The problem with race as a subject in Hollywood is that the complexities of systemic oppression are fundamentally incompatible with the simplification necessary for narrative-driven filmmaking, where the priority of story resolution often results in laughably trite notions of racial reconciliation. It is with no small amount of irony, then, that Samuel Fuller, one of the bluntest, least subtle filmmakers to ever wield a camera, should be one of the few white American filmmakers to ever handle the subject with any honesty. What separates Fuller’s many films to incorporate racism from the rest of Hollywood’s product is that where most filmmakers strive toward some kind of hopeful conclusion, Fuller bullishly foregrounds the insurmountable complexity of institutionalized racism, which is not solved on an individual basis but rather revealed in its most torturous, raging contradiction.
Run of the Arrow is one of the director’s finest films on that idea, using postbellum Confederate fury to craft a western that upends the hoary “going native” trope. The film opens, with blood-red titles, on the smoking aftermath of the Battle of Appomattox Court House, the last stand of Robert E. Lee’s army. As Lee heads to formally surrender to Grant, one soldier, O’Meara (Rod Steiger) can scarcely contain his disgust, and when he finds only resignation and ragged relief in his comrades and family, he decides to run off and join the Sioux, believing they share a common bond of their hatred of the Union.
For a time, the film follows the usual arc of these kinds of stories, with O’Meara gaining approval to join a tribe from its leader (Charles Bronson) and even marrying a Sioux (Sara Monitel). Tellingly, however, the customs he most readily adopts are the most violent, including the ritual that gives the film its title, in which condemned men are allowed the chance to escape death if they can outrun being chased by marksman archers. Fuller films these sprints in close-ups of bare feet desperately scrambling through thickets, rocks and sun-baked dirt as a stampede of moccasins rush after. These are the only shots that suggest any kind of unity between O’Meara and the Sioux, a mordant riff on the notion that we are all equal in death.
The goal of Run of the Arrow is not to see O’Meara fully integrated into an indigenous tribe as a naturalized and respected member but to underscore divides that the oblivious white man cannot even see. O’Meara rages at the Union, but even when some soldiers corner him, he is treated to civil conversation by a conciliatory captain (Brian Keith) who calmly tries to talk some sense into the man. Meanwhile, a young Sioux boy trapped in quicksand blows a harmonica to call for help, while two Union cavalry riders sit with their backs turned mere feet away, wishing that kid would shut up. (That one of the soldiers eventually intervenes to save the child, only to fall into the quicksand himself, complicates this horrifically direct show of racism but also dares the audience to call the soldier a fool for sacrificing his life for that of a child who isn’t white.) The most decisive break between O’Meara and “his” tribe comes at the end, when he cannot stand to see his white nemesis, the Union officer (Ralph Meeker) he wounded at the start of the film, suffer at the hands of vindictive Sioux. Fuller brutally underscores the difference between a political schism and an outright existential one; O’Meara has no problem killing fellow whites, but he does so in what he perceives to be self-defense. He cannot comprehend a pure hatred borne of generations of mistreatment and eradication, and suddenly his grievances, and those of the whole South, are exposed as petty and self-martyring. If this film can be said to have a hopeful ending at all, it is not in the simple exchange of apologies between two peoples of wildly disparate power but rather in the possibility that whites can recognize and atone for themselves. Only then can they make moves to repair relations with anyone else.
Warner’s remastered disc offers a noticeable improvement over the sorry state of TCM rips floating around the internet, restoring the film’s no-frills beauty while still betraying the cheap production. Some shots will never be rid of their overexposed softness, but others look as good as any classic western, with detail so fine you can see the contrast of real dirt caked over fake blood, or the excessive bronzer applied to white actors playing Native Americans (a sadly ubiquitous sight in the genre and a compromise to standards in the otherwise full-throated subversion of racist Hollywood tradition). Sound is less sterling; the mono track is so quiet that even in a silent room, the speakers have to be cranked to hear anything. Having said that, the track also lacks the hiss and crackle of what was floating around on torrents, and soft, clean audio will always trump loud artifacts.
No extras are included.
Warner Archive rescues one of Samuel Fuller’s most incisive films from obscurity, preserving its pulpy but profound view of racism for a time when honest, angry, self-implicating American films on the subject are more welcome than ever.