Devil’s Doorway (MGM, 1950)
Anthony Mann’s first Western
Through the 1940s Anthony Mann (click the link for our essay on him) made his name directing noir thrillers, and very good they were too, pictures like Side Street, Raw Deal, Border Incident and T-Men. But in early 1950 MGM offered him the chance to do a Western and he said that once he read the screenplay, he jumped it at. He said it was “the best script I’d ever read. I prepared the film with the greatest care.”
It was in fact written by the highly talented Guy Trosper, later to do pictures as varied as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Birdman of Alcatraz and Jailhouse Rock. As far as Westerns go, Trosper wrote or co-wrote One-Eyed Jacks, The Americano and Many Rivers to Cross, but Devil’s Doorway (set in Wyoming and Trosper was a Wyoming boy) was his first – and best. He came up with a sensitive, moving and powerful script that delineated and developed characters, brought tension and provoked thought.
Mann asked for, and got, big Metro star Robert Taylor to lead.
I always thought Taylor a much better Western hero than many gave him credit for. Sadly, he didn’t always get parts in Westerns good enough for his talents but when he did get a classy one, as in this case, or in William A Wellman’s Westward the Women, for example, he was strong, convincing, tough and pretty damn good. Nebraska-born Taylor rode well and loved the West in all its ways. He’d been Billy the Kid in the studio’s remake of 1941 but had avoided the saddle since then, becoming famous in other genres. But as the 40s ended he made two oaters, the excellent Ambush, shot in June 1949 and released in January 1950, and Devil’s Doorway.
But it was surprising casting in one major way: Taylor plays a Shoshone Indian, Broken Lance - a name heavy with Western significance - who returns from the Civil War to Medicine Bow (another significant reference, The Virginian’s town) with a Congressional Medal of Honor pinned to his Army coat. Straight away he encounters racial prejudice and outright hatred on account of his blood, notably from seriously unpleasant rabble-rousing lawyer Verne Coolan (a superb Louis Calhern, with, naturally, a sneaky derringer) and his loutish thug-henchman Ike (an excellent James Millican).
Of course it was not at all unusual for white actors to play American Indians. In fact it was the norm. But theater-goers probably wouldn’t have expected Taylor in such dark make-up.
Yet he was brilliant.
Other acting is also very good. When Lance discovers that as an Indian, despite his service to his country at Antietam and Gettysburg, he is not even officially a US citizen and thus has no right to hold his land (and Coolan encourages homesteaders and sheepmen to take it over) he turns to a lawyer, and is rather shocked to find that “A. Masters, Attorney” is a woman (Paula Raymond, who once turned down the part of Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke, whose third Western this was and who subsequently did a great number of Western TV shows). Atty. Masters has herself suffered discrimination and the two bond. Raymond plays the lawyer as a demure lady but it comes across very well and she has grit beneath that crinoline. Mann had a penchant for strong women in his Westerns, as his next one, especially, was to show.
And the old marshal, who likes Lance, is the great Edgar Buchanan, in one of his most sympathetic parts. The acting is really very good.
The first thing that strikes you when you watch Devil’s Doorway is the look of it – as is often the case with Anthony Mann. Shot in luminous black & white by noirmeister John Alton (also requested by Mann), it features many stunning Colorado-location shots (Colorado does just fine for Wyoming) set against stark mountains and hard terrain. There are also many noirish interiors and night scenes, and silhouettes. Visually, the film is superb – and classic Anthony Mann.
So, the cinematography and cast are first class.
The Second World War had an impact on popular culture in the US in the sense that we were all told how repressive and racist the Fascist powers were, and how tolerant America was by comparison. GIs served alongside ‘minorities’ and found to their surprise that they were just like them. Hollywood began to consider making movies which reflected this. Anti-semitism was the first target, with Fox’s Elia Kazan-directed Gentlemen’s Agreement with Gregory Peck in 1947, then another anti-racist picture for Fox, this time about discrimination against black people, Pinky (1949). It was inevitable that Westerns would ‘borrow’ the cachet, and anti-Indian feeling was after all a mainstay of the genre. As anti-Communist hysteria grew – and it was especially virulent in Hollywood – some liberals graduated to Westerns because those movies contained a presumption of patriotism and they were set ‘safely’ in the past. Contemporary racism could be treated with near impunity, they thought – though of course as it turned out it didn’t stop movie people being blacklisted and hounded out of their livelihoods in witch-hunts.
In Devil’s Doorway, the racism is underlined by making the hero quite “white”. When first seen, he’s just Robert Taylor with a tan, in white man’s clothes and short hair, and he runs cattle just like any local rancher. He’s known as Lance Poole. His house is a classic ranch (actually, probably a bit too idyllic but I suppose Mann was making a point) and Lance seems to assume that he can live his life unmolested as a local cattleman. Of course, a story like this would have resonated in 1949 and ’50 because so many members of the armed forces from various ethnic minorities came back from the war and assumed that as they had been accepted as equals on the front, so too now they would be back home. It was far from always the case. As the film progresses, however, and Lance encounters more and more racial discrimination, even facing annihilation, he rediscovers his Shoshone identity. His clothes become more Indian and his hair longer, and he esteems Shoshone customs (such as the rite of passage of a young boy). Only at the very end does he put back on his ‘white man’s’ Army jacket, and that is to make an ironic point.
