‘Run of the Arrow’: Birth Pangs of the United States

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

As with many of Fuller’s films, Run of the Arrow is finally about nothing less that the United States, even though it is “just” a Western. As a matter of fact, it is perhaps the most conventionally “Western” of Fuller’s Westerns, the only one that really utilizes the redrock and sagebrush landscapes that one associates with the West of directors like Mann, Ford, and Walsh (compare, for instance, Colorado Territory‘s forbidding geography to the contours of real and potential space that encompasses a quest in Run of the Arrow), and the only one that is in color—vivid color, bright with eye-catching primary hues that become motifs on the political and historical canvas of Fuller’s story. Blood is red, and so are the stripes of the American Flag that O’Meara (Rod Steiger), a bitter Confederate soldier who leaves his home after the war. and seeks out a viable identity as a Sioux Indian, initially rejects and later accepts as his. The uniforms and wagons of the cavalry are blue, and so are the feathers on the lance of Blue Buffalo (Charles Bronson), the Sioux chief whose tribe defeats that band of cavalry; so, for that matter, are the blueprints for a new fort to go up in the middle of the Sioux nation most definitely blue, creating an analogy between plans for this specific outpost and the manifest destiny blueprinted in the more encompassing vision of an America moving ever westward.

The film’s themes, which intertwine, support and counterpoint each other, operate on this dual level of significance; the personal crises of identity and the more far-reaching problems of national unity are the components of Fuller’s vision, a cumulatively dark picture of the forces that drove men west to expand the boundaries of their country. The story itself has a sinister way of revolving in ever tightening circles around the antagonism between O’Meara and Driscoll (Ralph Meeker), the Yankee officer whom O’Meara wounds with the last bullet fired in the Civil War. They meet up again out West, Driscoll as the leader of a detachment of cavalry commissioned to guard some Army engineers who intend to build a fort in Sioux territory, O’Meara as a scout for the Indians. A parallel conflict springs up between Driscoll and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), the latter a stabilizing force in a world that balances the self-hating O’Mearas against the vicious opportunists like Driscoll. Clark’s strength becomes the most reliable core of value in the film, shoring up the foundations of a reasonable patriotism that will endure beyond both the reactionary ethics of the old Sioux scout Walking Coyote (“I don’t know what this world’s coming to,” he says as a party of young bucks get drunk and prepare to string him up) and Driscoll’s incipient fascism. Clark’s spiel to O’Meara questioning O’Meara’s rejection of home and flag and ending with the parable of Philip Knowland, the man without a country (done all in one breathless take, the only movement being an honest and unashamed nudge to a slightly closer shot when the legend of Knowland is invoked) is eloquent enough to rise high above the platform jingoism of a flag-waving patriot, and is indeed infused with an almost Fordian sense of privileged participation. It counterpoints the more patly violent and potently chaotic aspects of Fuller’s films, offering us an openness and resilience that seems as essentially Fullerian as his attention-grabbing visual style and volatile worldview.

This superimposition of the intimate narrative over the landmark historical setting (the last day of the Civil War and thereafter) allows Fuller to raise important associations: O’Meara, being born into one identity and dying out of another, undergoes a dubious regeneration parallel to the one taking place on a national scale in the wake of its internal conflict. There is a poetic logic of life and death that joins the two and that, on the personal level, takes on self-defining connotations within the realm of a metaphor of communication-itself a basis for a diagnosis of O’Meara’s grappling with the problem of identity: O’Meara and Walking Coyote (Jay C. Flippen), the Sioux scout who has been working for the cavalry and is now returning home to a world he discovers has changed, ride into a shot that frames a Sioux grave and an ordered pile of rocks that O’Meara correctly interprets as an indication that three babies have been born into the tribe of some nearby village. O’Meara, as Walking Coyote indicates, is learning the Sioux customs quickly; his initiation into their culture involves relearning signs of existence as basic as birth and death, which reside easily, almost necessarily, within the same frame in Fuller’s world.

