"The end of this story can only be written by you," Samuel Fuller writes, and it's a tall order considering that the story is set some ninety years before Run of the Arrow was released. But it's his unsubtle way of reiterating the contemporary relevance of his screenplay, though audiences might be excused for wondering where the relevance was. Fortunately, the film doesn't stand or fall on its relevance.
Fuller's protagonist is only ever known as O'Meara (Rod Steiger). He's a Confederate soldier who claims the distinction of firing the last shot of the Civil War, picking a Union lieutenant off his horse near Appomattox Court House on the morning of April 9, 1865. Claiming the horse, but finding the man still alive, he takes his prisoner to the rebel infirmary, nearer still to the actual court house, where he sees General Lee leave after surrendering to General Grant. Enraged, he resolves to shoot Grant, only to be told by the surgeon that Lee would most likely kill himself out of shame if O'Meara betrayed the truce. Back home, O'Meara remains unreconciled, despite his own mother telling him to grow up and become an American. The best that can be said of O'Meara is that, instead of becoming a terrorist, he lights out for the West. He hooks up with Walking Coyote (Jay C. Flippen), an old, alcoholic Sioux Indian scout who teaches him the language and some of the customs. Surprised by a renegade band led by Crazy Wolf (H. M. Wynant), Coyote gives O'Meara a fighting chance by invoking the "run of the arrow" challenge as an alterantive to death by torture or hanging. Forced to run barefoot with the renegades in pursuit, O'Meara takes advantage of their hounding of the dying Coyote, who'd meant to sacrifice himself, to find shelter in a friendly village where Blue Buffalo (a buff Charles Bronson) is the chief. Impressed by O'Meara's fortitude and his renunciation of allegiance to the United States, and in spite of his continued avowal of Christianity ("We worship the same god," BB assures him), the tribe adopts the Reb and marries him off to Yellow Mocassin (Sarita Montiel), the woman who had rescued and nursed him after the ordeal. The new couple adopts the mute boy Silent Tongue, for whom O'Meara's harmonica is a unique way to communicate that comes in handy later.
When paramount chief Red Cloud (Frank DeKova) negotiates a treaty with the U.S. Cavalry, he designates O'Meara to act as a scout to guide the troops to the site agreed on by both sides for a fort. His blunt honesty impresses Captain Clark (Brian Keith), but Lieutenant Driscoll (Ralph Meeker) is less impressed. A glory hound and Indian hater, Driscoll recognizes O'Meara's horse as the one the Reb took from him at Appomattox. O'Meara still carries the bullet the doctor extracted from Driscoll as a memento, inscribed as a gift from his fellow townspeople. He may have a fresh use for that bullet as Crazy Wolf's renegades harrass the cavalry and Driscoll spoils for an excuse to wage all-out war on the Sioux. When O'Meara captures Crazy Wolf, he forces his captive to play the run-of-the-arrow game, but when Driscoll tries to shoot the renegade, the Reb turns on the officer and takes Crazy Wolf back to Blue Buffalo's village. With Clark eliminated, Driscoll orders the fort built on a more provocative location, daring the Sioux to attack despite O'Meara's warnings. After a brutal, one-sided battle, Driscoll is turned over to Crazy Wolf for death by torture for violating the run, forcing O'Meara to an ultimate test of his principles and loyalties....
As I've already noted, Fuller leaves the ending somewhat ambiguous, and I'll leave it even more so by not describing it further. Suffice it to say that Fuller has some points to make about belonging and reconciliation, but those are complicated by his now-outmoded practice of making a Confederate his hero. As late as The Outlaw Josey Wales, a Reb could stand in for a generic rebel, and O'Meara is a hero in this sense only. Fuller isn't endorsing secession by any means, and he makes a point of having Capt. Clark denounce the Ku Klux Klan while not accepting O'Meara's excuse (actually perfectly valid) of not being involved in cross-burning or night riding. Even for Fuller, O'Meara is acceptable as a hero only insofar as he has no opinion whatsoever about black people. It probably was true that many rank and file Rebs weren't aggressive racists or believers in slavery, but audiences today hold anyone in gray accountable for the Peculiar Institution, and the omission of black-white relations from Fuller's agenda seems more glaring now than it may have been then.
Nor is Run of the Arrow an endorsement of a rebel or renegade lifestyle. Crazy Wolf is a counterexample of a purely destructive renegade, but on the other hand Lt. Driscoll represents the sort of asinine, overbearing authority figure who provokes rebellion. Fuller is neither for or against rebellion, except to say it's got to end sometime. Likewise, he intends no statement on "savagery" or "civilization." He neither idealizes nor demonizes the Sioux; Dances With Wolves this isn't. At the end, however, Fuller seems to acknowledge a cultural divide that O'Meara can't bridge. Until then, the Sioux had been just another nation with its own language and customs. But their insistence upon torture appears to alienate O'Meara from them decisively, and his obvious distaste for it alienates his own wife from him -- she recognizes that, no matter what he feels about Yankees, he remains essentially American. Yet one thing Fuller leaves to our imagination is whether Yellow Mocassin will stay with O'Meara or not; their cultural differences need not divide the multicultural family. But if we root for them to stay together, we should also root, Fuller implicitly insists, for the reconciliation of North and South, Natives and Whites -- and perhaps for their consolidation into something bigger and better than the sum of its parts rather than their common submission to some unworthy authority figure like Driscoll.
Fuller takes a chance by casting Rod Steiger as a leading man, but surrounds him with lots of capable character actors to play off. The tactic works: Steiger has a common man appeal instead of coming off like the archetypal tall Western superman, and his scenes with Flippen, Bronson, Keith and Meeker are great stuff. The best thing about the script is Fuller's transcendence of cliched Indian dialogue. His Sioux talk neither in me-scalpum pidgin nor in the stilted "noble" cadences of too many sympathetic Indians in Fifties Westerns. Instead, they speak an easy, conversational English, a cinematic translation of their own language that humanizes them rather than emphasizing their alien culture as subtitled native dialogue would do. The glaring exception to the high standard of acting is leading lady Sarita Montiel, who was reportedly dubbed by Angie Dickinson to no good effect. Visually, Run is outstanding. Fuller and cinematographer Joseph Biroc take full advantage of the full width and height of the "RKO-Scope" screen and their stark locations to create compositions of epic depth and sweep. Fuller's somewhat muddled message -- I'm still not quite sure to whom or what he expects O'Meara to be loyal -- can be disregarded in a movie fan's enjoyment of a colorful, rousing, violent yet humane adventure film.
Here's a trailer, uploaded to YouTube by skipjackturner.