Run of the Arrow (1957)
AKA Hot Lead, Yuma
Starring Rod Steiger, Sara Montiel, Brian Keith, Ralph Meeker, Jay C. Flippen, Charles Bronson, Olive Carey, H.M. Wynant, Neyle Morrow, Frank DeKova
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Expectations: High. Sam Fuller.
This review officially marks the halfway point of my Sam Fuller series. It’s a little crazy that it’s taken me this long to only get halfway through, but I’m attacking it with newfound vigor and strength so I hope to complete it by year’s end. We’ll see. Anyway… Run of the Arrow! A truly impressive movie on so many levels, Sam Fuller once again crafts a yarn unlike any other I’ve seen, even among his own films. Every film I’ve seen of his is unique and thought-provoking, and Run of the Arrow is definitely one that brings up many questions. It’s a film about war, disillusionment, race and tolerance, and the road it travels to explore each of them is very unique.
Customary for a Sam Fuller film, the story opens excellently. Dead bodies rest on the smoking fields of battle and blood-red titles fade on-screen to let us know that it is the final day of the Civil War. A Union soldier rides lazy and confused through the battlefield. A gunshot sounds, and the soldier falls from his perch atop the horse. A rebel stands from a crouch behind a wagon wheel. He loots the soldier’s pockets and eats his food, using the man’s chest as a table. But when the soldier makes a tortured sound, the rebel finds the compassion within him to take him to a doctor’s tent that just so happens to be right outside the house where General Lee is surrendering to General Grant. The rebel is disgusted and refuses to accept the rule of the Yanks, so he leaves his family and rides west. There he meets up with a wandering Sioux named Walking Coyote, and his personal journey truly begins.
I apologize for the wordy synopsis, but setting the stage for Run of the Arrow is quite important. This grounding in the Civil War is integral to the character and to the film’s success, and to explain the plot in broader terms would be at the cost of a viewer’s ability to see the film untainted. I know it’s a 55-year-old movie so spoilers shouldn’t be an issue, but dammit this is Sam Fuller and the film is rather obscure, so I must show it the respect it deserves.
I wish I could have seen this movie during its initial run so that I was fully engrossed in the state of race relations in film at the time, and therefore able to accurately judge this film’s handling of those issues. But I can’t, so I can only go off of my experience with other ’50s films. Run of the Arrow treats the Native Americans and their culture with respect and tries to show them as a nuanced, ordered group of people, instead of the rampaging savages that populated the standard “Cowboys and Indians” pictures of the day. There are some white actors playing Indians (and this is jarring and laughable at times), but there’s also real Native Americans playing a few roles too, which is also fairly rare for this time period. Sam Fuller always confronted racism head-on, but in ways you wouldn’t expect. Morphing a Civil War movie into a race-focused Western is admirable, but it’s the slickness with which it’s pulled off that makes it so impressive.
Fuller always excelled at writing stories impressive in both their simplicity and their complexity. The plot of Run of the Arrow is fairly straightforward and easy to understand, but the currents running inside the characters are deep, brooding and complex. Fuller was always able to pack more emotion and drama into his films than most directors of his day could pack into two films, and Run of the Arrow is one of his most impressive in this regard.
The opening scene on the last day of the war will also be familiar to Fuller fans, as his later epic The Big Red One opens with a similar scene at the end of World War II. The connection is not by mistake, as right around the time that Run of the Arrow was produced, Fuller had written multiple drafts of The Big Red One and tried unsuccessfully to get it produced. He then went on to attempt to mount a production of the novel Tigrero, but that also went south. Run of the Arrow was written in the wake of those disappointments, so the theme of disillusionment, and Steiger’s inner wrestling with it, seems to have been born specifically from Fuller’s own feelings. As with his war pictures, this first-hand knowledge of the emotions and sentiments exhibited informs the entire film and helps to give it a realistic, undeniably gripping quality (amidst a lot of ’50s melodrama, of course).
But because this is Sam Fuller, there’s also a lot of purely visceral filmmaking to go along with that melodrama. The run of the arrow sequence is the most memorable of these, as Steiger is given a long head start before his native captors chase and try to kill him. The camera focuses mostly on the runner’s feet as they skip, jump and run through the desert, giving the scene a real sense of speed and urgency. In addition to being thrilling, the run also comes to represent a huge turning point for the main character, taking the ritual far beyond a simple life or death struggle. The run of the arrow is a real thing too, researched at length by Fuller while writing the film.
Run of the Arrow was also on the forefront of violence in cinema. Back in the ’50s it was unheard of to have a single shot show both the gun fired and the man it killed. Run of the Arrow actually never crosses that line either, but instead it shows multiple arrows being shot from off-screen and embedding themselves into men’s torsos, with one even plunging cleanly through a guy’s arm. Who knows how they actually shot that one; it really looks like they shot a dude through the arm with an arrow! They even graphically remove one of the arrows from a bloody corpse at one point! But by far the most shocking use of violence in the film involves what is one of the earliest uses of a bloody squib in film history. Some sources cite it as the first, but I was able to track down some conflicting info on that. Anyway, the squib used here looks superb and has exactly the desired impact on the audience. It’s rare for a single gunshot to affect me at this point in my action movie career, but this shit was ridiculously intense due to the range of emotions leading up to it. Tarantino should have included this film in his cinematic diet before shooting Django Unchained.
Run of the Arrow is a unique picture as it’s a western and a war movie, but it’s also neither. It’s really a personal drama about the struggle of one man to come to terms with the world around him. It’s not the most available movie these days — although, inexplicably, the soundtrack is ready for purchase via Amazon MP3 — but should a classic film fan hunt it down, I doubt they’d be disappointed.