A moment later, O’Meara spots some pony tracks in the dirt and recognizes them as signs of a Sioux party. He looks around for the Indians that belong to the tracks, and Walking Coyote tells him, “When you can’t see them, that’s when they’re looking at you.” His warning has a lot to do with the way knowledge, especially in the form of direct visual information, is disseminated in Run of the Arrow. Things have a way of happening inside a Fuller frame that neither you nor the characters probably expected to happen; again and again we find ourselves pulled into a very specific frame of reference that is closely tied to particular lines of perception and knowledge already existing within the film. The very next scene, in fact, is one of the movie’s most striking examples of how we are just as “involved” in the story—in the unknowableness of a narratively contained future—as the people on the screen. O’Meara and Walking Coyote have crept to the edge of a rock ledge, the camera traveling behind and above them so that they and we simultaneously discover the aftermath of an Indian attack on a party of white men. The attack is over; the Indians are celebrating. O’Meara starts to grab for his gun but Walking Coyote tells him to put it down and turn around very slowly. We follow O’Meara’s head as it swings with a simultaneous swing of the camera upward, to reveal Crazy Wolf (H.M. Wynant), the renegade Sioux in control of this war party, standing behind them brandishing a spear; then the camera just kind of drops a couple of feet below the ledge, swings even farther to the left so that yet another. Indian, perched higher on a nearby rock, punctuates the background of the frame. The entire composition is now set at a precarious angle, and the context that has materialized via those incremental disclosures of ever-deepening space is defined by a real sense of immediate threat that it is hard not to find shocking.

Rod Steiger and Brian Keith

When Fuller’s camera moves, the corners of the world that get exposed tend to underline, and remind us of, the brutal and violent forces that make the landscape of Run of the Arrow literally a battleground; a mortality-ridden logic seems to define the way compositions within a moving frame of vision disquietingly achieve a new visual balance when a bit of carnage—dead or wounded men—suddenly slides into view with a swing of the camera. Captain Clark’s death, which takes place when Driscoll and he are leading a troop of soldiers out into the desert to find out what has happened to a detachment of missing men, gets prefigured in a way that has to do with this geography of mortality within the frame. The body of a dead soldier, Wheeler, previously killed in ambush by a Sioux sniper, is brought back to camp where soldiers stand over him discussing what to do. We don’t see the body while they’re talking, but just as Clark says to O’Meara, “More important right now, I trust you,” two things happen almost simultaneously: Fuller pulls back so that Wheeler effectively “enters” the frame, while Clark, muttering that “we still got a fort to build,” walks out of the frame. The gesture clearly serves notice on Clark’s own impending death, but, beyond that, his utterance about the fort as he leaves a composition anchored with a corpse indicates an unflinchingly realistic vision of how the West was actually won: civilization foundationed with the bones of dead men.

The larger, national context is never very far away. Early in the movie, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee are no farther away than rifle range as O’Meara prepares to send a slug into Grant. His presence implies a peculiar vulnerability—his back is to us (and to O’Meara) just as Clark’s is later when he and Driscoll are introduced (it is Clark’s own introduction in the film) and Driscoll is brashly articulating his combat hunger to the commander of the engineers (Clark characterizes him as “another frustrated Custer” a good ten years before Little Big Horn). There is indeed a parallel to be drawn between the two men. Like Clark, Grant is a symbol of the North and harbinger of the future, a “winner,” but also a positive force of national unity. The idea of their unprotected backsides becomes part of the film’s resonance of antagonism and mortality. The scene of Clark’s death is approached through a chimerical image of soldiers slowly filtering down into the frame of a high shot, weaving among bushes on a gentle, dusty slope, a landscape from which the dust-covered bodies of the missing soldiers seem to materialize. Driscoll is facing Clark’s back—Clark is more or less facing the camera—saying something like “You ‘re playing right into their hands” when an arrow flies into Clark’s chest. Nobody but the audience notices. Driscoll keeps on criticizing Clark until Clark slips from his horse and sprawls in the dust with the rest of those bodies. In a way, their inimical relationship has been consummated here, Driscoll posing an implicit threat to Clark’s rear, a threat that is ironically realized from another quarter. Fuller doesn’t fail to invoke Lincoln—another man who was shot from behind—in the course of weaving these interconnected lines of mortality; O’Meara’s mother mentions him when she is trying to avert O’Meara’s hatred for everything above the Mason-Dixon. It’s an important genealogy—Grant–Lincoln–Clark—particularizing the tenuousness and vulnerability of a cohesive national vision that is as readily subverted by unregenerate O’Mearas as it is torn asunder by maniacal power-seekers like Driscoll.

