October 13, 2016
Allegheny Uprising – US, 1939
In a particularly memorable moment in William A. Seiter’s western Allegheny Uprising, a Pennsylvania man named James Smith, played by John Wayne, looks at one of his fellow Pennsylvanians after the intentional killing of an unarmed Native American and asks rhetorically, “We teach them everything, don’t we, Tom?” It’s a timely reminder that few sides in battle were completely blameless for the mostly senseless violence and human rights violations that took place in the days before America was America. The problem is that the scene comes immediately after Smith and his companions were depicted ambushing the deceased man’s posse by launching themselves from trees onto their backs and firing at them from their blind-side angles. In the scene, gunfire blares, while men hoot and holler, all to a joyful soundtrack that is clearly not conveying the notion that what we are seeing is barbaric or somewhat opportunistic.
And herein lies the major problem with Allegheny Uprising – its extremely inconsistent tone. The film, like many films of its time, tries to be too many things. It wants to be both a historical retelling of an event captured in Neil H. Swanson’s story “The First Rebel,” as well as a romance between Smith and his childhood sweetheart, Janie MacDougall. However, it just can’t resist the temptation to surround them with over-the-top minor characters who have exaggerated speech patterns and frequently engage in supposedly humorous discussions about their love of alcohol. Making matters even worse is the film’s habit of suspending the plot so that Smith can jovially send Janie away from the action, this despite the fact that Janie is later referred to as the best shot in the region. The character is played by Claire Trevor, whose directions seems to have consisted of two basic requests – speak loudly and speak at a pitch much higher than is natural, as if these were the sounds that best convey love and concern.
All of this is unfortunate, for there is a much better film buried deep inside Allegheny Uprising, one content to tell the story of Smith and his efforts to prevent the trade of weapons and alcohol to Native Americans that he views as a threat and one that tells the personal war between Smith and British Capt. Swanson, a good man whose loyalty to the king prevents him from doing what he otherwise might to root out the film’s true villains. Alas, all too often, the film detours when it should be moving ahead narratively and gets silly just as the stakes are becoming more deadly. In other words, this is a film whose worst enemy is itself.
This is not to say that there aren’t things to like about the film. Wayne is particularly effective as a young man thrust into the position of leader who proves himself to be a bit of a military genius. I also appreciated the way the film lays out some of the complexities of the times. This is a time before there was an America, and the film superbly depicts the growing desire for independence, while also depicting the subtle tug that British identity had. Smith is a man trying to work within the law, and he often stresses that he is not trying to disrespect or go against the king of England. These sentiments may have been voiced out of necessity; however, Wayne gives them the sincerity and respect they deserve, and it is eye-opening to watch him and Capt. Swanson and to contrast their motivations and loyalties. I also appreciated the way that the film does not shy away from the complexities that existed in many of the people in the years before the American Revolution. In the film, several characters could be described as both saints and sinners, and I have a feeling that were the film made today, they would be either one or the other.
Allegheny Uprising is certainly watchable, and fans of John Wayne will likely find a lot to praise the film for. To me, it was just too unfocused to recommend fully. I didn’t care about the love story, and I longed to have just five minutes in the editing room with a pair of scissors. Gone would go the speeches about drinking and alcohol, to the floor would fall conversations in which Trevor was forced to say sappy dialogue about how cruel Smith is for not marrying her, and made part of the deleted scenes on an eventual DVD release would be an instance in which Wayne speaks to a Native American is his language, hears a response in the same language, and then turns to have the response translated. Really. That happens. (on DVD)