THE VANISHING AMERICAN (1925)
- Richard Dix, Lois Wilson, George B. Seitz (director)This silent film was an early big-budget epic that demonstrates the panoramic sweep available in early cinema. It was the first Western filmed in Monument Valley, Utah. Zane Grey’s novel by the same title is the film’s basis, and since Grey was at the height of his popularity, he gets significant billing. Besides the simple grandeur of the cinematography, the film’s real significance is in its sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans. The sympathy comes from Grey, not from the classic Western tradition that was already developing in the films of D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, James Cruze, and even the very early work of John Ford. The narrative begins with a pre-story, which tells the history of Native Americans from the valley in which the story is set—from the time of the prehistoric basket weavers to the pueblos to the coming of the Spanish and the introduction of horses. Then it shows 19thcentury experiences with Kit Carson and brings the story up to the present, the post–World War I period. The theme underlying all these historic episodes is the relocation of oppressed people, one wave after another, off the land and out of the valley. Then the main narrative begins. It involves an interracial romance, purely platonic, never expressed, between Nophaie (Dix) and the Indian Bureau’s schoolteacher, Marion (Wilson) at the Indian school. Nophaie is the vanishing American. He dies saving the whites of the town from disgruntled Indian veterans returning from the war to find that their way of life is destroyed. Nophaie tries to talk sense into his enraged comrades, but he is eventually killed by his own people. His death, however, is the cause of the Indians reconciliation with the whites. The added bonus is that at the end, Marion can marry the very white Army captain (Malcolm McGregor) and thus foresee a respectable life ahead. It is easy for us today to see the problems in the film’s vision for Native America. It makes no apology, for example, in transforming the Indian way of life into white American culture at the end. Indians are fated to vanish. Indian schools are presented without apology and Americanism is extolled. Nearly every scene shows lazy Indians in the background, and the villainous Indian Agent Booker (Noah Beery) is worse than the well-meaning whites because he deliberately exploits Indians for personal gain. All the others shed a tear for the vanishing tribe, but, unwittingly, they are as much a part of the problem themselves.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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