Devil’s Doorway (1950), dir. Anthony Mann, w/ Robert Taylor ([Broken] Lance Poole), Louis Calhern (Verne Coolan), Paula Raymond (Orrie Masters)
Seen on TCM as part of their Westerns celebration.
There’s something great about Anthony Mann westerns. Mann directed several Westerns in the 1950s, and Mann’s Westerns retell the story of the West, often valorized in the 1930s and 1940s, with a critical eye.
And this film is no different — Taylor plays a Shoshone Indian who had served in the US Cavalry during the Civil War. He returns to his ranch outside of Medicine Bow, WY, a decorated veteran and welcomed home by the old timers in the town. But in the very first scene, there is a hint of shifting winds. Louis Calhern plays a lawyer who is motivated by a racial hatred for the Native Americans, helping sheepherders move their flocks near and even onto Poole’s land. We see the town doctor unwilling to go and tend to Taylor’s old father. And then the film jumps ahead five years. Taylor, by this time, has become the richest rancher in the area, but Wyoming has become incorporated as a US Territory, and the laws of the land forbid Taylor as an Indian from owning land, so that his land is now fair game for the homesteaders.
In the history of the US, the relations of European Americans and Native Americans is marked by land grabs, sometimes by force and sometimes through legal mechanisms. With the stroke of a pen, rather than at the point of a sword, the status of Robert Taylor’s Lance changes from honored brave, and decorated veteran, to “ward of the state” with no legal rights or recognition of his own. There is an arrogance in the government’s view that they have the right to so define him.
What complicates matters in the film is that his attorney is A. Masters (Raymond), who turns out to be a woman attorney. As a woman in a man’s world, she is quite familiar with prejudice, but she is also, as a woman in 19th c. America, ready to yield, a course she argues Lance follow. But there is no way to compromise here. Calhern is not willing to accept compromise. For him, compromise is Lance’s surrender. And Lance, as a brave and a war hero, cannot so yield.
The film comes to an end that could be predicted at the beginning, and yet, it leaves one with a bad taste in one’s mouth. And in the course of the film, we come to really despise the racism we see in Calhern, but also, watching the film in the 21st century, we despise the sexism that largely gets a bye. And we really come to despise the legal machinations that allow one group of people to take from another without compensation.
Aside from the story,the film’s DP was John Alton, one of the greatest American cinematographers, so the film is beautifully shot in black and white.