Cecil B. DeMille filmed this movie twice before in the silent era. In his third version he has the noble Jim Wingate (Warner Baxter) travelling to America because he takes the blame for his cousin's embezzlement, because he loves his wife.
The scene quickly shifts to Buzzards Pass in Maverick, Arizona. Native American Tabywana walks in to a saloon and says "How" to Cash Hawkins (Charles Bickford). Cash wants his cattle and Tabywana wants a drink. Cash tries to use the liquor to get his cattle for six dollars a head. Tabywana's daughter Naturich comes in to the saloon and keeps her father from signing the bad deal. Cash then decides to is going to give the beautiful Naturich four bits, and use her as he may, but Naturich tries to fight him off. Jim Wingate, now known as Jim Carston, then comes to her rescue and Naturich is in love.
When the law comes Cash says "She ain't a woman, she's a squaw", but he leaves vowing to return. Jim gets the English papers and reads of the news from back home, and drinks away his sorrows. Cash returns back to settle the score, but Naturich, leaving behind her passed out drunken father, shoots Cash before he can shoot Jim.
Naturich follows Jim and tells him that she killed Cash Hawkins. Jim sends her away but when Jim is ambushed by some of Cash's men, she nurses him back to health.
Jim's friend tells him he must send Naturich away. "You don't want them sayin you're a squaw man, do ya?" Jim tries to send her away, but it doesn't work.
Jim tells her : "Naturich. This last time you fix. All well now. No more sick. So today you go back to Tabywana."
Naturich : "Me stay".
Jim : "You been plenty good. You save life. Very big thanks."
Naturich : "Me stay".
Jim : "Naturich now listen carefully. No good you stay here. Bad people. They talk. No good for you. Understand?"
Naturich : "Understand. Me stay."
Jim : "Naturich, come here. I want you go."
Naturich : "You want?"
Jim : "Yes."
Jim's friend brings Naturich's things and she sadly heads out the door. Jim says "Again. very big thanks." he then says to his friend" There. I hope your community will be satisfied."
Jim goes out on the porch on the rainy night and there is Naturich. He brings her in to the house and says "This very bad. You catch death." Naturich goes in front of the fire and takes off her clothes to dry them, and puts on Jim's coat. Naturich says :"Fire good." When Naturich puts her face against Jim's hand, and the scene fades to black we kind of know what is going to happen.
The next scene is set at the Norbury fox hounds hunt, back in England. Jim's cousin, Lord Henry, is still up to no good and is now cheating on his wife. At the fox hunt Henry's horse falls and Henry is killed. Lady Diana heads to America to find her true love.
Back in Buzzards pass Naturich hasn't learned to talk any better English in the last five years, although her son, Little Hal (Dickie Moore), speaks perfect English. It is Hal's birthday and he loves his electric train set. Naturich says : "I got a birthday for you." She gives him a horse she carved herself, but he runs back to play with the train.
Diana and her father, Sir John Applegate (Johnny), after a years search, finally find Jim. Jim's estate is now waiting for him to return back in England, and Jim thinks about going back, but then he sees Naturich, and knows he can never return. He says: "There's no place in England for her." Diana and her father then meets his son and his wife. Naturich says "Understand." Jim then speaks some Navajo, probably as badly as Naturich speaks English. Naturich then says to Diana: "Very glad see you my house."
In the movie we have a white man marrying an Indian, almost twenty years before Broken Arrow (1950). It might look as if Demille is making a courageous movie telling a story about inter-racial love at a very early time. But then we have DeMille trying to convince us that the Indians are really just primitives, and Jim has made a big mistake. Tabywana and his sons dress Hal up in some feathers and have him doing a war dance to the beating of drums. Hal tells his father: "Look at the swell war bonnet grandpa gave me. And White Horse gave me the lance. Their going to make me a big chief when I grow up." When his father asks him where his train is, Hal says: "Over there. Bill's been showing me how to run it. Yo see it's a white man's train." Bill and Lord Applegate both look on with concern.
Lord Applegate: "There you have the whole picture Jim"
Jim : "What do you mean?"
Lord Applegate: "That war bonnet will be a little bit out of place at Eton and Oxford"
Jim : "It won't be at Eton at Oxford"
Lord Applegate: "You don't mean to say that you are going to allow the child to grow up here with all this cactus and tom-toms. It isn't fair. Jim, you chose not to be the Earl of Kerhill. Then he is. You can't deprive him of his heritage. Eton and Oxford. Maudsley Towers, and their green grass you love so well. "
Jim : "Never mind that. he's my son."
Lord Applegate: "You've no right to make him suffer for your mistakes just because he's a part of them. You've never been selfish Jim. Don't start with your son."
Jim : "I thought if what you're telling ne a thousand times Johnny. It's impossible. Perhaps later."
Lord Applegate: "Later will be too late Jim. Look here. we're leaving tomorrow. Let us take him back with us."
Jim : "Now."
