WHITE FEATHER begins with the notice “Everything you will see in this movie actually happened, with the exception being the Indians’ language. For the purposes of this story, they will speak English so that you can understand them.” That old familiar feeling dawns, telling you (1) it sounds a lot like the start of Broken Arrow and (2) “actually happened” means a half dozen disparate facts will be smothered by 102 minutes of convenient fiction. Mount up, pilgrims…*
Wyoming & therabouts,1877. Surveyor ‘Josh Tanner’ (Robert Wagner) not only befriends Cheyenne warrior ‘Little Dog’ (Jeffrey Hunter) but falls—naturally—for Little’s little sister ‘Appearing Day’ (Debra Paget). Complicating the cordiality is the larger scheme of peace treaty negotiations that will move the tribe from their traditional territory, and the chafing private issue that the girl was promised to the volatile ‘American Horse’ (Hugh O’Brian).
Written by Delmer Daves and Leo Townsend, directed by Robert D. Webb, this well-mounted 1955 western looks great in Cinemascope, with 20th-Century Fox allotting $1,125,000 for location filming down in Mexico, around Durango, employing hordes of low-paid locals as extras to represent tribe and cavalry in a sort of unofficial prequel to Cheyenne Autumn. Attractive Fox contract players do their duty in duds, makeup and horsemanship. Expansive visuals meet clichéd dialogue and earnest emoting.
For some reason (fan mail, studio politics, star gamesmanship) Fox pushed the bland Wagner more than the able Hunter, who could act rings around ‘R.J.’ any day of the week, even stuck with the sort of stilted Indian-speak he’s given here. Paget’s darn pretty, and per the tease morals of the era is given one of those bared-shoulders-and-back-under-the-buffalo-robe scenes. O’Brian delivers the anger with panache. The brow-furrowing adults are led by the placid John Lund (thoughtful cavalry colonel) and dutifully sage Eduard Franz (the Cheyenne chief).
Lucien Ballard’s camerawork in Mexico and Wyoming (at the historic Fort Laramie) goes the extra kilometer. Hugo Friedhofer provides a score that, if not exciting, is suitably ‘big’. Enough western fans and those pony-tailed ones just gaga over the stars spent their allowances to bring this to spot #72 among the year’s releases, grossing $4,700,000. **
With Noah Beery Jr. (plucky sergeant mode), Virginia Leith, Emile Meyer (nasty bastard mode), Milburn Stone, Iron Eyes Cody (of course).
* “The treaty pen does not fit our hand as well as the arrow.” That sinking feeling: the opening admonition recalls Broken Arrow because co-writer Delmer Daves wrote & directed that 1950 success, which also showcased lovely Paget as a desire-stirring maiden. How much of this script was concocted by co-scenarist Leo Townsend we can’t say, but note he was the fella who later gave forth tribal essays Beach Blanket Bingo and How To Stuff A Wild Bikini. Though the Wyoming-lensed scenes used Fort Laramie, there’s a possibility the studio also employed some sets built five years earlier for another Fox epic, the ignored, much better Two Flags West. Diligent digging yields only the suspicion.
This bugler remembers first seeing it for a $1.00 Saturday kids matinee at Bellevue Washington’s wonderful, now-gone John Danz theater), probably around 1965 or so, and thinking it was a gyp because the finale sets up for a massive fight and then wimps out. Boys, y’know. Actually that “what, no battle?” shrug revealed acumen aborning: the already tame movie does deflate at the finish, and having Wagner telling us that “Broken Hand lived to see his grandson enter the Military Academy at West Point” doesn’t fully compensate. Dang, that wasn’t true, either: “See, Bobby, we’re all Americans now! That grandson will now get to subdue unruly natives in Vietwhatever. Go back to your homework and let your father enjoy his golf program.”