Wednesday 19 January 2022

Reprisal! (1956)

Director: George Sherman
Writers: David P. Harmon, Raphael Hayes and David Dortort, based on the novel Reprisal by Arthur Gordon
Stars: Guy Madison, Felicia Farr and Kathryn Grant

Regular readers of my centennial reviews may be shocked to discover that I’m opening up 2022 not with Betty White but with Guy Madison. Sure, Betty was a beloved household name who’s still generating falling petals on searches for her name in Google three weeks after her death on New Years’ Eve of last year. She came within a breath of celebrating her hundredth birthday with us, but she went out as she lived: entirely on her own terms. Hey, 99 and a lot really counts as 100 if you count the leap days, or so memes would have it, but that’s nonsense. I’m 133 and going strong if you count in dog years but nobody gives a monkey’s. Anyway, Betty White did surprisingly little on film for such a prolific television actress, her most prominent role arguably being the contrary old cuss in Lake Placid, not enough to warrant me covering it as a centennial review. So, let’s kick off 1922 with Guy Madison, who was more prolific as a lead on film, as well as on television and radio, prompting a couple of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Even though he was never an A list star, there was plenty of choice for me in what to review. I could have gone for his debut, Since You Went Away in 1944, which prompted thousands of letters from fans seeking information on who he was, even though he was a bit part sailor with only a few minutes of screen time. RKO lent him out to William Castle for Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven, before his initial round of fame as the title character in The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which ran for eight seasons on TV from 1951 to 1958 and on radio from 1951 to 1956. He never stopped making features, though, and a few leap out for attention in varied genres: The Charge at Feather River, a western shot in 3D; On the Threshold of Space, not the sci-fi flick it might seem but a drama about test pilots with an unusual première on an air force base; and a weird western shot in Mexico called The Beast of Hollow Mountain. He’d later gain success in Italy, starring in an array of peplum epics, spaghetti westerns and what are now called macaroni combat films.

I chose this one, though, because of its subject matter and I don’t regret that in the slightest, because it presents a bizarre contrast in the obvious and incalculable divide between the writers of features in fifties Hollywood and the casting practices of the studios for which they wrote. In particular, this is almost an East German western, in that traditional western roles are reversed: the good guys are the Indians and the bad the Cowboys, in this instance the people of the small Oklahoma town of Kendall. The lead, which is Guy Madison’s character, is a halfbreed, born to an Indian maiden and a white good for nothing father who leaves her as soon as he learns that a child is on the way. This halfbreed’s name is Neola but, because Native Americans could not legally own land, he has to pretend to be white, claiming his title deed as Frank Madden. Passing for white was a dangerous business anywhere back then but especially so in a town where three hateful ranchers have just got away with lynching a pair of Indians for alleged trespass.

Racism isn’t ever palatable, but it’s particularly obnoxious here, so much so that it disgusts the sheriff, who had arrested the three Shipley boys, and the judge, who’s an honest man expecting an honest trial. The prosecutor, though, states, and I quote, “The fact that an Indian female’s testimony regarding the identification of one of the victims was permitted in this court is a shame and a shadow over this entire territory.” He continues, “The white men of the west cannot and will not recognise the testimony of those Indians who slaughtered, massacred and ambushed our parents.” Ouch! Sure, the judge promises to call for the disbarment of this prosecutor but the inevitably all white jury doesn’t even retire. The foreman simply looks at the others, stands up and shares their not guilty verdict. As the trial was held in a saloon, the owner promptly opens the bar with a round on the house to celebrate the acquittal of a trio of his good customers. It’s hard to watch, even if we’re not the Native Americans standing in the corner.

