It doesn’t take a degree in film history to know that Native Americans have not always been portrayed favorably in the movies. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the poor treatment that many received in real life. The film we’ll be looking at today, though, is the tale of one Native American getting a little payback. In true Hollywood fashion, though, the lead role is played by a white actor with a coating of bronze. It’s 1934’s Massacre.
The hero of our story is Chief Joe Thunderhorse (Richard Barthelmess), a Sioux who grew up on a reservation but has moved on to become a star performer in a shoot ‘em up, Buffalo Bill-style western show. He brings in the crowds, and he’s got the fancy car to prove it. He’s even got a wealthy girlfriend (Claire Dodd) who likes to show him off at her swanky parties. She also seems to have a bit of a sexual obsession with Native American motifs. She even makes Joe don a large feather headdress before the two make love.
When Joe learns that his father is on his deathbed, he takes a leave from the show to visit with his African-American valet Sam (Clarence Muse) along for the ride. Upon arriving on the reservation, he meets Lydia (Ann Dvorak) a pretty and college-educated Native American girl who works in the Indian Affairs office. She informs Joe that his father has not been getting medical treatment from the reservation doctor, Dr. Turner (Arthur Hohl). Little does he know that Turner, Agent Quissenberry (Dudley Digges) and local undertaker Mr. Shanks (Sidney Toler, famous for later playing Charlie Chan) are working together to make sure sick natives die and then steal the land they leave behind.
It gets worse. Joe’s father dies and at the funeral, of all places, Shanks lures Joe’s 15-year-old sister Jenny (Agnes Narcha) away and rapes her. When Joe finds out, he chases down Shanks in his car, lassos him and then drags him behind his own vehicle. Joe ends up in prison, but Lydia busts him out. He ends up working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington to help improve matters, but when diplomacy doesn’t help he takes matters into his own hands and rallies the others on the reservation to join him in an uprising.
Massacre turns out to be a very surprising film. Of course, the practice of casting a white actor in an ethnic role is always a bit uncomfortable to watch these days. The film does do a good job of dispensing with some of the movie Indian tropes, though. When we first see Joe it is as a part of the wild west show. He’s on a horse, wearing feathers, and speaks in the broken English sort of Indian movie-talk we’re all used to. When he returns to his dressing room, though he’s a slick-talking businessman. So it is refreshing that some of the typical stereotypes are skewered a bit right at the front. Likewise, Ann Dvorak’s character is presented as an intelligent and attractive woman, quite modern in the way she presents herself…the fact that she is a native who grew up and still lives on a reservation isn’t really emphasized. Having said all this, there is one scene that comes across as quite uncomfortable in which Joe’s African-American valet tries to pass himself off as “Chief Black-Star,” and manages to get a bunch of Sioux to believe him and a camera crew to film his coronation.
Since this is a pre-Code film, it does have some moments of wild and controversial content. The biggest example of this is when Sidney Toler’s character rapes Joe’s sister (not that it matters, but the actress that plays her looks more like 27 than 15). It happens off-screen, though we do see him grab and begin kissing her. Toler plays such a slimeball in this, it just serves to increase the impact of the scene where he gets dragged behind Joe’s car like Clark Griswold’s dog. Not to sound sadistic, but the film could’ve really used a few more moments like this. There are a few exciting moments during uprising at the film’s climax, but they pale compared to this jarring and violent moment that comes midway through the film.
Massacre ends up being solidly entertaining. Both Barthelmess and Dvorak put in impressive performances and the film is to be praised for what was, at the time, a pretty progressive approach to Native American characters. But as much as I enjoyed it, I found myself wishing for a little bit more, as well.
Todd Liebenow is a movie geek. It’s that simple. From Denver, Colorado, he writes the blog Forgotten Films and produces the Forgotten Filmcast podcast—both of which focus on “the movies that time forgot.” He also happens to be a professional puppeteer.