Rod Steiger and Brian Keith: North and South sit down together

The ideals—the blueprints—that forge national identity go up in the smoke of that last battle where the Sioux kill all but a few of the cavalry. But something rises out of the ashes. Although political and social solidarity on a national scale may be as tentative as the pragmatic relationships that characteristically tie artificial assemblages of Fuller characters together into surrogate “family” units, the family nonetheless becomes a central and regenerative image of enduring value in Run of the Arrow. In quite a few Fuller movies (Underworld U.S.A., Verboten!, and Run of the Arrow, to name three) there are peculiar wound-tending scenes that somehow fuse relationships; pain almost becomes a prerequisite for communication. In the present film, O’Meara goes into a fever after living through the run of the arrow, and the Sioux woman, Yellow Moccasin (Sarita Montiel), who had hidden him on her travois, volunteers to “help him through the night” in a steam room where they tangle in suggestively contorted positions. Later, during their “honeymoon” scene inside a tepee, Yellow Moccasin asks O’Meara what is written on the bullet he has tied around his neck, and O’Meara reads the inscription that has to do with the bullet being the last one fired in the Civil War. O’Meara’s explanation of this symbol of his enmity for the North is the consummation of their pain-assuaging ritual. O’Meara and Yellow Moccasin have a “son,” Silent Tongue (Billy Miller)—a mute orphan whom Yellow Moccasin had adopted and whom O’Meara provides with a “voice” (a harmonica). The real progeny of their relationship, however, is a reaffirmation of O’Meara’s American identity. After the big battle, Yellow Moccasin is telling O’Meara that his act of shooting Driscoll when he couldn’t stand to see him butchered alive meant that he could never really be a Sioux. There is a medium shot of her from about. the waist up; suddenly she raises her hands from below the bottom edge of the frame, and in them is an American Flag she seems to have just given birth to. Not a Confederate Flag, but the Stars and Stripes, the emblem of a new national identity that O’Meara finally, grudgingly, accepts.

It’s tenuous reconciliation, as shaky as the fresh patch-up job done on a country where the seams of disunity were still showing. Nothing is particularly optimistic about the ending of Run of the Arrow. O’Meara leads a bloody wagonload of wounded soldiers away from is the same color as the smoke at the film’s beginning, climbing into the sky from somewhere just over the rise where civil conflict still smolders as Driscoll first slides into the frame and the shot from O’Meara’s rifle suddenly turns the war into a very personal campaign. Rather than a map of Western heroism, Run of the Arrow is a kind of survival story in the end. The battleground of O’Meara’s quest is Fuller’s vision of the United States, a rough place bloody in the making, full of both bastards and saints, a country and an ideal whose identity is preserved by pretty much anybody who’s left around to pick up the Flag.

RUN OF THE ARROW (1956)
Globe Enterprises, for RKO Radio; released by Universal. Screenplay: Samuel Fuller. Cinematography (Technicolor, RKO-Scope): Joseph Biroc. Art direction: Albert S. d’Agostino, Jack Okey; set decoration: Bert Granger. Editing: Gene Fowler Jr. Music: Victor Young. Production: Samuel Fuller. (86 minutes)
The players: Rod Steiger, Ralph Meeker, Sarita Montiel (dubbed by Angie Dickinson), Brian Keith, Jay C. Flippen, Charles Bronson, H.M. Wynant, Frank DeKova, Billy Miller, Stuart Randall, Tim McCoy, Neyle Morrow, Chuck Roberson, Chuck Hayward, Olive Carey, Frank Warner, Carleton Young.

© 1976 Rick Hermann

A pdf of the original issue can be found here


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