|Joe Thunder Horse …
|Dr. Turner …
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Oh, hey, it confronts racial prejudice and social issues in that Warner Brothers “let’s be as sensationalistic as possible” way.
- There’s definitely a fade out to some miscegenation, with several other eager participants all around.
- Surprisingly, the film also takes on how missionaries had been trying to rid
Thunder Horse: “No one interferes with your religion.”
Quissenberry: “What’s good enough for the white man is good enough for you!”
- Yeah, I know Prohibition was long gone by the time this showed up, but you have to admire how callous this part sounds:
“That means she’s sober!”
- A major plot point revolves around an interracial rape and ‘the unspoken law’.
Massacre: The Century of Progress
“Get this junk off me.”
I spent a couple of days this last week reading Yunte Huang’s Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, a book that not only delves into the formation of the fictional detective, but the history of Chinese-American relations in the early part of the 20th century. Huang talks about how ‘Tribalism’ infected the politics of the 1920s: as prosperity came to America, America wanted to make sure that white Americans were getting their more-than-fair share.
One of the items discussed was a 1932 incident in Hawaii called The Massie Affair. A white woman accused five islanders of gang rape. The case was full of holes and, despite being under the threat of a military coup and public outrage, the case was a mistrial. This resulted in the mother of the woman kidnapping one of the accused and murdering them. The trial was a sensation, and the result of a guilty verdict threatened in race riots and mass lynchings. To satiate the whites in power, the Governor overrode the judge’s ruling, and the woman and her accomplices who murdered an islander were sentenced to 1 hour of sitting in the Governor’s office, sharing drinks.
I talk about these things because while it’s fun to get caught up in the glamor or the pain in the films of the early 1930s, it becomes very easy to overlook just how incredibly shitty it was for minorities in that era.
One minority that it was always incredibly shitty for were, of course, the Native Americans. Like a lot of times when indigenous populations met up with ruthless capitalists, things ended poorly. By the end of the 19th century, the proud tribes of American Indians were contained to reservations and regulated by the Federal government. Their schools were manned by Christian missionaries, and the teaching of their culture forbidden.
Into this cheery world enters Warner Brothers and director Alan Crosland. Warner Brothers had had a lot of success tackling social issues in movies like I Was a Fugitive From A Chain Gang and The Mayor of Hell, and one of their stars, Richard Barthelmess, was always chomping at the bit to make a statement.
Massacre is the result, and, despite the sensational sounding title and the plentiful action contained within, it’s not about an out and out battle between the Indians and the white man, but how the white man was exploiting the Indian and leaving them to rot away into nothing.
The film’s pretty clever about this. Our protagonist is Joe Thunder Horse, a sharpshooter in a traveling Wild West show. He’s flanked by noble warriors and demonstrates his skills dressed in traditional garb, though that goes away once he gets off the stage. Thunder Horse is a modern man who prefers suits, fast cars, and beautiful white women. His latest conquest is the wealthy Norma (Claire Dodd), who has a room full of Indian paraphernalia that Thunder Horse doesn’t recognize. He left home at a young age, went to college, and went on to become famous as the popular ideal of what an Indian was.
But now he’s gotten a message that his father’s dying. Packing along his good friend Sam (Clarence Muse), he heads to his native reservation. There he finds that a cadre of white overseers have arranged to split the money and land that the Native Americans have and perpetuate the reservation’s poverty. The Indians we see are filthy, broken people, and the whites chubby and quite satisfied with themselves.
Spurned into action by another college educated Sioux named Lydia (Ann Dvorak), Thunder Horse soon finds that he can’t help but push back against the indignities he sees. He breaks up a fake ritual put on for a commercial. He punches the corrupt doctor in the face. When his father passes away, he arranges traditional burial rites, further pushing the corrupt officials towards a confrontation.
