If First You Don’t Secede…

When one thinks of the great western directors, one doesn’t immediately lasso onto Samuel Fuller.  Yet, before penning this piece, my mind drifted to the likes of the terrific B-item I Shot Jesse James (1949),  1957’s Forty Guns (one of my all-time Fuller faves), a marvelous 1962 Virginian episode (Sam’s adaptation of Owen Wister’s novel It Tolls for Thee, guest starring Lee Marvin), and this vastly underrated 1957 Technicolor jaw-dropper, the ultra-modern ideological RUN OF THE ARROW, now on made-to-order DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.

The picture was one of the last gasps from RKO (I believe it was released in the summer of 1957, by Universal-International, which, along with Warner Bros., bought up completed product from the Howard Hughes’ defunct studio).  Ironically, it opens during the last gasp of the War Between the States (Palm Sunday, 1865).  Angry, borderline lunatic Reb infantryman O’Meara fires the final shot of the war, wounding a Union officer.  Because the war ends that day, a Dixie doc (Carleton Young) removes the bullet and saves the Yankee, as a dour O’Meara watches the signing of the peace pact at Appomattox.

But the South shall rise again, and no one is more risible than O’Meara (a double-take worthy Rod Steiger) and his fellow crackers (who sing snarky songs about hating the Constitution).  O’Meara, rather than adhere to Union rules (a double meaning, if ever there was one), eschews his citizenship and leaves America for the western territories (but not before being gifted with the removed and now refurbished lead slug, a keepsake which he wears around his neck).

This is the beginning of one of the most bizarre westerns ever conceived, a brilliant concoction of social commentary, hypocrisy and violent America that could only have flowed from the creative juices of writer-director Fuller.

The title of the movie stems from an ordeal that O’Meara and an aged Sioux scout must endure – a sort of precursor to a similar torture bestowed upon Cornel Wilde in The Naked Prey nearly a decade later.  An arrow is fired, and, stripped barefoot, the runners must walk to its mark – then high-tail for their lives (until O’Meara, no one has ever survived).  As an asterisk to this barbarism: anyone who interrupts the “event” is put to death.

O’Meara’s renouncement of his Americanism is scoffed at by the wily Sioux (a monumental performance by the heavily made-up Jay C. Flippen), who dubs him Johnny Sore Loser.  O’Meara’s a quick study, and is determined to become a Sioux, mastering the language and cultural requirements (including killing Americans).  It’s another wonderful touch that Fuller simply has the exiled southerner converse with his new Native American family in perfect English (to demonstrate how he has picked up their tongue), no broken pigeon “heap big trouble” Tonto talk.

Aside from the movie’s key Sioux characters, all the other Indian roles are played by actual Native Americans, and with rarely depicted (for a 1950s western), but deserved dignity.  Flippen and the chief of the tribe, a wise and intuitively-savvy Charles Bronson, are among the most admirable humans in the movie.  Steiger wonders why Flippen never became chief; his answer is a corker (“I could have been a Sioux chief, but I can’t stand politics!”).  Yellow Moccasin, a gorgeous Sioux woman (Sarita Montiel) nurses O’Meara back to health from the run’s brutal aftermath, and they marry.  Montiel is a formidable presence, exuding beauty and intelligence (and dubbing, from rising starlet Angie Dickinson, when suits tagged Montiel’s thick Spanish accent as indecipherable.  Personally, I had no trouble understanding her in Vera Cruz, made three years earlier, but, then again, no one else has an accent save Steiger – a Scarlett O’Hara drawl mixed with an Irish brogue).

The movie might well have ended here, but this is a Sam Fuller epic, and narratives rarely end sewn up…or well. The increasing arrival of Americans (“crawling, stinking blue-bellies,” to coin an indicative O’Meara-esque snarling assessment) brings a mixed bag of humanity:  Clark, a progressive officer in charge (Brian Keith) and O’Meara’s Union bigoted doppelganger, Driscoll (Ralph Meeker) – the final Pirandello touch being that he’s the “dawg” O’Meara shot at the end of the Civil War.

In one of RUN‘s most remarkable sequences, O’Meara and Clark sit and have a cordial discussion (O’Meara has been chosen by both Americans and Sioux as a scout for newly designated territorial boundaries, which Driscoll plans to violate).  Keith’s natural ability for underplaying is perfectly contrasted with Steiger’s penchant for going over the top.  In fact, I must say that Fuller wondrously keeps the actor’s often uncontrollable Steiger-counter from extending beyond required outbursts (say the title of the movie, and punctuate “arrow” as if it were two words to get what I mean).  Keith scores a coup when Steiger calmly matter-of-factly cites the Americans’ wanton destruction of the South as an attack on a “free white Christian” society.  This amuses Keith, who shakes his head at Steiger arrogance and total obliviousness to his racism (and who likewise misses the irony of his desire to reinvent himself as a Sioux).  That said, O’Meara does volley back a barbed bon mot when Clark condescendingly explains a historical literary point to the expat (“We did have books…in the South,” he sneers).

A harrowing quicksand sidebar, plus an undeniably superb (if not sadistic, and, what else?, ironic) climax cap this magnificently shot (Joseph Biroc) drama to its unresolved close (the final credit being “The End of this Story Can Only be Written by YOU!,” a task that we have miserably failed to chart positively).

RUN OF THE ARROW should be a primer for great filmmaking, but, then again, any Fuller picture can lay claim to that goal.  Aside from the writing, directing, photography and cast (which also includes Olive Carey, Chucks Roberson and Hayward, Frank de Kova, Tim McCoy and Kermit Maynard), there is a sumptuous score by Victor Young (one of his last, his final work being Fuller’s China Gate, released the following year).  In addition, Ben Chapman did a tremendous job assistant director, as did editor Gene Fowler, Jr.

It’s interesting to ponder the aftereffects of RUN OF THE ARROW, as the irony element stuck with it, way past post-production and release.  Bugged by RKO moguls about casting Steiger as the lead in a western, Fuller replied that the burly actor was just what he wanted, that he was always an outcast – that he uncomfortably never fits in, and especially looked ungainly on a horse (although he’s no match for Joan Collins in The Bravados).  Steiger himself notoriously dissed the movie, similarly to Burt Reynolds’ knocking Navajo Joe.  In an infamous late-1960s interview, Steiger remarked that when fans tell him that they saw one of his movies on TV, “you hope it’s The Pawnbroker, but it’s always RUN OF THE AR – ROWWW!” (see what I mean?).  Truth be told, post-In the Heat of the Night (W.C. Fields and Me, The Kindred, Portrait of a Hitman, American Gothic, The Specialist, Captain Nuke and the Bomber Boys, Modern Vampires, Poolhall Junkies, etc.), Steiger should have recanted that comment with a vengeance until his dying day.  Rod, if you’re reading this now wherever you are, it’s one of the best movies of your career.

The Warner Archive DVD-R of RUN OF THE ARROW faithfully restores the picture’s 1.78:1 aspect ratio via a generally decent, crisp anamorphic transfer.  The colors are thickly saturated, and look okay (at times even spectacular, especially the Technicolor crimson), although the opticals tend to go a bit hinky (but these are only momentary transitions).  The mono audio is strong and bijou-convincing, most notably impressive when played through a soundbar (which is what I did).

Bottom line, anyone looking for a unique, fascinating take on the western needs sprint no farther than RUN OF THE ARROW, another engrossing, recommended without reservation (no pun) Sam Fuller experience.

RUN OF THE ARROW.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono audio.  Warner Archive Collection.  Made-to-order DVD-R.  CAT # 1000537450SRP: $21.99.

Available exclusively through The Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com




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