Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Great Sioux Uprising (1953)

There was a weeklong “Great Sioux Uprising” in Minnesota in 1862 that took the lives of 100s, and 38 
Santee Sioux were later hanged. This is not that story. There was a Cherokee chief, Stand Watie (1806-1871), who served as brigadier general of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. This is not his story either. But both appear in this mash-up of western history and Hollywood imagination, as horse thieves make trouble between the cavalry and Sioux chief Red Cloud.

Plot. The cavalry in some unnamed frontier territory is eagerly buying up horses from off the range to deliver to the Union Army for its war effort against the South. Lady rancher and livery owner Joan Britton (Faith Domergue) and horse trader Steven Cook (Lyle Bettger) are friendly competitors in this enterprise. Each has their eye on the horse herds of the nearby Sioux.

It is rumored that Cherokee general Stand Watie (Glen Strange) is also in the market for horses. Given the Sioux’s growing distrust of the whites, he is believed to have an advantage in dealing with Red Cloud (John War Eagle).

Faith Domergue and the 1950s bra
Domergue approaches Red Cloud, but he sends her away empty-handed. Bettger and an eye patch-wearing partner Uriah (Stacy Harris) don’t bother with formalities. They run off a large herd of the horses, shooting any of the Indians who give chase. Enter Jeff Chandler as a disillusioned Army surgeon who treats both an injured brave and an injured horse, a favorite of the chief’s. Chandler promises to find the thieves and see that they’re punished. The chief scoffs.

In town, Chandler is persuaded by Domergue to set up shop as a veterinarian. Meanwhile, local ranchers are learning that as they contract their horses to Bettger for sale to the Army, he is cheating them. Chandler tells them to organize and sell directly to the Army. But only one has the courage to try it, and Harris kills him, stabbing him with a scalpel he has stolen from Chandler’s kit of surgical instruments.

Chandler is taken prisoner by Bettger, but when Chandler gets the best of him in a fistfight, Bettger collapses with an attack of appendicitis. So the good doctor performs an appendectomy with a sheath knife. Returning to town, Chandler finds the locals ready to string him up, his scalpel having been found by the body of the dead rancher. There follows an escape and a barn burning.

The big kiss - Domergue and Chandler
Back at the Indian camp, chiefs of all the Plains tribes gather to consider General Stand Watie’s offer to buy their horses, with several other Confederate officers standing by. Red Cloud is shocked when he sees the general smack down a black servant who has stood too close to him. While Chandler has to run a gauntlet between Indians with clubs to prove that he has an Indian heart, Bettger sends word to the fort to come stop an “uprising.”

Chandler makes his appeal to the chiefs.  The bluecoats, he says, have a belief that no man should be enslaved for the color of his skin. It’s the tipping point that turns the chiefs against Stand Watie.

After much gunfire, a horse stampede, another escape, another struggle between Chandler and Bettger, and the deaths of the villains, the cavalry is diverted before descending on Red Cloud’s camp. In the final scene, Chandler’s confidence has been restored, and he is heading back to the front to resume his duties as a field surgeon. There’s talk of marriage to Domergue when he returns, and they give each other a big kiss.

Stand Watie
History vs. Hollywood. The movie is standard brand western history mixed with bait-and-switch advertising. There is, in fact, no Sioux uprising in the film. And for his part, Stand Watie seems unlikely to have ventured onto the northern plains to buy Sioux horses. Though to give the screenwriters some credit for homework, it had to be news to audiences in 1953 (or today for that matter) that an Indian served as commanding officer on either side of the Civil War.

For a change in this western, Jeff Chandler is playing a white man, and Chief Red Cloud is actually played by an actor with an Indian name—but Indian in name only. John War Eagle, who played Indian roles in many movies, was born John Edwin Worley Eagle (1901-1991) in Leicestershire, England.

Red Cloud
 And never mind that appendectomy midway through the film—without benefit of hand scrubbing, sterilization, or anesthetic. Not to mention the nearly instantaneous recovery of the patient. Even a 14-year-old today would have trouble swallowing that bit of magical realism.

The message of the movie, of course, is Chandler’s speech about the democratic principle of racial equality and the evil of slavery. However, Chandler tells the Indians he can’t promise eternal brotherhood, and Red Cloud says there will be peace when there is justice. We all know how that turned out.

Wrapping up. Filmed in Technicolor on location in Pendleton, Oregon, this tightly plotted story plays out over a swift 80 minutes and is packed with action. Among the supporting cast, character actor Peter Whitney is enjoyable as a Bible quoting blacksmith, Ahab Jones. A large, gruff figure in a top hat, he often threatens to steal the scenes from his co-stars.

Whitney observes as Chandler subdues Harris
Tall and handsome Jeff Chandler delivers a steady, mellow-toned, and earnest portrayal of a man committed to saving lives who has been driven from the killing fields of the Civil War. Given the psychological fallout in the aftermath of WWII, it is not unusual to find a character like this in films of the period. The darkly troubled drifter in Shane would be another example.

The film was competently directed by Lloyd Bacon, one of those studio directors often described as a “work horse.” He helped churn out the entertaining if not memorable fare that flooded the post-war screens of my youth. Films like Loretta Young’s Mother Is a Freshman (1949), Ray Milland’s It Happens Every Spring (1949), and Lucille Ball’s The Fuller Brush Girl (1950).

The Great Sioux Uprising is currently available at youtube. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies, head on over to Todd Mason’s blog.

Source: imdb.com

Photo credits:
Photos of Stand Watie and Red Cloud, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Arthur Stringer, The Prairie Wife (1915)


  1. Love the part where you comment on the veracity of movies. This one is completely unfamiliar--even the actors.

  2. " And never mind that appendectomy midway through the film—without benefit of hand scrubbing, sterilization, or anesthetic. "

    In all fairness, in the 1860's that's just how an appendectomy would have been performed. Hand-scrubbing didn't come in until long after the war (surgeons used to keep sutures in their mouths to soften them while they were operating).

  3. Last year in the North Country the events of the Sioux War were "commemorated" in Mankato where the executions took place and at Fort Snelling where the concentration camp that held the "prisoners" was located.

    Hollywood, indeed film in general, is not the kind of art that handles true history well. Too much moral ambiguity, I suppose.

    1. Have to give credit to Minnesotans for keeping alive the memory of this unfortunate episode in US history.

  4. I'm amused by your saying that "for once" Jeff Chandler played a white man. He was my mother's favorite actor until he died relatively early, and she adored him as Cochise in Broken Arrow. We saw it at a drive-in. I'm not familiar with this movie or Faith Domergue, who resembled Ann Blyth, but appears to have been a Jane Russell stand in.

    1. I knew Chandler first as a voice on the radio. He appeared regularly on the Eve Arden comedy, "Our Miss Brooks."

  5. Faith Domergue sported 1950s bras into the future and to other planets, as well. How soon we forget...