In the course of three months, from July through September of 1950, three different studios released the first westerns of Anthony Mann. The best-known, Winchester '73, appeared in July, followed by The Furies in August and M-G-M's vehicle for Robert Taylor late in September. Along with Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow and Henry King's The Gunfighter, Mann spearheaded the new decade's trend of "adult" or "psychological" or socially conscious westerns, with Devil's Doorway falling into the socially-conscious category. This time out, Mann directs a screenplay by Guy Trosper that's a stroke of conceptual genius, combining two of the most popular western tropes in the form of a cattle baron resisting the encroachment of sheepmen and homesteaders -- who happens to be an American Indian.
At first glance, Lance Poole (Taylor) is as assimilated and Americanized an Indian as you could ask for. He returns to his father's ranch in Wyoming in the uniform of a sergeant major of the U.S. Cavalry, a decorated veteran of the Civil War. But times are changing for the worse in the once-unorganized territory. The Pooles have friends in town, including the future marshal (Edgar Buchanan), but an Indian-hating lawyer, Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern) is starting to make nasty noises in Lance's presence. His contagion spreads to the town doctor, whose contempt for Indians arguably contributes to the death of Lance's father. Lance inherits the ranch and prospers as a cattleman, but the formal organization of the Wyoming Territory opens the land to settlers under the Homestead Act. Worse, as Coolan stands ready to argue for sheepmen's rights (with likely ulterior motives), the law no longer recognizes the Pooles' right to their land; Indians are barred from owning land in the territory.
As determined as any cattleman to turn back the sheepmen, and with an ethnic chip on his shoulder, Lance seeks out a lawyer to counter Coolan's influence. When he finds that the attorney he chooses to consult is a woman (Paula Raymond), Lance is tempted to head right out the door; he has prejudices of his own to overcome. But she proves quite capable of stalling the inevitable, organizing a petition campaign to have Lance's land claim recognized as a precondition to accommodation with the sheepmen. That doesn't suit Coolan, who goads one well-meaning sheepman into a violent confrontation with Lance that will justify Coolan raising a posse to take down the man he insists on calling "the Indian." Lance's military training helps keep the posse at bay, but his lawyer may have to betray his trust by calling on the Cavalry to come to his rescue....
Superimposing the "vanishing Indian" archetype over the figure of the reactionary cattleman is a masterstroke. Lance displays the same intransigence in the face of purported progress that usually makes cattle barons villains in westerns, but because he's an Indian and a victim of racial prejudice the viewer is practically invited to root for him and against the people usually portrayed as the true bearers of civilization. But Devil's Doorway presents Lance Poole as a tragic figure, one who really is in some ways obsolete. Lawyer Masters is appalled to witness the final stage of a Shoshone initiation test as young Jimmy crawls the last few feet to the Poole house to beat a deadline after having three days to catch an eagle and take his talons with a knife. Lance says it's necessary because the small Shoshone population needs as many real men as it can get, but I feel certain that the audience is meant to identify with Masters's horror at the ordeal imposed on a mere boy. Masters herself is a tragic figure, prejudiced just enough against Indians in her own right to preempt the movie's last chance for a happy ending: a romantic union with Lance. Progressive though she is, she's not quite progressive enough -- though the M-G-M ballyhoo plays up the interracial love angle (in the wake of Broken Arrow's success). As Lance says, things might have turned out differently "a hundred years from now."
Visually, Devil's Doorway is on a level with Mann's other breakthrough westerns, featuring terrific location work and noirish cinematography by John Alton. The story is probably the most downbeat of the three films, with no happy ending for anyone -- though the actual ending comes with too much of an abrupt thud for its own good. Robert Taylor is an interesting choice for the lead. He's not particularly convincing as an Indian, but that actually helps keep Poole a complex, problematic antihero. Should we see him as Indian or cattleman? Mann gives us visual cues as Lance gradually adopts traditional Indian dress (before returning to his cavalry uniform at the end), but the director also shows us that this isn't so much a case of Poole reverting to savagery but being reduced to prejudiced whites' image of a hostile redskin. He's not an innate savage, noble or otherwise, but a conflicted product of his country's contradictory influences. This much Taylor conveys pretty well.
Devil's Doorway is the least known of Mann's 1950 westerns, most likely because Taylor hasn't stood the test of time as well as James Stewart (Winchester '73) or Barbara Stanwyck (The Furies). Having seen it for the first time today on TCM, I think it's fit company for the other two films, and further proof that Mann had instantly become a major player in the genre at the start of its greatest decade.
Here's the trailer from the TCM website: