Before there was Ethan Edwards from The Searchers there was Ed Bannon from Arrowhead. Both had parents who were killed by Indians, both knew the Indians extremely well, both were played by major stars (John Wayne and Charlton Heston) and both still wore their Confederate army pants.
In the opening title card contains the following excerpted letter: "To: The General of the Armies regarding the subject of: Recommendation of the Congressional Award ....and in my opinion this man--in constant disregard of his personal feelings and (as Chief of Scouts) repeatedly risking his life that others might be saved--deserves to have his name rank with Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Wm. F. Cody and others whose unselfish service to this country can never be forgotten. Respectfully, George Crook, Brig. General, U.S. Army, May 7, 1886." The subject of the letter, Al Sieber, Chief of Scouts of the United States Army of the Southwest, is acknowledged in the closing credits as having provided, in part, the basis for the character of "Ed Bannon." Al Sieber was the Chief of Scouts during the Apache wars (1871 - 1883). Al Sieber has also been portrayed in film by John McIntire in Apache, Richard Widmark in Tom Horn and Robert Duvall in Geronimo: An American Legend.
The movie opens with menacing Indian movie music and then we see Chief of Scouts Ed Bannon and his friend Sandy, where they ambush three Apache scouts. Bannon pulls out his rifle, says "Turn around dirt" and then he shoots three of them down." Sany gets the other one. Bannon wasn't being fair telling the Apaches to turn around. He just wanted them to see who was killing them. You can feel his hate.
Apache Scout Jim Eagle says :" Bannon's never wrong about Apache." A Colonel castigates Bannon for killing the Apaches who he says were helping in bringing in a band of Apaches peacefully to the fort. The Colonel fires Bannon as Head of Scouts. Bannon shows the Colonel the war paint that the scouts had on, although it was hidden on their body.
Bannon says that for four years he was the adapted son of an Apache medicine man. He warns the Colonel, but hey are ambushed. With his dying words he blames Bannon for the ambush, because he killed the Apache scouts.
Back at the fort we see Nita, a half-Apache and half-Mexican greet Bannon, but he barely acknowledges her as he heads for the the Captain's girl. But she wants no part of Bannon who she sees as a killer. When Bannon sees Nita later he says: "What makes an Apache so pretty? Must be your Spanish blood." Bannon thinks Nita is an Apache spy, but he uses her anyways.
The cavalry bring in another scout to replace Bannon, Jerry August, who believes in making deals with the Indians. Toriano (Jack Palance), son of Chief Chattez, returns from schooling in the east. Like Scar, in The Searchers, he is filled with hate for the whites. Johnny Gunther, Toriano's friend from youth is eager to see him. he named his son after Toriano.
Johnny Gunther: Toriano is more than my friend. We played together when we were young. Look at this (shows scar on wrist).
We made ourselves blood brothers.
Ed Bannon: There's just one way an Apache can put an end to that relationship. He kills ya!
Toriano puuls off his hat to reveal his long hair. He says: "I am not a white man." Back at camp Toriano shows his people the Ghost dance that has been reveled to him (The Ghost Dance originated with the Northern Paiute in 1889, and was later used by the Lakota in 1890, but in this movie all Indians are seen as being the same.) Toriano tells his people to do the dance and then they will have death to the white eyes.
Bannon enters the camp and says to Toriano: "I do not stand among men. Around me are the animals I ran from. Whenever I am called an Apache I grow sick with shame because I lived with you and I know you. Because I know you I don't believe you've come to this place in peace as the soldiers believe. But I tell you this, I know the beat of your drums and the words of your thoughts and I'll learn the meaning of what you started tonight. Whatever it is I'll fight against you to those Apaches still alive will look at this night as the worst in their memory."
Toriano then sneaks in to the fort, and then proves that Bannon is right, he kills his blood brother Johnny Gunther in cold blood, to cut off all his ties to the whites. Easily one of the most dastardly things Hollywood has had an Indian leader do on film. Toriano says: "No Apache such as I may have a white man as a blood brother. Your death will make up for my mistake." He then guns Johnny down as Johnny says "Toriano, I want you to meet my son, named after you."
The raids then begin. Houses and wagon trains up in flames. Cavalry troops ambushed. Bannon and Sandy go out hunting for Toriano and his men and he kills Nita's brother, Spanich. They report back to the Captain about Toriano's movements. The Captain was going on to parlay with Toriano, but Bannon warns him not to. Bannon tells a story of how when he and Toriano were young, he learned how to cut a man's throat so it takes him a day to die. he tells how Toriano has a baby brother born sickly and "like a good Apache took him out and bashed his head against a rock." That was when Bannon left the Apaches. He tried to settle down, but the Apaches always followed after him. That's why Bannon joined the army.
