Pros: Better than Dances With Wolves
Cons: One heavy-handed scene
To cinephiles the name Sam Fuller should be a familiar one. The late director (Fuller died in 1997) was known as the "King of the B's", even though he dismissed the title. Revered in France and idolized by some on this side of the Atlantic (notably Jim Jarmusch), the cigar-chomping auteur was something of a maverick in his heydaya fiercely independent iconoclast with a lurid, tabloid esthetic.
Lots of folks have jumped on the Fuller bandwagon of late, following on the heels of a Tim Robbins-produced documentary, The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera that features interviews with some of today's hottest directors: Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. And while pulp flicks like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss are now (rightfully) lauded, you might want to check out some of Fuller's other, lesser-known works.
One that I really like: Run of the Arrow (AKA Hot Lead) from 1957.
Run of the Arrow is notably similar toand notably better thanKevin Costner's Dances With Wolves. Both films are about a Civil War soldier who joins the Sioux nation, but the lengthy, slow-going Costner vehicle suffers from all sorts of excessiveness and look-at-me self-consciousnesstraits that are (admirably) absent from Fuller's film.
There's a huge chasm that separates these two similar-on-the-surface but stylistically different movies and the great film critic Manny Farber really nailed it (for me anyway) in a famous essay written many years ago entitled "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art".
Here, Costner's is the lumbering, overly praised and prized (it won the Academy Award for Best Picture) prestige film while Run of the Arrow is the modest but fast-paced, low-budget yet laudable "B" picture. You'd be wise to pass on the former (Costner's white elephant) and seek out the later (Fuller's industrious termite).
Run of the Arrow opens on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, in Appomattox, Virginiaon "the last day of the War Between the States." Rod Steiger (with Irish accent) plays Pvt. O'Meara, a bitter Confederate soldier who fires the last shot of the war, wounding (but not killing) a Union officer (Ralph Meeker).
While the warped bulleta saved souveniris "close to the heart", Meeker survives and the two will, significantly, meet up again later in the film. I really like an early scene where O'Meara watches from a tented medical outpostwhere he has deposited Meeker after stealing his horseas Lee surrenders to Gen. Grant. It's a beautiful tableau, precisely staged with all the decorum one might see in a historic paintingobserved from just the right distance (Lee, notably, exits on a white horse). Its all shot from one man's rather war-weary, but romantic point of view and historical accuracy is beside the point.
O'Meara, as we are soon to learn, is a man harboring a great deal of hatea man not ready (or willing) to accept defeat. Aiming his rifle at Grant, he stops just short of pulling the trigger ("If you're going to shoot Grant you better shoot Lee too, else the shame will kill 'em").
There's some really striking and strong dialogue a couple of scenes later, as O'Meara comes home to tell his mother (on a small bridge with a number of silent townsfolk poised in the background) that "the baboon was shot too late." He's referring to Lincoln and mom counters that her son should show some respect, "even if it's for a dead, damn Yankee President."
Confederates were expected to take an oath of allegiance before being allowed back into the Union, but a tearful O'Meara's not about to do that ("I'll hang before I recognize that flag"). Instead, he heads out to the far West where he meets up with Walking Coyote, a wandering Sioux Indian, nicely played by veteran character actor Jay C. Flippen (the two are vaguely reminiscent of Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer in Jim Jarmusch's terrific Dead Man). Walking Coyote sizes O'Meara up quicklycalling him "Mr. Johnny Sore Loser"but the two strike up a genuine friendship, perhaps because the old Indian sees a bit of himself in the lone renegade posture that O'Meara strikes. It's in these scenes that we learn Sioux is a French word that means "cut throat". And we also learn of O'Meara's desire to become a Sioux (because, as he tells Walking Coyote, "cut throats should stick together").
He gets that chance, but first must survive an endurance test (if he wants to live he must be faster than the "run of the arrow"). It's a torturous challenge, whereby barefoot participants (O'Meara and Walking Coyote) are given a chance of survival if they can outrun a band of drunk, mean, and kill-happy Sioux. An arrow is shot in the air (I love how Fuller animates this so we can see the actual trajectory) and the distance it travels is how much of a head start they're allowed. O'Meara survives when he's hidden by a passing squaw (Sarita Montiel) and later he joins her tribe.
This whole "run of the arrow" sequence is beautifully shot by cinematographer Joseph Biroc (who frequently collaborated with Fuller and director Robert Aldrich). Blurry close-up images of running legs are interspersed with terrific long shots where we can see both the chaser and the chased in the same frame. It's nicely done.
The middle section concerns O'Meara's induction as a Sioux and ultimately the movie looks at the question of identity and allegiances. Brian Keith is very good as a conciliatory Captain and there's a terrific scene where he explains some things to O'Mearaprimarily that Lee's surrender wasn't the death of the South but the birth of the United States.
Charles Bronson also puts in an appearance as Chief Blue Buffalo, although there's a heavy-handed (and unnecessary) religious debate before O'Meara is allowed to marry Yellow Moccasin, the squaw who saved him. O'Meara won't give up his Christianity and, after asking a number of questions, Bronson ultimately determines that "we have the same God, but with a different name." It comes off as a bit fatuous, but Fuller quickly recovers.
I've seen a number of Fuller movies and Run of the Arrow is a favorite. It's a beautifully shot, nicely scored, and well-acted little gem (I've read that it was something of an embarrassment to Steiger, but there's really nothing wrong with his performance). And, for some reason, Angie Dickinson dubbed in Sarita Montiel's lines but her role is a small one and it's fairly seamless. For fans of Sam Fuller, the colorful Run of the Arrow is not to be missed. It rivals many of the Westerns in John Ford's oeuvre.