In Oregon Country, 1868, there are several tribes that have been crammed together on a reservation north of the Snake River, and now the government wants to build a road through that to open up the lands on the other side. Sgt. Emmett Bell (Jeff Chandler) is head of the Calvary's Indian police, who are made up of Nez Perce. Dr. Holden (Ward Bond) has converted most of the tribes to Christianity.
The new Colonel builds a bridge across the river and plans to build a fort and the chiefs are concerned. Zachariah, of the Couer d'Alene, says: "My people are not of Palouse who kill and steal against you, nor of Nez Perce who wear your blue jacket. Couer d'Alene walk middle road, but this not mean we are women who will not fight." The chiefs get together with the new colonel who has been sent and he tries to explain the need for the new fort. Kamiakin (Michael Ansara, who played Cochise on TV), chief of the Palouse tribe vows to go down fighting. He says:
Talk? Of what? These mountains mark our land. Our fathers knew not even these boundaries. But we have promised to live here between the Pillars of the Sky, although are people are crowded one upon the other. There's not game enough to feed a single tribe, now these soldiers say even this is too much. There is no talk left, theres only stark (war)"
He is answered by the chief of the Nez Perce, a member of the Indian police who says as he breaks a bow in his hand:
You speak of our fathers. My father's bow would have torn my arm from my shoulder before it broke. We have lost the skills of out fathers, Chief of the Palouse. We lost them a thousand suns ago when we took the iron knife from the white man. And now we have this (he touches a rifle), you can not fight or hunt without one. Can you make one? The food in your bellies, the iron pot you cook it with, the tobacco in your pipes, these belong to the white man. The medicines when you are sick, the whiskey that turns you mad : both are his. And so it is : the good in your lives and the bad are bound up with the white man."
Kamiakin shouts: "Then take their faith, but for me there is this : I will stay on this land and if there is no game then my belly will be lean, if are there no hides then I will run naked. And if I have no gun and my bow breaks I will fight with a club or stone. I will heal myself or I will die and put my fate in the ghosts of my fathers. But I will live as my own man as I have been taught. And if my tribe be lost let it be lost in battle, not swallowed up in the belly of a different people. So wear your blue jacket Nez Perce, running dog of a striped sergeant."
"But even if you should drive him away, you will have lost. For if the white man goes then we must follow, for we no longer know how to live without him."
"The end is this. The white man and the red will live together. Oh it will not come in our time, Couer d'Alene and until it does it will be hard. But from the white man too has come a faith that will help us wait."
The Indians decide to unite against the whites. There is a pretty good battle scene where must of the white soldiers are killed, along with an equal amount of Indians. In the battle the chief of the Nez Perce sacrifices himself to save Bell.
When Dr. Holden goes out to stop a new attack with his hand raised, Kamiakin shoots him down. Bell then goes out and talks to all the chiefs about the cowardly thing Kamiakin has done and that they must give back their Christian names and takes the names of animals, because they are no better than the animals. When Kamiakin rides in to attack Bell, a shamed Chief Isaiah shoots him down. All the chiefs then follow Bell in as he carries Dr. Holden's body in to the chapel. Sgt. Bell then reads from the Bible as all the Indians kneel.
A good movie, with a good cast. The love story, that is just sort of thrown in, doesn't work. The movie does show how the tribes were packed together on reservations and then even those lands weren't kept safe. It also shows how the missionaries tried to convert them and get them to abandon their culture. The movie also shows the different roads that the Indians took : some joined in with the whites, others took a middle road, others chose to fight. Ultimately, none of the roads were any good for the Indians, although this movie suggests that joining in with the whites was the way to go. Like in most Westerns, the heroic, patriotic Indian fighting for his peoples rights against the invaders, is demonized.
The movie also takes an interesting look at Christianized Indians from different tribes. The movie takes a very Christian point of view and holds up Dr. Holden as a Christ like figure, who ultimately triumphs in his conversion of Emmett Bell. The movie can also be looked at as a justification of the Cold War view that the Communist nations must be stopped and then converted. This movie, like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon(1949) has the tribes (communists) uniting, and tells us we must also unite to defeat them and save them.
The movie can also be seen as commenting on the civil rights struggle going on in 1956 America. The movie could be saying that radical rebellion is not the answer. Blacks in America, should like the Indians in this film, put their trust in their faith and know that blacks and whites will eventually live together in peace, even if it is not in our times.
Whatever lens you look at this movie through : Christian values, Cold War propaganda, civil right statement or as just as a Western, it is an interesting and pretty good movie.