THE INDIAN FIGHTER is a generally interesting 1955 pass at making a western with some depth, sympathetic to the Native Americans (not that they get to play themselves) and with a novelistic-tinged approach in the writing by Ben Hecht that voices some early environmental concerns, deals a bit with racism, throws in some daring-for-the-day sex, and thankfully has a battle at the tail end.
Produced by Kirk Douglas as a showcase starring vehicle for himself and to launch his own company, Bryna, it has intelligent dialogue, and most of the acting comes off fairly naturalistic under stylish but not showy direction by Andre de Toth. Kirk’s ‘hero’ has some questionable behaviors. For one, he practically rapes the love interest, a Sioux maiden played by drop-dead stunner Elsa Martinelli, 20 and captivating, brought over from Italy on the strength of a magazine cover (she was a model) seen by Kirk’s wife Anne.
Now, Anne is Kirk’s 2nd wife. His first, Diana, is a co-star here as secondary love-interest (thanks a load, baby). Meanwhile, Kirk, according to his memoirs, goes at it hot & heavy with Elsa. This is not hard to understand: one look at her here, bathing in a stream, when I first saw this a kid, pretty much helped cement my partner inclinations (along with Sophia Loren in The Pride And The Passion, so better or worse, I owe Italy a lot).
Walter Matthau is the bad guy—he debuted the same year, also playing a snake, in Kirk-buddy Burt Lancaster’s directorial debut, The Kentuckian. Others on board include Walter Abel, a noticeably booze-battered Lon Chaney Jr., Elisha Cook, Alan Hale Jr., Ray Teal, Frank Cady, William Phipps and Hank Worden. ‘Red Cloud’ is played, with stone-faced ‘dignity’ by Eduard Franz, who also suggested noble Native Americans in Broken Lance and the same years White Feather.
Beautiful location work around Bend, Oregon aids considerably, though a countervailing credit is the way-overdone score from the usually fine Franz Waxman. Attempting something important-symphonic ala Copland, it comes off blaring and obvious, cutesy and intrusive. Art directors provided a great fort. Directing, de Toth went off the usual cliché warpath and gave the Sioux credit for some smart tactics during the battle scene, confounding the white-eyes, and not merely riding by as target practice.
Kirk’s saga as ‘Johnny Hawks’ (one of fifteen westerns he graced) did a decent $2,550,000, and his marriage to Anne survived his dalliance with Elsa, as they celebrated their 63rd anniversary in 2017.