Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas) was once an Indian fighter but having returned from the Civil War now hopes to negotiate a peace settlement with the tribe led by his old acquaintance, Red Cloud (Eduard Franz). He soon finds himself attracted to the chief’s beautiful daughter, Onahti (Elsa Martinelli) but their courtship is cut short when a tribesman is murdered by unscrupulous traders out to get their hands on Indian gold. To avoid widespread bloodshed Johnny is forced to fight for the life of the odious Wes Todd (Walter Matthau) whom he returns safely to the nearest fort. Johnny is then tasked with guiding a wagon train load of settlers bound for Oregon but his efforts to maintain a lasting peace are soon put to the test.
In spite of its title, The Indian Fighter falls in line with the more sympathetic portrayals of Native American culture that rose in the wake of the groundbreaking western Broken Arrow (1950). Our rugged hero Johnny Hawks has a foot in both camps, devoted to safeguarding those pioneer families venturing out west though his personal philosophy aligns more towards the Indian way of life. As a consequence he endures hostility from both sides. Adapted from a short story by Robert L. Richards, who also wrote Winchester ’73 (1950) and switched careers to become a carpenter after being blacklisted as a suspected communist, the film does not shy away from depicting the violence and suspicion prevalent among both races but does spotlight greed, racism and criminality among white traders as the spark that ignites the resulting conflict.
Underrated director André De Toth emphasizes the Native Americans ties to a natural landscape he depicts in an uncommonly idyllic and eroticized fashion. Throughout the film there is the reoccurring image of athletic Kirk Douglas cavorting in the water with Elsa Martinelli’s sensual Indian princess. The implication is that the fruit of their union will flow through the river to sustain a landscape that from Red Cloud’s perspective seems to be dying yet is actually undergoing a metamorphosis. America born anew. This ties into the other prevalent theme which is the vanishing West crystalized through the character of the photographer Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) who has made it his mission to document the fast-changing landscape. There is nicely scripted exchange between Briggs and Johnny who laments that his evocative pictures will draw thousands of pioneers who will civilise and effectively spoil his beloved, untamed West.
Scripted by reliable writers Frank Davis and Ben Hecht the film races along as a model of tight, punchy yet eloquent storytelling. As a sagebrush saga the film outranks the self-important tone of Douglas’ later The Way West (1967) and details the hardship and perseverance of America’s pioneer families with authenticity, grit and humanity. De Toth’s fluid direction puts the viewer right in the heart of the action with some visceral set-pieces (e.g. the climactic siege on the fort) though unlike some of his other westerns, The Indian Fighter counterbalances its hard edges with humour and charm. Especially engaging is Johnny’s relationship with widow Susan (Diana Douglas, Kirk’s real-life spouse at the time) that teeters on the edge of romance though she ends up serving more to reaffirm his moral fibre. Susan embodies the stable life Johnny admires but cannot see himself adopting. She is well drawn character, strong and plain-spoken as she pursues Johnny in an aggressive manner that leaves him amusingly flustered.
Among the other supporting players, Walter Matthau is splendidly oily in one of the many villainous roles that were his stock in trade at the early part of his career while Lon Chaney Jr. relishes one of his better roles from this period as the blustering brute Chivington. Powered by a commandingly virile and athletic performance from Kirk Douglas as the epitome of bare-chested heroism, the film is exciting but intelligent with a fine score by Franz Waxman and stunning cinematography by Wilfred M. Cline that envisions the west as warm, inviting, almost mystical environment.