Following in the tracks of Burt Lancaster, the actor he is most closely associated with, Kirk Douglas, made The Indian Fighter his inaugural production under his new company banner, Bryna Productions. Not surprisingly, Douglas, plays the title role and as a producer was wise enough to surround himself with an exceptional cast and employed a first rate action director, Andre De Toth, to take the reigns behind the camera.
It should come as no surprise that Douglas is going to play the hero but isn’t it ironic that Walter Matthau who made his debut in 1955’s The Kentuckian as the villain opposite Lancaster is again playing the heavy in his second film opposite the cleft chinned icon. Matthau will be complimented here by Lon Chaney Jr. as his unsavory partner looking for gold in Indian country.
The civil war has come to an end and Douglas who is known as “The Indian Fighter” is now looking to bring peace to both races. The film opens with him eyeing up a skinny dipping Elsa Martinelli and theirs will be a playful relationship throughout the film. Elsa who was making her film debut is the daughter of Chief Red Cloud. Red Cloud played by Eduard Franz wants the whites to stay out of the Oregon territory that his people call home. The main problem is there are whites who want the gold nuggets that are plentiful in a secret location on the reserve. That plot point is going to come on strong the following morning when Matthau and Chaney are on the outskirts of the Indian camp attempting to trade whiskey for nuggets. The deal goes sour and Lon is quick to kill.
While Lon gets away, Matthau, isn’t as lucky and Douglas will have to make a snap decision. He’ll save Matthau this time from a fiery death and with a beautiful sucker punch to the jaw, KO, the eventual Oscar winner placing him head down over a saddle and ride off towards the nearest army fort overseen by Walter Abel. Lon has arrived ahead of them and has already been spreading stories of an Indian uprising and Matthau’s death. Douglas is going to set him straight and a trip for both Matthau and Chaney to the guard house is their next stop. Hey! Isn’t that Hank Worden as the jail cell guard?
Douglas goes ahead and organizes a peaceful meeting between the two parties and is next tagged to lead a wagon train through the territory. Enter a widow with child played by Kirk’s one time real life wife, Diana Douglas. She clearly has her sights set on Kirk as the man she intends to marry. There’s good farmland ahead and Kirk’s a much better catch then the boring Alan Hale Jr. His answer to the pressure she’s clearly putting on him?
“I ain’t fit for marriage.”
The wagon train job will allow Kirk to renew his interest in Miss Elsa. Sadly it’s also going to result in the treaty being broken. Matthau and Chaney are back in business and have joined the wagon train. When Indians led by Harry Landers enter the settler’s camp, the trading of goods goes smoothly until our two villains attempt to pry the location of the gold from an Indian warrior who looks awfully familiar with whiskey. Hey! That’s Hank Worden doing double duty in this film. Both he and Landers are about to be murdered and the treaty is no more. The wagons are storming back to the fort under fire and Douglas is going to have some explaining to do. After all, he was making love to an Indian girl at the time of the attacks.
Kirk is going to have to make good by ending the bloodshed and bring both Lon and Walter to justice. Indian justice.
Filmed in cinemascope, this is a very pretty film to look at and even the script itself brings that into focus through the character played by Elisha Cook Jr. Elisha is playing a military photographer who is capturing the sprawling landscape, rivers and forests on film so that others may see the vast lands that are yet to be discovered. Douglas’ mountain man isn’t too fond of the idea but with Cook’s character being so likable will let it pass. For the record this is a good role for Elisha among the 200 plus credits he scored over the course of some 55 years on camera. He’s gentle this time out and less likely to shoot you in the back. You’ll also be sure to recognize Ray Teal as a quick tempered settler and Frank Cady as a shady trader in cahoots with Lon and Walter.
Douglas was on a roll at this point in his career. He had appeared in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Disney in 1954, had Fighter, Man Without a Star and The Racers on screens in 1955 and would score great acclaim as Van Gogh in Lust For Life the following year. No wonder we still look at him as one of the screen greats and the balance of the decade offered plenty more highs including Paths of Glory, The Vikings and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Here’s a tiny bit of Kirk trivia to digest. He’d reunite with Diana Douglas on screen a mere 48 years later in the Douglas clan outing, It Runs in the Family.
Not to be overlooked are the performances of Lon Chaney during 1955. By this point he was mainly in supporting roles and during this calendar year he offered fine support in I Died a Thousand Times with Jack Palance, Big House U.S.A. with buddy Broderick Crawford, Not as a Stranger with Robert Mitchum and here opposite Douglas and Matthau. While his Wolfman lives on and Lenny was his go to character, there are plenty of other roles where he excelled.
Matthau would costar once again opposite Douglas in Strangers When We Meet in 1960 and with Indian Fighter, director De Toth, turned out another fine western in a steady diet of oaters he had helmed during the decade including a posse of Randolph Scott titles like Riding Shotgun, Carson City and Man In the Saddle. His biggest hit of the decade? Surely The House of Wax which remains a go to of the horror genre.
Looking for a copy of this fine Douglas effort? It’s out on DVD and recently surfaced on blu ray from Kino Lorber. The company that keeps us classic film fans happy. Poster? If it stars Kirk Douglas there’s always a chance I do have something tucked away and this time around here in the movie vault I have both style A and B of the half sheets that adorned movie theaters back at the time of the release in 1955.
Number 1 son, Ethan, gives it his best Douglas impression in the first poster pic …
And I’ve called upon Number 2 son, Kirk, for rather obvious reasons to step in front of the camera this time for the unveiling of the alternate look.