Monday, August 14, 2006

Monday Memories of Massacre

Sorry I missed posting yesterday; we have week-long houseguests who are finally departing today, and though I love ‘em, I am so ready for our house to be our house again! As of last Tuesday, it’s been strewn with grandchildren debris and I’ve been pretty much displaced; as of Friday, I didn't feel like I lived here any more. Time for bye-bye, indeed, but not for me.

And yes, Marge got her kitties this weekend, too. More on that (with pix!) in days to come.

Catching up on emails will prompt most of my posts this week:

First, this from HomeyM of Jamaica, VT, who has been sending me excerpts from a recent book he refers to herein:

Native American professor publishes new book on American Indian movement

STANFORD -- He was only 9 years old at the time of the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee by the Oglala Sioux, but Robert Warrior will never forget the prime-time event that brought international attention to the concerns of American Indians.

"The thing I remember most clearly was Marlon Brando refusing the Academy Award," says the assistant professor of English. "In his place Sacheen Littlefeather tried to make a speech -- and got booed off the stage."

HomeyM comments, “Then again, as regards "Sacheen Littlefeather":

Brando turned down the Academy Award, the second actor to refuse an Oscar (the first being George C. Scott for
Patton). Brando boycotted the award ceremony, sending little-known actress
  • Sacheen Littlefeather
  • to state his reasons, which were based on his objections to the depiction of Native Americans by Hollywood and television. There was later much controversy when it emerged Littlefeather was not a Native American Indian at all, but a Mexican actress named Maria Cruz. Hmmm.”

    I recall seeing this, too, on TV, during one of the precious few Academy Award show I ever watched.

    Funny thing: the only film I remember from Sacheen’s filmography in which she really registered was a 1975 exploitation film based on the 1960s Native American reservation crisis, Johnny Firecloud. It was knockoff of Billy Jack with heavier doses of rape (Sacheen is gangbanged to death by rednecks), lynchings and gore (some quite explicit) than the Tom Laughlin films (note Sacheen was in the 1974 The Trial of Billy Jack). It was produced (for 20th Century Fox!) by indy adult and exploitation film mogul David Friedman, the man behind such down-and-dirty classics as Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, The Defilers, She-Freak, Thar She Blows, Trader Hornee and countless others, including the immortal Nazi concentration camp sex-and-gore epic Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (a film so nasty Friedman produced it under a pseudoname!).

    Almost as lurid as Ilsa, Johnny Firecloud probably cut closer to the reality of reservations vs. renegade redneck authorities than any other film of the '70s, though only drive-in and urban grindhouse audiences ever saw it, and critics of course totally ignored it.

    Part of my love of such exploitation films is that more of the 'truth' leaked into the pop culture via such reprehensible vehicles than mainstream news or media would ever permit. Johnny Firecloud also had a curious (for the time) anti-homophobia narrative thread, ending with Johnny and the closeted gay sheriff (!) shaking hands instead of the bloodbath the narrative seemed to be building to: understanding and tolerance unexpectedly win the day, if only for the fadeout. Interesting film, though clearly not for all tastes.

    Johnny Firecloud was actually a remake of sorts of an obscure and essentially ‘lost’ Warner Bros social outrage opus, the 1934 Massacre. Ralph Block & Sheridan Gibney’s screenplay created the blueprint for the whole “revenge of the reservation” cinema genre, up to and beyond Billy Jack, and director Alan Crosland unpretentiously played up the script’s most agonizing elements, building to a boil-over point the film just can’t contain.

    Vet D.W. Griffith lead Richard Barthelmess starred, playing Joe Thunderhorse, a Native American reservation hero as put-upon and fed up as Johnny Firecloud, facing a clutch of whiteskin villains who are as vicious as any in Friedman’s 1975 gorefest. Though Barthelmess is, like most of the cast playing "indians," not even momentarily believable as a Native American, he gives a taut performance that maintains audience sympathy for the character and his vendetta. That alone makes this an unusual against-the-grain portrait of the contemporary Native American situation, gracing the screen amid the greatest popularity of by-the-numbers B-westerns which reveled in the stereotype of "redman savage" villainy. In Massacre, the villains are all caucasian authority figures and redneck brutes; corruption and complicity is pervasive and insurmountable, the Native Americans the downtrodden and abused disenfranchised relegated to an intolerable life of poverty, subjugation and exploitation on the res. Joe lashes out against this, and violence is indeed the last resort when all else fails; but once Joe's hand is forced, he proves as ruthless as his foes.

    Among the motherfuckers Joe ultimately cuts down (for torturing and raping his sister!) are blackhearts played by none other than Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless himself!) and Sidney Toler. The pre-Charlie Chan role Toler played here was the most sadistic of the onscreen predators in Massacre, supervising and savoring the torture of Joe’s sister in a jarring shot clearly patterned on the most lipsmacking of the pulp era covers: she is stripped nude and bound, her back to the camera (almost identical to the image later used to promote Ralph Nelson’s 1970 Native American atrocity gorefest Soldier Blue), as Toler and his cronies brand her with an outsized white-hot iron -- the shot is filtered to convey suffocating heat and claustrophobic horror, and it is as horrific today as it was 70 years ago.

    Joe eventually ropes Toler and drags him mercilessly to his death behind a jeep, culminating in a closeup of the road-ravaged Toler rolling over into camera view, spilling blood from his mouth and quite dead. For the time, this was as brutal a film as any outside of the goona goona cycle. Like all other films in its genre, the fadeout finds Joe alive but a fugitive from justice, no doubt facing execution once he turns himself in or is captured -- even in fiction, there could be no happy ending.

    I caught a pristine print of Massacre at Cinefest a number of years ago -- the March silent-and-early-sound film fest Marge and I attend every year in Syracuse, NY, thanks to my dear friend Mike Dobbs turning me on to this over a dozen years ago -- and am glad I saw it when I did, as it had never before (and has never since) been available to see. The hard edge and savage pragmatism of this film was typical of Warner Bros films of the pre-Code Depression era, including another Richard Barthelmess gem, Heroes for Sale (aka Breadline, 1933), which did come out on vhs and has a place of honor in my video library.

    Let me know if any of you ever stumbles on copies of Massacre available from any venue, please and thanks. Here's hoping Robert Warrior includes it in his new book, though I'm not holding my breath; this is the kind of film that has remained invisible to Native American and film scholars for decades, and will most likely remain so.