which both the Pueblo and the Navajo live, an isolated area of Arizona known as Cheelan, is in danger of being overrun by oil developers and thugs looking to get rich on oil profits.

The basic story of Redskin, with its resemblance to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is nothing that moviegoers haven’t seen before – boy and girl meet, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl must somehow triumph over their parents’ intolerance. What make the film stand out, though, are its characters and the situations they find themselves in. We sense the depth of Wing Foot and Corn Blossom’s devotion to each other and curse the mentality of those who would seek to deny them their happy ending. We even pull for John Walton to realize the injustice he wrought upon Wing Foot, so that he sees the errors of his ways and can finally be reunited with the woman he loves. Schertzinger makes the happy ending they seek a challenge to obtain, as danger comes from all sides, culminating in a rather exciting conclusion. I also liked the way the film does not completely demonize those who believe from the depths of their souls that marriage between tribes is wrong and that merging western education with traditional Indian practices would be an act of cultural suicide. Besides, because this is a movie we know that while their unbending will has the potential to bring about isolation and war, it is not so set in stone that love and progress cannot eventually melt away their resistance to change. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but when done well, which Redskin is, it works every time. (on the fourth disc of Treasures from the American Film Archives: Social Issues in American Film)

3 and a half stars

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