Now, not everyone in Kendall is happy about this, but they’re a mostly silent minority. The judge isn’t even a resident; because his jurisdiction covers much more of the local territory than just Kendall. The only people in town who speak up for any of the Native Americans are Sheriff Jim Dixon and the land clerk’s daughter, Catherine Cantrell, who’s “ashamed and, yes, guilty” by how folk in Kendall treat the Indians. In fact, she explains to Frank Madden that “I dream that someone would come and open their eyes, that someone would do something.” She just as clearly thinks that he might be that someone and quickly falls for him in part because of that, even though she has no idea yet that he’s half-Indian himself. We notice that, when she fills out Frank’s land deed, it’s she who automatically puts down “Race: White” and he just neglects to correct her. In many ways, Catherine is the heart of the movie, not only for personifying the white guilt that drips out of the script but because of a notable slip she makes later while emotional.

And that might suggest to you that Reprisal! is notably ahead of its time. This came out in 1956, the same year as The Searchers. This is the decade of Shane, Rio Bravo and High Noon, of The Naked Spur, 3:10 to Yuma and Winchester ’73. The counterculture and its change in how so much was viewed was a decade and change away. In its way, this is the most focused film on lynchings since The Ox-Bow Incident and it carries more of a racial impact. So yeah, this must be decades ahead of its time, right? Well, kinda sorta but mostly not really, for a few reasons. One is that the script is a notably loose adaptation of a 1950 novel of the same name, sans exclamation mark, by Arthur Gordon, that appears to be much harder hitting. Another is that the novel is itself based on a real life incident, the Moore’s Ford lynchings of 1946, in which four young African American sharecroppers, a pair of married couples, one of the men a veteran and one of the women seven months pregnant, were murdered by a white mob in a hail of bullets.

With that context, this becomes a very watered down version of a real lynching, translated from contemporary Georgia to pioneer era Oklahoma in what’s probably the 1890s, with its African American victims changed to Native Americans, two couples whittled down to one and the pregnant lady sanitised into merely a young wife. And, most notably, as well intentioned as the screenplay is, there isn’t a Native American actor anywhere to be found in the cast and that’s completely obvious to anyone watching. The tribal elder, Charlie Washackle, is played by Frank de Kova, who was a New York Italian with Shakespearean training, even if you’re most likely to recognise him as Chief Wild Eagle on the TV comedy F Troop. The Indian maiden, Taini—pronounced with two syllables by the good guys but only one by the bad, including married Bert Shipley, utterly smitten by this “Indian squaw”—is Kathryn Grant, a Texan best known for marrying Bing Crosby a year after this. Only Ralph Moody comes close to being believable as Matara.

The key to all this is Frank Madden, who began life and ends this film as Neola but spends much of the intervening time passing for white because he thinks that’s the only way he can get ahead. Given that he’s passing, it’s appropriate that he be played by a white actor, because he needs to be perceived by the other characters as white. However, casting white actors in the other native roles is not just reprehensible as a concerted example of what’s known as redface, but an act that makes a mockery of the otherwise well-meaning script, even as toned down as it was. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching on original release in 1956 (or especially now) and seeing anything but, “Hmm. What a progressive script that sees Native Americans not as savages but as human beings! So why didn’t they actually cast any?” That disconnect between script and casting is utterly jarring and, quite frankly, it breaks the movie. Sure, redface was routine in 1956, but most such westerns weren’t drenched with white guilt in sympathy with Native Americans.

Guy Madison was hardly the most versatile actor in the world, but he had good looks and a good presence on screen. He looks good riding his horse into Kendall to claim a deed to the Hammond place that he’s recently bought and it doesn’t stretch credence when we realise that Catherine Cantrell is quickly falling for him. Initially, he seems like the hero that she’s waiting for, especially when he realises that the Shipleys own the land either side of his and run their cattle right across his acreage, so buys up barbed wire at the Kendall hardware store to fence them out and even helps the Indian boy working there to load it onto his wagon. While he has no idea that this boy is Taini’s brother, it gets him noticed favourably by the local Native Americans and very unfavourably by the Shipley boys, who proceed to pick a fight with him at every opportunity, in the hope that he’ll react and they can shoot him down. Arguably the best scene in the film is when he refuses, simply walking away from Tom Shipley’s drawn gun as the town watches.