Lord Applegate: "Yes. "
Jim : "You don't know whay you're asking Johnny. Why his mother, she'd never understand."
Lord Applegate: "But you can .. "
Jim : "Her mind is .. primitive. "
Lord Applegate: "Two more years of tom-toms and his will be the same."
Jim : "No I can't. I can't Johnny. He means more to me then anything in life. "
Lord Applegate: "You'll never have a better chance to prove that."
Jim then decides to talk to his wife.
Jim : "Naturich, you know my heart for you is good. Then listen well my words. Far away, oh far away past Maverick. pat Albuquerque. Past Washington. Across big water is England. You understand."
Naturich: "I understand."
Jim : "Over there I have much land. Own much cattle. And big hogan. "
Naturich: "You no go way from me."
Jim : "No dear, I stay here. With you always. But Hal, he go. "
Jim : "Johnny, how can you explain the British empire to a mind that hasn't traveled beyond the trading post at Maverick. "
Johnny: "You've no choice Jim. I wish I could help you."
Jim : "Hal can be big chief there. You and I strong, we love Hal very much. We want him to be strong. Have great wisdom. So we send him across big water to school. "
Jim : "Johnny, I can't. "
Johnny: "You've got to go through with it old man. It's the boys future. Or this (picking up the bonnet)."
Jim : "Hal go, with lady and his friend. "
Naturich: "No. Mine. Mine,"
Jim: "I've taken counsel. My heart is good. I have spoken."
Now the sheriff shows up looking for Jim's squaw. He now has proof, seven years later, that she was the one who shot Cash Hawkins. As you can see DeMille was no John Ford. Naturich has gone to the mountains to pray, to try to understand why Jim is sending her son away. She prays to the Great Spirit while drums beat in the background.
They pack up Hal's stuff, to get ready for the trip. Hal doesn't seem reluctant too leave, although he would like to say goodbye to his mom. As Hal heads off with Johnny and Diana, Naturich waves goodbye, hiding behind a cactus.
When the sheriff comes back for Naturich, Jim is prepared to fight for her, but Naturich has had enough. She shoots herself in despair over the loss of her son.
The movie solves the miscegenation problem the same way Broken Arrow does two decades later. The Indian woman, who has tempted the white man, must die. Jim is now free to join Diana and Hal in England.
The movie ends up being being horribly manipulative and racist. Even Jim, who is is married to Naturich knows that he has to get his son away for her. He describes his wife as being simple minded and the movie does make Naturich appear simple minded. She can barely speak a full sentence, and Jim talks to her like she is a five year old child. It's a shame Cecil B. decided to make a movie, especially on his third try, which presented such a racist depiction of the Navajo,
NY Times Review from 1931
Cecil B. De Mille first took hold of "The Squaw Man" in 1913, after it had seen wide service as a dramatic vehicle for William Faversham, Dustin Farnum and other bulwarks of the stage. It passed the De Mille cameras once more in 1918. And now, in its twenty-sixth year, Mr. De Mille has taken up "The Squaw Man" again, spinning about its miscegenetic tale of fortitude and sorrow a production that is taking close to two hours to present at the Capitol. Skilfully acted by a dozen good players, handsomely produced as to scenery and technical excellence, it makes an interesting entertainment—one that is too somber in its story to be called amusing and too neatly carpentered in its plot to be called genuine tragedy. The seams of age shine through; it is agreeable and expert melodrama.
Warner Baxter is as much at home in the baronial English castle where the story opens as in the woolly, six-shooting West where it ends. As Jim Carston, heir to an earldom, he loves his cousin's wife and dislikes his cousin's habit of tampering with charity funds. So, being as noble as an artful playwright can make him, he renounces the wife, assumes the responsibility for stealing bread from orphans and disappears in the night, night.
In the Arizona cattle country, where he next takes up abode, the hero is respected rather than loved by his unfriendly neighbors. When Naturich, daughter of Indian royalty, kills a braggart to save Carston's life and later camps abjectly on his doorstep in silent adoration, he is impelled to take her in. Little Hal, bright-eyed offspring of the union, pops into the picture after a lapse. The tragedy gains momentum. The "squaw-man" suffers the contempt of his fellows without flinching. Then, the wicked cousin having met an untimely end, the woman he loves appears on the scene. So does his friend, Sir John, with small talk of Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square. A visitor to the Capitol will find the solution not unmixed with tears.
The Western atmosphere is effectively handled and adds richly to the entertainment qualities of the picture. Charles Bickford, as the bully, plays to the hilt and sometimes beyond. The other principal parts are more than adequately played by the lovely Eleanor Boardman as the English peeress, Lupe Velez as the Indian girl, Paul Cavanagh as the wicked cousin and Roland Young as Sir John. In smaller parts Raymond Hatton, De Witt Jennings and Farrell MacDonald are completely suitable. Warner Baxter's performance is delivered with his customary ease and sense of fitness.