Right here we see the precise genesis of Anthony Mann as a director of westerns. To consider the string of modest classics that followed is nearly staggering. But he was well-suited for the transition taking his acquired skills over the years and translating them easily to the West.
The Devil’s Doorway is shot like his most gripping noirs thanks in part to John Alton’s continued partnership. Thunder sounding off in the background, low lights, and even lower angles when working in close-ups. Visually he certainly doesn’t pull any punches.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I would care for the picture since I knew next to nothing about it. However, in the first few minutes of expositional action, we learn something that sets up a striking dissonance not only within our character’s identity but in the West itself.
Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) comes back from the Civil War as a man who proved himself on many a battlefield from Antitiem to Gettysburg achieving the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics. Strikingly, for someone returning from such a divisive war, Poole has a fairly positive outlook. Except he’s rudely awakened when he comes home and finds that a different type of war is still raging.
This is the time to share the film’s major point and one that is crucial to getting into this narrative from screenwriter Guy Trosper. Poole is a Native American — a Shoshone by birth — but when he fought in the army no one judged him by the color of his skin. He shared food and quarters and fought alongside his fellow Americans.
And yet when he gets back to the land he calls his own, he finds that men have hardly changed even if the times have. White folk look at “Indians” with disdain and if not disdain then probably fear. There’s no sense of wanting to get to know them. Sure, there are a few who remain true to Poole from the old days like Zeke (Edgar Buchanan) and yet even they crumble under peer pressure. That means no drinks served to Indians in the saloon and certainly no owning property.
The Homestead Act is a grand proposition made for dreamers, rallying men to head out to the vast plains out west to stake claim to the territory and settle down. No such provision exists for the ones who have lived on the land all their lives.Under the law Poole’s not classified as an American citizen and what is he, you ask? Well, that’s very much what the picture is trying to address.
Even as desperate men surge toward Poole’s acreage of top land looking to move in, other Shoshone from a reservation, led by their chief (Chief John Big Tree) seek asylum because their current existence is a far cry from their former life of prosperity.
Poole knowing that the way of the white man worked for him during the war tries to seek out honest means of reclaiming his land. He forgoes the town’s crooked lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern) and calls upon Orrie Master (Paula Raymond); she’s a woman, not a man, which in itself is a statement.
Though reluctant, she takes his case because they need each other. She plays by the book, holding to the assertion that if something’s the law, we have to abide by it. Her faith, her religion of sorts, is the law and she treats it as sacred. But as those roads seem to lead nowhere for a man like Poole just because of the color of his skin, she tries to make him seek compromise — some amount of mutual understanding.
But when you have a bigot like Coolan doing everything in his power to push Lance off his property, such an agreement seems out of the question. Such a diabolical fellow is intent on inciting opposition and manipulating folks so that peace and compromise are no longer viable options.
People such as this are far too prevalent in this world and their philosophies poison the world for everyone. There is no understanding. There is no empathy and Lance is not about to wait around for it. He’s going to defend what he deems to be rightfully his.
Ms. Masters in near desperation sends out a distress signal to Fort Laramie calling on the Cavalry. It is her last hope for any type of peaceable resolution — even if it only stops the bleeding which has already begun between the natives and the homesteaders. We too look on powerless to stop the bloodshed because we are only an audience interfacing with a film. The question becomes what will we do with our reality if we see a parallel issue? If and when former Union Officer Poole perishes there will be no one to play him “Taps” now will there?
Such a downbeat ending and harsh portrait was not something Hollywood was ready for and it seems that generally, Devil’s Doorway gets a bit buried. I think it’s about time that we all took our medicine and while not a perfect film it might cause one to perceive the Wild West of Hollywood lore with a very different heart.
To say it’s completely undermined by its casting is somewhat missing the point because its intentions are all but honorable and the picture lays in hard to issues that are not simply western issues but are quite easily transposed to post-war WWII, 1950s pre-civil rights America and obviously the present as well.
In fact, it hardly feels like jumping the gun to call Devil’s Doorway cutting-edge because like Broken Arrow (1950) of the same year, it actually concerned itself with the plight of Native Americans. But whereas the other picture is somewhat forgettable now, there’s still an undeniable bite to Mann’s effort. Even the black and white imagery aids in the tone (as well as practically masking a bit of Taylor’s makeup).
Here is a western that stars an “Indian” and an independent working woman who are not even romantically attached to each other. Beyond that, it straddles this line of muddied morality that hardly chooses sides but settles in the gray area that leads us to make some heady considerations.
Far be it from me to strip away visions of glorious gunfights and all-conquering heroes. But if you watch this story unfold — a grim statement of tenacity from Anthony Mann — those myths will be trampled on. You would do well to watch your step and open up your heart just a little bit, hopefully, more than when you first entered in the corale.