During his father’s funeral, the shady casket salesmen Shanks (Sidney Toler) takes Thunder Horse’s sister Jennie outside and rapes her. Thunder Horse chases him and, using his roping skills, drags Shanks behind his car. After a brief trial in a kangaroo court (his lawyer pleads guilty against his wishes, the judges take their orders directly from the prosecutor), and Thunder Horse sentenced to 90 days hard labor and to remit all of the money on his person.
Not really content with this, Lydia and Sam help Thunder Horse escape, and he winds his way to Washington. There he confronts the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who wants to use him as an example to enact real change on how the government controls Native American lands. The only problem is that Shanks has passed away, and now Thunder Horse must return to the reservation to face the angry white men who he has so far defied…
Massacre is a nuanced yet bombastic film about racial relations in the early 1930s. However, it’s still a product of the time it’s made– Thunder Horse and Lydia are both played by white people, as the tradition was at the time. It’s also worth noting that both of those characters are college educated, indicating that they still need this white man’s institution to be able to lead, though the film is polite enough not to say that directly.
But Massacre remains a fast paced and action packed film that avoids turgid melodramatics in favor of over-the-top social commentary. Thunder Horse’s evolution from a joke of the Indian image into the man who can lead his people is exciting and dynamic. The movie contains a lot of great outdoor shooting, and director Crosland imbues the movie with vicarious thrills as the certain-to-be mostly white audience finds themselves not rooting along racial lines, but for justice and dignity.
I still have a lot more to say about the film. Follow along in the next section where I illustrate some of the film’s more interesting points.
A Visual Breakdown
Trivia & Links
- The film’s plea for Indian self regulation and independence were timely, as both were being mimicked in the adaption of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 was passed almost five months after this film’s release. The film’s portrayal of a proactive Commissioner of Indian Affairs who’s looking to curb the widespread exploitation of Native Americans is also based on the real life secretary John Collier. The IRA reversed widespread assimilation policies and restored the Indian’s ability to self govern as well as regain lost lands.
- Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times has a hard time swallowing Massacre‘s parable, finding the extent of the corruption unlikely and melodramatic. However, he does note, “The chief crook is an Indian agent known as Elihu P. Quissenberry, who being portrayed by that expert player, Dudley Digges, is almost too believable for comfort.”
- TCMDB is far more interested in behind-the-scenes gossip this go around, and talks about Ann Dvorak for half its article– which is fine if you watched this movie to learn more about Ann Dvorak, I guess. There’s also a bit about the film’s racial diversity:
Elsewhere, Warners did strive for a measure of authenticity for Massacre, to the point of hiring Luther Standing Bear as a technical advisor. The Oglala Lakota Sioux Chieftain had been among the first Native Americans to attend Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School (alma mater of Olympic medalist Jim Thorpe) and was at the time the author of several books related to his childhood and Indian life and an occasional performer in such films as Paramount’s White Oak (1921) with William S. Hart and The Conquering Horde (1931) with Richard Arlen and Fay Wray, in which he was billed as Chief Standing Bear. He appears uncredited in Massacre, alongside such non-Native American actors as Iron Eyes Cody (an Italian American who made a career out of playing First Nationers) and African-American Noble Johnson, who played ethnics of every stripe (perhaps most notably as the native chief in King Kong, 1933) in a diverse career that stretched from 1915 to 1950.
- Since there are a great many people who do care about Ann Dvorak, you or they may try seeking out the blog Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel.
- I watched another documentary not to soon before watching this called Incident at Oglala (1992) about the murder of two FBI agents on a reservation in the 70s and the fallout. It’s an excellent film that shows that the tension between whites and Native Americans still hasn’t gone away.
Thanks to Lantern, there are hundreds of issues of fan magazine and industry journals from the pre-Code era available for free. Here are some related articles; click on the ‘View Full Sized Image’ in the bottom right to view!
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is part of Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 6 collection, which also contains Mandalay and Downstairs. It’s available on Amazon and Warner Archive, and can be rented from Classicflix.
Comment below or join our email subscription list on the sidebar!