TONKA—no, not the indispensable toy line, but the swell 1958 Disney western about a young Sioux brave and his noble steed. ‘White Bull’ (Sal Mineo) captures a spirited wild pony and they quickly bond, running like the proverbial wind. His best friend (Rafael Campos) is delighted but a cruel cousin (H. M. Wynant) abuses the animal. White Bull sets ‘Tonka-wakan’ free. He is recaptured by a new owner, Myles Keogh (Philip Carey), who renames the horse ‘Comanche’. Keogh is gentle but also happens to be a Captain in the 7th Cavalry. White Bull wants Tonka back. His people want the 7th gone. The impetuous leader of the 7th, George Armstong Custer (Britt Lomond) has other ideas. Some dust will be kicked up before the 97 minutes conclude.
Walt’s penchant for building-block history lessons gave the youthful audience a 4-fer here: Nature via the stallion; a young hero; tolerance in the form of treating Native Americans with sympathy, dignity and equality; and a dose of real-life drama by conjoining fictional Tonka/White Bull with historical Comanche/Keogh and wrapping it all up with an exciting, quite well-staged battle sequence of ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, reasonably accurate compared to other film versions and pretty violent for a Disney feature. *
19-year-old Mineo brings charisma and energy to his role, Carey makes a strong Keogh and Britt Lomond does Custer not as a dashing hero (Errol Flynn in They Died With Their Boots On) but as a jerk (again, a welcome element from Disney to not whitewash the arrogant officer) yet with enough restraint that he doesn’t come off as a silly lunatic (mount up!, Richard Mulligan, in Little Big Man). H.M.Wynant makes a mean cousin.
Directed by Lewis R. Foster, who wrote the script with Lillie Hayward, someone who had a strong track record with outdoor stories involving animals. It looks great in color thanks to cameraman Loyal Griggs, shooting in scenic locations around Bend, Oregon, standing in for Montana and the Dakotas.
A childhood favorite. With Jerome Courtland, Joy Page, Herbert Rudley and Slim Pickens. It came in 35th in ’58 releases with a gross of $7,000,000.
* In real life, Keogh had ridden Comanche since 1868. At the June 25th, 1876 day of reckoning on the Little Big Horn, Keogh died with Custer and the rest, but Comanche lived, suffering seven wounds. Discovered two days after the battle, nursed back to health, honored as a mascot, he lived until 1891.