A US soldier, under attack by a Sioux tribe, puts out the embers of a burning American flag. The film is Run of the Arrow, by Samuel Fuller. His aesthetic approach—described by Jean-Luc Godard, immortally, as “cine-fist”—branded politics onto pulp. So forget that the flag gets extinguished. There’s that incendiary image, in a 1957 Western, arriving with the force of a haymaker: the stars-and-stripes aflame alongside the homes of colonialist Americans.
O’Meara (Rod Steiger) fired the last shot of the Civil War, before—resistant to the arms of a “Yankee America”—he set out and joined a Sioux nation. But the Union’s sights soon moved from the South to the West. And O’Meara (not battle-hardened, but battle-shaken) is reticent to reenter combat against men that resemble himself. That hesitation quickly divides him from his adopted tribe—his downfall results from the ludicrous thinking that one can discard their own race as easily as a white nation will discard its natives.
Fuller’s compositions rhyme—O’Meara’s meetings with a Sioux leader are mirrored by his talks with a liberal Union leader—in a way that illustrates his contempt for labeling men by their race or nation. But each character is victimized by the identity that the cosmos granted them. A violent leader among the Sioux finds himself unable to abide by the compromises his tribe makes with the Union, and is made a renegade by the ideology he was born into. A Union lieutenant, with the weight of a nation’s expectations behind him, drives his troops into a doomed last stand. And O’Meara, a white Native American born of the South and entangled with the North, remains forever defined by labels he rejects.
It leads them all, inexorably, to the kind of race-based conflict that’s left a bloodstain on the land below our feet. When that battle begins, we alternate between faraway shots (where we see the warriors, divided by color, marching like ants) and tighter, grounded compositions (where we see the gory results on individual bodies). Fuller frames the macro and the micro—the divided herds, the individuals they foster, and the violence they engender—all as one.
Fuller’s movie recognizes (with astutely visualized clarity) the primary contradiction of American life: Racial identity is a false construct, but one that no individual can ever transcend. The final title card, with typical Fuller aplomb, announces that the end of this film “can only be written by you.” Sorry, Sam—we’re still working on it.
RUN OF THE ARROW. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE. 24 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. SUN 8.2. 7PM/NR/$7-9.