What makes this work for me is that Madison is pretty wooden early on, as befits a simple character who doesn’t do much but look good, refusing to play anyone’s games and just wanting to live alone on his new property to raise cattle. However, as things grow, he grows too and his anger along with it. Sure, he refuses to define where he stands on Indian trespassers to the racists who want a fresh ally, but he also vehemently rejects any overtures from the Native Americans. He even rejects his grandfather, who shows up out of nowhere and only reluctantly allows him to hang around, pretending to be his Indian servant. This takes a simple character and complicates it with a struggle for identity that comes at him from all sides. Catherine asks him, “Why do you talk one way and act another?” Matara asks him, “Who are your people? Where do you belong?” And he can’t answer any of these questions, though the truth of it all is going to inevitably emerge at some point and it’s not going to be quiet and forgotten.

I like this angle to the script, because it pulls a good performance out of Madison, where one just wouldn’t have been forthcoming otherwise, and because it grows as it goes, eventually highlighting how obvious so much of the rest of the story is. Every conflict is focused in on Frank Madden and the Shipleys, because of course their land surrounds his. Did I mention that the hanging tree that the latter use to string up their victims is on Frank’s land? Of course it is, because there’s no room for other characters to develop in this timeframe. Of course, most of the ones we have don’t develop either. All the Shipleys are textbook racists, only in the movie to represent that evil, just as Catherine represents the white guilt and Taini the honourable savage. They’re all one note characters, as Frank would be in another picture. Here, he has to grow and he has to grow for the entire film. Yes, he does reach the point that he has to reach, though the response of the town in the aftermath of his revelations stretches our credulity beyond limits.

I wonder how Guy Madison felt about the role, given that he wasn’t only the star of this film, playing the one and only character of depth, but an executive producer too for the very first time. That would suggest that this was a story he wanted to tell, and to back not only as an actor but a producer. Certainly, when he retired, he built a small ranch of his own in Morongo Valley, California, and lived there with his horses almost until his death in 1996. Like Neola, he also worked hard to get to that point, because he never got to become a top level box office draw. He leveraged his good looks to get roles, and learned the craft as he went, so that whenever he was cast in the right sort of role for his talents, he could deliver a reliable performance. Westerns were perfect and this one had the ability to successfully stretch him further than usual. He also found a niche in Europe, leading casts that were mostly dubbed, a detail that could only have helped his performances at the top of those bills.

Unusually for the people I tend to cover in centennial reviews, he didn’t do a huge amount outside the industry. Born Robert Ozell Moseley in the delightfully named unincorporated community of Pumpkin Center, California, outside Bakersfield, in 1922, he was a telephone linesman before enlisting in World War II, serving as a lifeguard in San Diego. His big break came, as they often do, by no deliberate effort; he was taking leave in Hollywood in 1944 when he was spotted by a talent scout and brought to Paramount to see David O. Selznick, who saw much potential in him. His appearance in Since You Went Away was not credited to his real name, for no better reason than he didn’t want the military to notice. As his A list career was vanishing but before he found fame on television, he married a bigger star in Gail Russell. He was her only husband, though they went through marriage, separation, reunification, a second separation and divorce in only five years. He later married actress Sheila Connolly.

That fame came through The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, still the role for which he’s best known today, with Andy Devine playing his light hearted sidekick, Pete “Jingles” Jones. While this was a TV show that also found success on radio, it also took him back to the big screen, because many episodes were bundled together and released in feature form by Monogram, which issued sixteen of these hybrid efforts between 1952 and 1955. He also continued to make movies in parallel with the show, and his filmography is a varied set of genre pictures indeed, made across the globe in whatever type of story was in vogue at the time. The more I look at it, the more I wonder which titles took best advantage of his usual approach as a charismatic but tight-lipped hero, telling his stories far more through presence than dialogue. I want to check out Women of Devil’s Island and The Executioner of Venice, Legacy of the Incas and LSD Flesh of Devil, Bang Bang Kid and Superargo and the Faceless Giants. There’s just so much to explore!

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