Going Through the Devil’s Doorway: The Early Westerns Of Anthony Mann
by Stephen Handzo
Bright Lights Film Journal
Mann's 1950 threesome was the most auspicious quantum jump by an American director since John Ford's equivalent Americana triumvirate of 1939 (Stage Coach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk) lifted him into the major phase of his career. Yet Mann's achievements seem destined to remain unappreciated and the director himself obscure.
Those who disdain lightweight entertainment and sugary optimism usually prefer the cynical derisiveness of a Kubrick to a vision as uncompromisingly bleak and austere as Mann at his best. If people do not actually like Bresson or Dreyer at least they respect them; Mann has the generic disreputability of Westerns going against him as well.
And yet the Western was the perfect form for Mann. As George Robinson has observed, the protagonists of T-Men and Border Incident incur a moral debt while watching helplessly as their partners are murdered. In Mann's Westerns, the dual roles are combined in a hero who is both martyr and avenger.
Given Mann's own pessimism and the developing ambiguity of the post-war Western, it was perhaps inevitable that Mann's first Western (and arguably his best film) should be a tragic epitaph for the West's ultimate loser, the Indian.
Pro-Indian sentiment had appeared previously on the screen. Long before the alleged discovery of Monument Valley by John Ford, its buttes and mesas were mute witnesses to the epic silent version of The Vanishing American (1926). In both this and 1934's Massacre, the setting was contemporary and the Indian was already humiliated, displaced and long since reduced to reservation chattel. Billy Jack, Flap, The Outsider (about Ira Hayes) are later examples of this type. The other major schools of pro-Indian Westerns, such as 1970's Soldier Blue or the made-for-television Massacre at Sand Creek (1956) are set in the period of the Indian Wars and engage liberal guilt by focusing on a single spectacular atrocity.
Mann's Devil's Doorway is possibly unique in that it calls the ideal of Manifest Destiny itself into question by portraying the colonization of the West from the point of view of the defeated before the doom of the Indian was sealed.
The film opens with Robert Taylor in a Civil War uniform riding into a Wyoming town in which everything — including him — is coated with dust. He is returning from the Civil War having distinguished himself by winning the Congressional Medal of Honor at Gettysburg. Like Richard Dix in The Vanishing American, he assumes that war service will result in improved treatment for the Indian. (Devil's Doorway closely follows a cycle of contemporary racially-conscious films — Crossfire, Gentlemen's Agreement, Home of the Brave, in which members of the armed forces were subjected to discrimination. These films and President Truman's 1947 desegregation of the military reflected the obvious irony in America's fighting Nazi Master Race ideology with a Jim Crow army.)
Taylor has a drink in a bar where he is greeted as a hero by the sheriff (Edgar Buchanan). "In my army, we were particular who we let in" observes cigar-smoking lawyer Verne Cooley (Louis Calhern) whose presence in the scene Mann skillfully withholds. (Calhern in this period had become MGM's all-purpose character actor — a combined replacement for Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold and Lewis Stone — portraying all the Establishment figures not played by Walter Pidgeon.) "Ever notice how you can always smell 'em?" asks Calhern, unheard by Taylor who walks out of the bar with Buchanan. "The Union Pacific's going to make a lot of changes," is Buchanan's prophetic parting comment.
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