Monday, February 19, 2018
DVR Diary: PILLARS OF THE SKY (1956)
George Marshall's film is an idiosyncratic western for its time in several ways. It may be most noteworthy for its take on American Indians. Set in Oregon territory in 1858, Sam Rolfe's adaptation of Will Henry's pulp novel retains the original's fresh approach to native dialogue. The good Indians, Nez Perce scouts attached to cavalry sergeant Emmett Bell (Jeff Chandler), speak fluent English in a much more casual fashion than one usually heard even from good-guy movie Indians of the period, e.g. Chandler's own career-making Cochise in Broken Arrow. They even show a sense of humor occasionally, though the film as a whole strays pretty far from Henry's more sardonic tone. That's because Rolfe is more interested in the religious aspect of the story than Henry was. Most of the Indians are Christians and have taken Christian names (Timothy, Jason, Lucas), the great and terrible exception being the hostile chief Kamiakin (Michael Ansara), whose conflict with the Americans is more overtly a war of religion than it is in Henry's story or the history on which that was based. Rolfe and Marshall foreground religion by spotlighting a character who is only mentioned but never appears in the original story: the Protestant missionary Joseph Holden (Ward Bond), shown in the film as beloved by the Christian Indians, particularly a boy who rings the church bell and prints an amateur newspaper. In the story (and the expanded novel version, To Follow a Flag) Emmett Bell is irreverent if not cynical about religion, constantly joking with Timothy (Sydney Chaplin) about the scout's own devout faith. In the film, that irreverence is the starting point of a character arc that ends with Bell at least symbolically taking Holden's place after the missionary is murdered by Kamiakin during an aborted peace parley. In a finale that most likely raised Henry's eyebrows -- and as a writer for Tex Avery he probably could raise his eyebrows quite dramatically -- Emmett leads the Indians in prayer in the ruins of Holden's mission.
This reversal follows the most unexpected change from prose to film by this period's standards. Simply put, in the story Emmett gets the girl, but in the movie he does not. In the story, his rival for Cally (the late Dorothy Malone) dies in the running fight that takes up most of the narrative. In the film, the rival lieutenant (Keith "Vaal is All" Andes) survives and wins Cally simply by showing more (i.e. some) concern for her welfare during the Indian attacks than Emmett does -- after he'd gone to the trouble of rescuing her from Indian captivity earlier in the picture. You wonder what inspired such a creative adaptation of source material (speaking euphemistically) by Rolfe, who charged out of the gate as a screenwriter a few years earlier with Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur and went on to create Have Gun Will Travel and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. My only guess is that movies could not as easily take Indian Christianity for granted, or treat it as lightly, as Henry did. There are other cosmetic changes, as might be expected, from the expunging of an embarrassing Negro servant character (After his progressive treatment of Indians, Henry wrote minstrel dialect for her) to giving Lee Marvin's Irish sergeant (complete with brogue) a death scene that went to another character. To be fair, the film is all right on its own terms, even if the religious angle bears more weight than it should, but it's sure to leave anyone who read (or, in my case, later read) Will Henry scratching his head. Still, there's enough of a difference about Pillars, mainly because of the choices Rolfe made, to make it recommended (if not essential) viewing for fans of Fifties westerns.