Thursday, July 3, 2014


Many westerns with historical figures as characters play fast and loose with history, but this Sam Katzman B western for Columbia Pictures, directed by serial specialist Spencer G. Bennett, is like a Bizarro history lesson. The utterly generic title refers, I presume, to Tecumseh (Jay Silverheels), the great Shawnee chief. In this picture, Tecumseh feuds with his violent brother, the self-styled Prophet (Michael Ansara), because the Prophet wants to wage war on the white men in the Ohio Valley, while Tecumseh only wants peace. Tecumseh is passionately devoted to the idea that white and red man can live together. For him, the ultimate proof of racial harmony will be his marriage to Laura (Christine Larson), a white woman and his dear friend since childhood. Toward this end, he wants to build an American-style town for the Shawnee. Called New Tippecanoe, it will prove that Native Americans are as capable of bourgeois civlization as the whites. But the Prophet will have none of it; nor will the British, for whom the Prophet is a pawn in their plan to wage war on the former colonies. The town is built with the encouragement of Gov. William Henry Harrison and Harrison's man on the scene, another of Tecumseh's boyhood white friends, Steve Rudell (Jon Hall), who also loves Laura -- none of the young people knowing that her father is in league with the Brits to arm the Prophet and make mischief. At the climax, the Prophet's braves attack the Americans, but are repulsed. In a fit of vindictive rage, he and his remaining braves burn New Tippecanoe to the ground. Tecumseh survives to see his dream reduced to ruin. In his despair, he doesn't even press his claim to Laura against Steve's obvious advances. Instead, he bids them farewell and heads north to face his lonely destiny.

I'm not going to bother giving you a history lesson, but NO!!! Suffice it to say that many today regard Tecumseh as a hero because of his resistance to American expansion, that when people called William Henry Harrison "Old Tippecanoe" it was not to compliment his peaceful ways toward the Indians, and that the town that was burnt was called "Prophetstown," and it was burnt by whites. Brave Warrior is flabbergasting in its indifference to facts. To an extent I can understand moviemakers taking liberties with the lives of the famous outlaws and gunfighters for dramatic or "print the legend" reasons. But Brave Warrior seems determined to make a new legend of Tecumseh from whole cloth, and it seems like there should be a reason for this, but for the life of me I can't figure it out. I get that the film whitewashes the Americans, blaming the violence in the Ohio Valley on the Prophet and the British, but why -- so to speak -- whitewash Tecumseh? Why make him the friend of the U.S. when he wasn't? The only good reason I can see is to give Jay Silverheels a virtual leading man part, even though top billing goes to the dull Hall. It's always cool to hear "Tonto" use that great voice in complete sentences, but that's just about the only cool thing in this ahistorical misfire. Ansara is wasted in what should have been a great role, the script doing very little to play up the Prophet's mystical pretensions. Here he's basically a thug with bad war paint and an eyepatch. While Ansara was establishing himself as one of Hollywood's all-purpose ethnics, he hardly looks like Jay Silverheels's brother. When the brothers take their shirts off to fight for leadership, Ansara almost looks like Bolo Yeung compared to the authentically wiry Silverheels. Worse still, we never get the final showdown between the brothers everything seems to be pointing toward. Tecumseh should be hell-bent for revenge on the Prophet for burning New Tippecanoe, but instead he mopes into the horizon, an appropriate symbol of this idiosyncratic yet uninspired project.

It says something about the studio system that Columbia still made an effort to promote this plodding programmer. The studio sent leading lady Larson -- purportedly a paramour of Ronald Reagan -- on the road with a troupe of Indian extras to plug the picture. Here are some relics of their trip to Pittsburgh.

Somehow it didn't surprise me to learn that Larson's career didn't last long.

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