January 24, 2019
Massacre – US, 1934
1934 was an interesting year for film. Just two years away from the enforcement of the Hayes Code and a little more than a year into the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Americans fervently hoped would be able to pull the United States out of the Great Depression, it saw the release of numerous films that challenged gender roles and gave Americans a glimpse of a United States that was not entirely living up to its ideals. There was that year’s Oscar—winner for Best Picture, It Happened One Night, which dared to have a female character marry someone below her class, The Thin Man, with its indelible banter and quick wit, Of Human Bondage, in which Bette Davis manipulates and emasculates Trevor Howard, and Imitation of Life, which challenged audiences with its observations about race. It also saw the release of Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’Atalante, Fritz Lang’s Liliom, Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Ozu’s The Story of Floating Weeds. I could go on, but I think you get the point: It was a pretty good year for filmgoers.
Early in that year, audiences got a chance to see something that they would not likely see in the years to come: a film that depicted the cruelty administered on a Native American reservation: Massacre. It spared no one. Directed by Alan Crosland, who just seven years earlier had changed Hollywood with The Jazz Singer, and written by Ralph Block and Robert Gessner, it cast a critical eye on local authorities and Native Americans that enabled their barbarism, and it even had a few not-so-subtle things to say about those Native Americans “fortunate” enough to leave the reservation and find success. The film focuses on one such individual, a Sioux man named Joseph Thunderhorse (Richard Barthelmess). When we first meet Joe, he is performing at The World’s Fair in Chicago, an event that is curiously named “Century of Progress.” I say curiously because when we see Joe, he is in full Indian attire, replete with a chief’s headdress and riding around on horseback while showing off his marksmanship with a gun. The audience watches him and cheers loudly; women clamor to get a good look at him and hound him for an autograph. One even remarks, “I’ll be that Chief’s squaw anytime” – an eye-opening remark seeing how offensive the term is.
During these scenes, Joe speaks in stereotypically broken English, much to the delight of those ladies fawning over him. Some even speak to him in their own variation of that language as if it were cute or in fashion. Joe takes it all in stride, and interestingly doesn’t make anything of it when he gets backstage. There he takes off his wig, gets into a suit and tie, dons a cowboy hat, and sets off for a date with one of the aforementioned ladies. In essence, he has turned “civilized” and – at the risk of being insensitive – “Caucasian” in front of our very eyes. The film then follows Joe as he returns home after hearing about his father’s poor health; once there, he learns that life for his tribe has not improved all that much in the years he’s been away, this despite government programs and steadfast assurances to the contrary.
Richard Barthelmess was not Native American (nor was he Chinese, yet there he is playing the role of Cheng Huan in D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece Broken Blossoms). However, he realistically portrays his character’s complicated duality. In early scenes, we see Joe’s confidence in the way he swaggers around backstage; He’s a man fully aware of the value he brings to the show, and there’s a brazenness in his demand for a higher salary. And he often gets what he wants. Contrast that with the look he displays when he’s shown a roomful of Native American artifacts and expected to be an expert of each one: It’s a combination of anger and embarrassment, and it perfectly captures the feelings of someone caught between two cultures.
Particularly shocking are the scenes in which we become aware of the crimes being committed against the Sioux. In one, we watch as three of those entrusted with the Sioux’s welfare discuss ways to deprive them of their life savings and property. In another, a doctor refuses to treat a Sioux child whose symptoms appear to be life threatening, and then there’s the fate of Joe’s sister, Jennie (Agnes Narcha). I shudder to think of just how many people had similar experiences. It’s no wonder Joe is out for revenge toward the middle of the film.
Would Massacre have been more authentic with a Native American actor in the lead role? Sure, but opportunities like that just didn’t come very often in 1930s Hollywood. Unfortunately, several supporting characters, in particular those played by Caucasian actors, do not fare as well as Barthelmess, not because they give poor performances, but rather because they simply don’t look the part. This is particularly true of Ann Dvorak, who plays Joe’s love interest, Lydia. She’s got the character down all right, yet not the look, and it can be distracting.
However, if you can get past the awkwardness of some of the casting, you’re in for a treat. Massacre is brutally honest for its time, casting light on America’s second great shame (the first being slavery) and providing hope (in 1934, at least) that better times were ahead. Sure, its time frame is loopy. Love comes far too quickly, and it strains credibility for characters to rally behind Joe as fast as they do when he has been gone for as long as he has. Also, the ending is utterly convenient, New-Deal era propaganda that passes Joe’s actions and use of violence off as justified despite the vigilantism he employs in their commission. In a more daring film, Joe’s victory would have come at a price. That said, the film continues to pack a punch. It is a sock to the gut and a call to arms, and its power remains undampened. (on DVD as part of Forbidden Hollywood Volume 6)
3 and a half stars