Red ‘Indians’

Rio Grande (1950) was released in November 1950, five months after President Truman committed American troops to fight a limited war in Korea.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Westerns provided a commentary on the cold war in other ways.  Film critic John Lenihan has suggested that the attitude towards Native Americans – or ‘Indians’ as they were called – in these films reflected concerns about the cold war.[1]  From the end of World War II through the 1950s, westerns showed fears and concerns about communism by depicting ‘red Indians’ as allegorical communist figures.  His case was based on films such as Rio Grande (1950).  The film was released in November 1950, five months after President Truman committed American troops to fight a limited war in Korea.[2]  Following the invasion of North Korean troops, MacArthur attempted to retake the entire Korean peninsula, but this had triggered a massive invasion by China across the Yalu river.  The United States and its allies had better equipment and training but the Chinese had huge numbers of troops.  The Chinese pushed the UN forces back down the Korean peninsula.  They in turn were slowly forced back.  The conflict became a war of attrition and MacArthur constantly demanded that he be allowed to attack the Manchurian sanctuary.[3]  His plans were equally consistently blocked by Truman and it was this conflict which eventually led to MacArthur’s controversial sacking.

According to Lenihan, the political message of Rio Grande seemed clear.  The apaches were constantly able to defeat the United States Army because they could cross the Rio Grande river into neutral Mexico.  Colonel Kirby Yorke,[4] played by John Wayne, and his commander, wanted permission to cross into Mexico to pursue the Indians.  Yorke argued that the State Department back in distant Washington did not understand what was happening.  The need for military action became more pressing as three tribes gathered on the banks of the Rio Grande.  His concerns mirrored MacArthur’s arguments that Manchuria was a launching place for attacks on the Korean peninsula.  Eventually the General ordered Yorke to illegally attack across the Rio Grande.  He says, ‘I want you to cross the Rio Grande, hit the Apache and burn him out: I’m tired of hit and run, I’m sick of diplomatic hide and seek.’[5]  The political ideas in Rio Grande came from the ultra-conservative screenwriter, James Kevin McGuiness, the founding executive committee chairman of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.

Lenihan argued that many westerns also appealed for unanimity in the face of a threat.  One key example was in Escape From Fort Bravo (1953) where Union soldiers who were escorting Confederate escapees back to their prison were ambushed by Indians.  It was only by fighting together that the group were able to survive.  Lenihan argued that The Outriders (1950), Rocky Mountain (1950), Two Flags West (1950), The Last Outpost (1951), Red Mountain (1951), and The Siege at Red River (1954) share the theme of Union and Confederate soldiers putting aside their differences to face the real enemy.  With the resolution of the Korean conflict and an acceptance of negotiation rather than war, Lenhian argued Westerns shifted to a more liberal position reviving the tolerant themes with films such as Taza, Son of Conchise (1954), Sitting Bull (1954), Chief Crazy Horse (1955), White Feather (1956), and Walk the Proud Land (1956).[6]

Nonetheless, Lenihen’s approach is flawed.  Rio Grande was more an exception because it was so clear about its political agenda.  It was also a poor example to use as a starting point.  Screenwriter McGuiness certainly used it as vehicle for his ultra-conservative political views about the Korean war.  But the politics were a sub-plot to director John Ford’s vision of the reconciliation of a military family and this was the dominant theme of the film.

More importantly, a different selection of films shows the opposite pattern of American attitudes to the cold war.  Lenihan’s case looks impressive but his examples were not popular films.  It is easy to build up a different case using popular westerns.  In Broken Arrow (1950), the Native Americans were depicted as sensible and willing to come to a peaceful agreement with the white man.  This film was made near the peak of the red scare, yet was extremely popular.  It was ninth with rentals of $3.55 million by Variety.[7]  Tom Jeffords, played by James Stewart, was a cavalry scout who lived with the Apache and prevented the outbreak of a war through negotiation with their leader Cochise.  When he returned to the town with the news that the ‘Indians’ can be trusted, he was almost lynched, just as those who wanted Americans to trust the communists were attacked by the McCarthyite forces.  At the conclusion of the film, the Indians and the white community are living in harmony because of a treaty.  Mutual respect and trust were seen as the cornerstones of a peaceful community.  The screenwriter of the film was recently revealed as Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10, rather than the listed Michael Blankfort.[8]  It is interesting that both High Noon and Broken Arrow, the most popular westerns of the early 1950s, were directed against HUAC and its investigations.

If the Native Americans or ‘Indians’ were equated with communists, it would be logical to assume that there was a groundswell of support for negotiation in the early 1950s.  Yet the most popular western of 1956 was The Searchers which depicted the Native Americans as a dangerous threat to the white race.  Negotiation was not even attempted.  The Searchers finished 10th at the box office according to Variety.[9]  It would be more logical to construct a case using these two films to show a hardening of attitudes towards the Soviet Union from 1950 to 1956.  Indeed this case appears to be stronger than Lenihan’s as few of the films discussed by Lenhinan appear in the top 20 of Variety’s listings.[10]


[1] John H. Lenihan, Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1980, pp. 24 – 54.

[2] Ibid., p. 28.

[3] William Manchester, American Caesar, Arrow, London, 1979, p. 502 – 582.

[4] Some sources spell the name ‘York’.  It is unclear which is the correct spelling.

[5] Rio Grande, (d) John Ford, (w) James Kevin McGuinness.

[6] Lenihan, Showdown, p. 43.

[7] Variety, 2 January 1951.

[8] Phillip French, ‘Decline of the Western: The dwindling trail of a genre’, Times Literary Supplement, 18 September 1992, pp. 18.  In the article, French mentions an example of the theme of communist subversion in a western where in Arrowhead (1953) a chief returns from an Eastern college – read communist training – and turns a peaceful tribe into warriors.

[9] Variety, 7 January 1958.

[10] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts, pp. 19 – 23.

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