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With: Kirk Douglas, Elsa Martinelli, Walter Matthau, Diana Douglas, Walter Abel, Lon Chaney, Jr., Eduard Franz, Alan Hale, Jr., Elisha Cook, Jr., Ray Teal, Frank Cady, Michael Winkelman, William Phipps, Harry Landers, Hank Worden, Lane Chandler, Robert 'Buzz' Henry
Written by: Frank Davis, Ben Hecht, based on a story by Robert L. Richards
Directed by: André de Toth
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 88
Date: 12/21/1955

The Indian Fighter (1955)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

White and Red All Over

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The eyepatch-wearing, Hungarian-born director Andre de Toth was known as a maker of "B" pictures, but he somehow won the job of directing The Indian Fighter in full color and Cinemascope, and the first movie from Kirk Douglas's own production company. And he did not disappoint. He used the wide frame to showcase his unique way of depicting violence; it appears from anywhere, including offscreen. The resulting movie is brisk and rousing, if morally complex.

It starts off a bit rapey, however. In the first 12 minutes, Johnny Hawks (Douglas) spots a sexy American Indian woman, Onahti, (appealing newcomer Elsa Martinelli, who went on to appear in Howard Hawks's Hatari! and Orson Welles's The Trial). He begins mauling her, trying to kiss her while she fights and pushes him away; she pulls a knife, but he takes it, laughing. Somehow this crude mating ritual works, though, and Onahti is his for the rest of the movie.

From there, however, things pick up. Johnny has a relationship with many of the tribes in the West, and, while on his his way to report to a military fortress, he stops to visit Red Cloud (Eduard Franz). Though Red Cloud is peaceful, he is willing to kill any white men that come looking for gold on their land; he's even willing to kill members of his own people who trade the gold. It's not long before two scoundrels, Chivington (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Wes Todd (Walter Matthau, most un-Matthau-like in a very early role), show up, looking for the yellow rock. Johnny decides to rescue Wes and take him to the fort for a proper punishment.

Another problem comes up. A wagon train is making its way through the territory, and Johnny is sent to make sure it gets past the Indians without trouble. However, when Johnny sneaks in a visit to Onahti, everything goes south. An all-out war starts, with the Indians attacking the fortress with everything they've got.

Despite its clumsiness in certain regards, The Indian Fighter is actually fairly complex in its portrayal of the two cultures. A widowed white woman (Diana Douglas) with a young son flirts with Johnny, hoping to bag a strong husband, but his loyalty is to Onahti. And while some of the white characters are nobler than others, the Indian characters also range from admirable to dangerously flawed. Additionally, the ultimate solution is one of communication and not destruction. I'm not saying it's perfect, but it seems like a baby step in the right direction.

Happily, the main point of the movie is to enjoy a fun, outdoor adventure, and it delivers on that front. It also features an excellent cast and crew. The great milquetoast character actor Elisha Cook Jr. is here as a photographer who worked with Matthew Brady during the Civil War; he's constantly struck by the beauty around him, and he provides a few very touching moments. Alan Hale Jr., forever known as the Skipper from Gilligan's Island, plays a kindhearted fellow trying to find a partner for himself. And Hank Worden, a familiar face from John Ford's The Searchers and Hawks's Red River, plays the man in charge of the stockade. Legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht has a credit here, as does the great composer Franz Waxman.

Kino Lorber released The Indian Fighter on Blu-ray in 2017, and the result is mostly excellent. The colors really pop, and the images feel clear and warm, with just a few exceptions during transitions. The audio is fine, and optional English subtitles are provided. Film historian Toby Roan provides a cheerful, chatty commentary track. A trailer gallery offers one for The Indian Fighter, one for another de Toth film, Hidden Fear, a few other Kirk Douglas titles.

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