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.
Another great film; the last US produced Fuller film I’m waiting for a dvd release.
Yeah, I can’t understand why this hasn’t gotten a release yet! It’s too good not to be seen. Warner Archive has it on their streaming service now, so perhaps that means at some point they might put out a DVD-R edition like Verboten. Or we can always cross our fingers for a full Criterion release! Let’s hope so.
Criterion has been so generous in bringing so many Fuller films (7?) to quality viewing that I think they’ve ran out of special features to include. Maybe a commentary track. But I agree this film is really good and worthy.
Olive Films have recently released China Gate and will release Shark! in a couple months as well. They may be our best best to get Run of the Arrow a proper release.
Yeah, you’re right, Criterion has been quite generous to Fuller fans. There’s some docs they could include like Falkenau, the very obscure An American in Normandy, Tell Me Sam. Maybe some of those TV episodes he directed. They’re more about quality of extras than completionist extras, though, so perhaps those aren’t the best options. Falkenau is definitely worth seeing for big Fuller fans, though.
I have that China Gate Blu-ray and was very happy to see it released. I watched the film via Netflix a few months before that was announced and was pining for a widescreen version. So happy to have it now. Thanks for the heads up on Shark! I had no idea they were planning that one, and I’ll definitely be interested in seeing it. That’s a film that I’d like there to be some investigative documentary to go along with it because of the story behind its release and Fuller disowning it. Even just a PDF of Fuller’s original script or something would be enough. But I’m sure it’ll just be the movie, which is honestly more than I would expect that one to get.
I actually just received my China Gate blu ray in the mail yesterday.
It is actually one of the few Fuller films I haven’t even seen yet.
I also have stayed away from seeing Shark since Fuller disowned it however, I will pick it up when it gets released and finally give it a go. FYI release date is June 25th 2013
Theives After Dark and Dead Pigeons on Beethoven Street are the only other 2 Fuller films I havent seen yet. Hopefully they get a release. Fantoma is/was suppose to release Dead Pigeons.. and still lists so on there site but release date has been TBA for a LONG time.
We are so close to completing our Fuller dvd collections. C’mon, just 3 more films!
Those would be some great extras, even if they are unrelated to the movie itself, to include assuming criterion (or whoever) can get a hold of the footage and rights to it.
Saw Falkenau on youtube need to sit down and watch it all still.
Thanks for the recommendations, nice reviews/site as well. Good to see another passionate Fuller fan on the web.
Well I hope you enjoy China Gate! I liked it quite a bit myself. It’s definitely a good time to be a Fuller fan with all the availability of most of his stuff. Have you heard of the documentary being produced by his daughter? It’s called A Fuller Life. Maybe there will be some more DVDs released to coincide with that?
Glad you like the site! I put a lot of work into it, so that is much appreciated. I hope to review the rest of the Fuller catalog this year.
Finally an official dvd release on Warner archives!
Yay! Thanks for mentioning it! I’m bad about updating reviews with this kind of useful information.
Here’s some links if anyone happens upon the page looking for the film:
Amazon or Warner Archive.
Oh, you’re probably aware of this already, but Twilight Time is releasing a Blu-ray of House of Bamboo in August!
Wow! No I was not aware. Thanks for informing me. That will be tough to pass up. Unfortunately twighlight time Are pricey
No problem. Received my copy today. Pleased to say it includes disc art & I got an actual dvd (oppose to a dvd-r).
Real. Excited to complete the dvd releases of fuller U.S. films. Still need thieves after dark & dead pigeons on Beethoven street.
Oh wow, I thought Warner Archives were all DVD-R. Olive still has Dead Pigeon coming at some point. They screened the restored version in LA a couple of months ago, but still no word on when their disc will arrive.
I think the first pressings are real DVDs for Warner archive then they switch over to the dvd r after that. I’ve got some DVDs in the forbidden Hollywood sets and some are dvd Rs.
Yeah, I’m still checking and waiting on dead pigeons. Would love a release date.
I did see eureka is releasing forty guns & pickup on south street on blu ray (already released white dog) but they are all region B lock. So I’ll stand pat with the R1 releases I own.