Cochise: "I break the arrow. I will try the way of peace."
The movie starts with James Stewart, who plays Tom Jeffords saying: "This is the story of a land, of the people who lived on it in the year 1870, and of a man whose name was Cochise. He was an Indian - leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe. I was involved in the story and what I have to tell happened exactly as you'll see it - the only change will be that when the Apaches speak, they will speak in our language. What took place is part of the history of Arizona and it began for me here where you see me riding."
Cochise had been waging a war against the US for over ten years and has united all of the Apaches. Jeffords helps save a young, wounded Apache boy. When Geronimo and members of the tribe come, they spare Jeffries, but he sees them ambush some prospectors and then torture the survivors. Geronimo then lets Jeffords leave.
Jeffords decides to learn about the Apache language and culture. Jeffords knows that Cochise's bother and some of his chiefs had been ambushed at a peace conference, but Jeffords want to mend the fences. He hopes Cochise will let the mail go through, and maybe talk of peace. When Jeffords approaches Apache territory, Cochise lets him enter the village. Cochise and Jeffords talk and Cochise comes to respect him.
Jeffords tries to convince Cochise that peace is the best way and he stays at the village for a while. The movie introduces a love interest for Jeffords with an Apache girl, which did not take place. Cochise decides to let the mail go through. When Jeffords come back to town there are some that would hang him as an "Indian lover."
Jeffords later helps arrange a meeting between Cochise and General Howard (the one-armed "Christian General" who would later chase Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce to Canada). The meeting led to a new reservation being created for the Chiricahuas on the land that Cochise wanted. Geronimo and some other Apaches are against the peace, and leave the band. Cochise, though, breaks the arrow, and will try the ways of peace for three months. Cochise: "Now I say this: the Americans keep cattle but they are not soft or weak. Why should not the Apache be able to learn new ways? It is not easy to change, but sometimes it is required. The Americans grow stronger while we grow weaker. If a big wind comes, a tree must bend... or be lifted out by the roots." Cochise warns Geronimo (played by Jay Silverheels) and his followers that if they come back to this land, they should come with weapons. When bad white guys ambush Cochise, Jeffords wife is killed. We learn that there are bad Indians and bad white men. The bad Indians are the ones who won't give their lands to the white men and go on to the reservation, and the bad white men are the ones who won't let the good Indians give up their lands peacefully.
Before you know it Cochise's men are protecting the whites against the renegades ("bad Indians" as Cochise calls them. Jeffords marries the beautiful Indian princess (somehow the prettiest Indian maiden is always attracted to the white hero).
The happy ending of the Apaches settling on to their reservation and living happily ever after is not correct. The reservation eventually closed in 1876 after Cochise died. Geronimo then led seven hundred Apaches in the last Apache war.
Broken Arrow was ground breaking in its day for its sympathetic portrayal of Indian culture. Cochise is a wise, noble warrior who made decisions on what he thought was going to be best for the future of his tribe. He, like many other Indian Leaders, had no way of knowing that their hopes and aspirations would be destroyed by the racism and greed of the invading white culture.
The movie had really good production values, and had some good village scenes. Jeff Chandler was very good playing Cochise, and did a great job of conveying the power and dignity of Cochise. Could have been better with Native actors in the lead, without the contrived love interest and with the use of the Apache language. I wasn't really happy that Geronimo, who some might consider a patriot, was vilified. Overall, still a very good movie, especially for its time.
In his wonderful book, Gunfighter Nation (1992), Richard Slotkin says of Broken Arrow "the Indians in Broken Arrow are presented as victims of aggression and double dealing by the Whites, whose motives are a mix of rational greed and irrational racism." he goeson to say that "Jeffords can concieve the possibility of peace with the Apaches because he can overcome racial prejudice and recognize the humanity of his enemy."
He finishes by saying: "The ending allows the viewer to entertain two contradictory understandings of the fate of the 'good' Indians and the neaning of their tale. On the literal level, the film tells us that the treaty has succeeded, and we are to presume that its aims of providing a good future for the Apache will be achieved. But at the same time, the possibility that 'peace' might lead to full integration ('marriage') has been eliminated. Jeffords tells us that he will return to his former life as a lone wanderer, and that Sonseeahray 'survives' as an idea in his mind, recalled by the beauties of Nature."
Slotkin's analysis could lead one to speculate that perhaps, the film was suggesting that 1950 America was ready to deal with America's racial problems in a 'separate but equal' kind of way, but was still was not ready to deal with true integration. Brown vs. the Board of Education, with its decision that 'separate but equal' was inherently unfair would be decided just four years later in 1954. Slotkin's analysis makes Broken Arrow much more interesting as a commentary on 1950 America.