The importance of land is stressed. “I was raised in this valley,” Lance says. “If we lose it now we [American Indians] might as well all be dead.” This is particularly so of “the red man”, as he is called here, but of course it is a central theme to so many Westerns. Curiously, though, Mann plays with the standard ‘cattle rancher vs. sheepherder’ theme by making the rancher the good man and the sheepmen interlopers in the control of the villain, who want to take away the rancher’s livelihood.
Well, there is a battle, with much use of dynamite. Ike is killed and that’s OK - good riddance, in fact – but Marshal Buchanan’s corpse is also seen – oh no! – and now slimy Coolan gets himself appointed marshal by the Governor and he stirs up the mob to an anti-Indian bloodlust. We so want Coolan to be struck down. The ending is noble and tragic, and as in The Furies, Mann’s second Western and our next review, there is here an element of Greek tragedy as fate brings down a family of warriors (in this case the Shoshone).
It is indeed a very dark film, as befits the subject matter, and Mann and Alton heighten this impression with their night scenes, gloomy interiors, intense close-ups and other noirish techniques.
The scene of the fight in the saloon is in many ways typical of the Mann Western. It plays out without music, to the sound of a thunderstorm and illuminated only by lightning, the only other sound heard being the grunting of the protagonists in their brutal conflict. It’s superbly done.
The picture was not a critical or a box-office success. According to MGM records the film earned $1,349,000 in the US and Canada and $747,000 overseas, resulting in a profit of $25,000 – very modest, really. The critics seemed to view it only as an action picture. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times called it “a whopping action film”. Crowther did at least say, “The film does speak out against the red man's sad plight as a mistreated ward of the Government. Devil's Doorway, like the Twentieth Century-Fox picture of a few months back, Broken Arrow, is a Western with a point of view that rattles some skeletons in our family closet.” Variety also defined it as an “action drama” and highlighted that: “Actionwise, [Mann] hits some high spots, particularly Taylor’s saloon fight with a gunslinger and in the mass finale clash between whites and redskins.”
Devil’s Doorway suffered at the time by comparison to Fox's more mainstream and ‘softer’ (and preachier) Delmer Daves-directed Broken Arrow, released two months earlier. It was even considered by some a rip off of that movie, quite wrongly (it was made before it; MGM delayed the release till it could be sure that pro-Indian movies would sell). Mann himself said, “I think the result was more powerful than Broken Arrow, more dramatic too.” I agree. Broken Arrow was a fine film and a highly influential one in many ways but when you think of Debra Paget’s sugar-sweet Indian and Jeff Chandler’s white man’s idea of the noble savage, you actually see Devil’s Doorway as a superior film.
The reputation of Mann’s picture has grown and grown since its release. Many later critics have praised it. Dennis Schwartz said, “The film marked an important turning point in the growth of the Hollywood Western, as one that offers not only action but ideas.” Herb Fagen in The Encyclopedia of the Western says, “Mann’s first Western remains an amazingly radical departure from the ordinary genre piece of its day”. And The Rough Guide to Westerns calls it, similarly, “an astonishingly radical Western for its day.”
Both pictures contain an inter-racial romance – or in Devil’s Doorway’s case an almost-romance (“One hundred years from now it might have worked,” Lance says gloomily). While this raises few eyebrows these days, in 1950 it would have been termed miscegenation, and would have been viewed with shock or even abhorrence by many. But Broken Arrow’s example is ’safe’: the Indian maid is beautiful, she is subservient to the white male (always wanting to learn his ways and become ’civilized’), and anyway she is soon killed. However, in Devil’s Doorway, the affair is between an Indian man and a white female, and in those days the man was still considered the dominant partner in a marriage. This ‘redskin’ would be ‘taking’ a white woman, and that certainly would have been viewed with disapproval by many in the audience. It is another example of how Mann’s film is more radical and daring than Daves’s.
Still, both pictures had a huge influence on the genre. While ‘standard’ Westerns in which whites shot down nameless dangerous ‘savages’ did continue, a new strand of more pro-Indian, or at least more evenly-balanced films emerged. In some ways, John Ford thought about that when in 1948 he made the Apaches under a wise Cochise a worthy foe in Fort Apache, and Jeff Chandler’s statesmanlike Cochise in Broken Arrow built on that. Chandler himself returned a couple of times as Cochise in later movies, and other Indian chiefs were shown as sage and reasonable rulers, holding back the firebrand members of their tribe who wished to take the warpath. Later still, in the revisionist Vietnam-dominated early 70s, in films such as Soldier Blue or Little Big Man, for example, Indians became the out-and-out goodies and the US Cavalry were murderous villains.
We should remember, though, that Devil’s Doorway and similar films did not invent a pro-Indian stance. In the early days of Westerns there had been many films which highlighted the plight of the Native American at the hands of the encroaching white man. In the 1910s Thomas Ince, in particular, produced several pro-Indian silent movies. Well-known feature films such as Ramona, The Squaw Man and Zane Grey’s Vanishing American were made and remade all through the silent era. But Devil’s Doorway and its ilk were a worthy 1950s corrective to the Indians of the Stagecoach kind, who were just whooping savages to be shot down by the brave white men.
In any case, Devil’s Doorway is a fine movie, was a wonderful start to Anthony Mann’s Western career and still an excellent watch today.