The captain's girl, Lela is won over by his speech, and tells Bannon that she loves him. She tells the captain she will go where ever Bannon goes. Not a good scene. It's hard to believe she would go for this racist psycho, no matter what caused him to get that way. Then Nita tries to kill Bannon, because he killed her brother. He says : " The Apache in you finally came out." Bannon has Nita thrown in to the prison. Nita then kills herself. Bannon says to a soldier: "There is a dead Apache in here. Get it out."
The next day the calvalry rides out to meet Toriano, who they think wants to discuss peace. But Toriano has on war paint. His men quickly surround the troops. The calvalry tries to escape and army scout Jim Eagle shoots Jerry August down. The Apaches for some reason let the troops get behind some rocks, and then rush them when they are in position. We get to see a lot of Indians shot out of their saddles but the troops begin to die also. Toriano and his men then ride off when they see some smoke Bannon and Sandy send up.
The Captain decides to fight Apaches Bannon's way. Bannon leads the troops after Toriano.
Bannon finally figres out what Toriano is up to when he hears the drums.
Captain Bill North: What is it?
Ed Bannon: Prophecy.
Captain Bill North: Prophecy?
Ed Bannon: They never talk it. It was always written - carved on a tree, painted on a rock. The Invisible One would appear and lead them to victory over the White Eyes. It would be one of their people. He'd come from the East.
Captain Bill North: That fits Toriano
Ed Bannon: That's why he went back East to school... so he could make it fit.
Bannon sneaks in to Toriana's camp and pulls a gun on him. He cuts their wrists and joins them together. Toriano says "Our blood is joined. We are brothers as long as both of us live." Bannon says that Toriano can't attack now, because then someone else might kill his blood brother (Toriano has to kill him to undo it?).
Toriano then calls Bannon out and the inevitable one on one fight takes place, and guess what? Bannon breaks Toriano's neck and ends the Indian uprising. Bannon, carrying Toriano's dead body, says to the Indians: "Hear me. You listened to the invincible one. You left your homes to follow him. There's your invincible one. Where's his magic now." The Apaches head back to follow the ways of peace.
I'm ranking this movie pretty high because I think it is very interesting. A contrived plot, that makes no sense at many points. It was made right before the era of the movies sympathetic to the Indians started being made. It has a really stereotypical view of the Indian and it had a bigger budget and had an A movie cast. It might be one of the most expensive movies made, with such a stereotypical and negative view of Native Americans presented. It also is also interesting when viewed as a precursor to The Searchers, Apache and Ulzana's Raid.
NY Times review
THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; U. S. Cavalry and the Apaches Go at It Hot and Heavy in 'Arrowhead' at Holiday
By BOSLEY CROWTHER
Published: September 16, 1953
Whatever feelings of friendship for the American. Indian may have been shown in a few open-minded Hollywood Westerns lately, it is plain that Producer Nat Holt is having no truck with any such ideas. To him, an Indian is still a treacherous dog. At least, he is in "Arrowhead," Mr. Holt's latest film, produced in sparkling Technicolor and delivered yesterday to the Holiday.
Indeed, the monotony of this picture may be charged to its harping on that theme, which becomes an oppressive obsession of virtually everyone concerned. It starts off with Charlton Heston, as an Indian scout for a western cavalry post, stubbornly taking the position that the only good Apache is a dead Apache and refusing to change.
Darkly and sourly he holds to it, while the new commander of the post tries to follow a policy of friendly dealing and take the Indians at their promised word. But pretty soon, when the young chief, Toriano, returns from boarding school and starts raising cain in the vicinity, it is obvious that Heston is right.
And so the remainder of the picture is given over to a lengthy account of a cavalry-and-Indian encounter in which guns pop and ruby blood is shed. It ends in a hand-to-hand combat between Heston and the tall Apache brave. Needless to say, Heston wins it by breaking the Apache's neck.
Let's be quick about it. It is neither a pretty nor a captivating film. Mr. Heston makes an unappealing hero and Jack Palance makes a dour Apache brave. Katy Jurado is slinky and sultry as an Apache fifth column at the cavalry post and Brian Keith is conventionally rakish as the captain of the cavalry troop. The scenery is occasionally pretty. That's about all that can be said.