Made under the guidance of Yakama civil rights activist Nipo Strongheart, this film tells the story of a tribe fighting for their fishing rights. The decision to send the title character to college sends the story spiraling into sports film territory, complete with stolen football signals.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
The trouble is, we’re neglecting football for education.
When we talk about the representation of Indigenous people in silent and classic Hollywood, the picture is often grim. Native Americans were commonly treated as a faceless enemy, their unique traditions conflated into a monoculture and white actors were regularly cast in the films that did portray them as sympathetic.
And that’s where we are with Braveheart. This 1925 drama was produced by Cecil B. DeMille’s independent studio and was made at a time when westerns were all the rage. What makes Braveheart significant is that in order to assure accuracy, the studio called on the services of Yakama civil rights activist Nipo Strongheart and agreed to include a fictionalized version of the Yakama’s struggle to keep their treaty-granted fishing rights.
The film was loosely based on William de Mille’s (Cecil’s big brother) 1905 play, Strongheart, which was a college melodrama centering around the son of a Native American chief and his adventures with love and football signals. (If you spend this entire review with the storyline of Horse Feathers in mind, well, I don’t blame you.)
Renamed Braveheart for the new version, Rod La Rocque was cast as the title character and Tyrone Power, Sr. as his father, the chief of the tribe. Nipo Strongheart was on hand to play a medicine man (Other name Hollywood performers in the cast are listed as having some amount of Native American heritage but so many of those claims in general have crumbled when closely examined that I feel it would be irresponsible to repeat them here. Nipo Strongheart’s heritage and that of many of the extras are not in dispute.)
I should note that casting a white actor as an Indigenous character was by no means necessary in the silent era. DeMille himself directed Winnebago actress Red Wing (Lillian St. Cyr) in his 1914 debut picture, The Squaw Man, and the actress enjoyed a film career before and after her work with DeMille. The 1920 film The Daughter of Dawn featured a cast made up entirely of Comanche and Kiowa performers.
Braveheart presents its central conflict quickly: An unnamed Northwestern tribe has a treaty that grants them fishing rights into perpetuity but a wealthy cannery has set up shop along the river and is using violence and intimidation to prevent the Indigenous fishers from obtaining salmon. Since salmon is their major food source, the Native Americans face starvation. The patient, traditional methods of the Indigenous fishers are visually contrasted by the industrialized mass salmon hauls of the big business operation.
Naturally, the owner of the cannery has a beautiful daughter. Dorothy (Lillian Rich) is out in the woods when she injures herself and is rescued by Braveheart (Rod La Rocque), the son of the chief, Standing Rock (Tyrone Power, Sr.). Braveheart helps her get back home and she promises to meet him again but leaves him a Dear Braveheart letter and departs for the east under her father’s orders.
Now, I am sure you are thinking “Ah-ha! This is one of those doomed romances and the lovers will stare at one another through the trees before one or both dies. In short, they’re pulling a Ramona!”
Fooled you good, didn’t they? No, the picture immediately switches gears and turns into a college football picture. I mean, naturally, right?
With the cannery’s violence escalating to outright murder, the tribe needs to do something. Standing Rock decides that he will send Braveheart to college to become a lawyer who can see the old treaty enforced in court. Ki-Yote (Frank Hagney) points out that this plan will take years and they are starving in the present tense but he is overruled and off Braveheart goes to college.
Are we shown scenes of him studying the legal code to prepare as thoroughly as possible for his day in court? We are not. Instead, we get football! Braveheart makes the team, rah rah rah.
Arthur Housman plays Dorothy’s ne’er-do-well brother, Frank, and at forty-five, he is surely the oldest college kid on the football team. I know movies tend to cast student roles with actors a bit above the characters’ ages but this is ridiculous.
(By the way, I can only guess that the odd wig on La Rocque was intended to make him resemble Jim Thorpe, multitalented Native American athlete, or Nipo Strongheart in his youth.)
Frank is a rotten egg who plans to give the team’s football signals to a rival college in order to pay off his debts. And not just any copy of the signals, a copy written by Braveheart. Frank is caught handing them over but immediately throws the blame on Braveheart—it’s his handwriting, after all— and the disciplinary committee buys it. Our hero is expelled.
Worse, when he returns home, he refuses to account for his expulsion even when threatened with being branded and kicked out of the tribe. I mean, I realize that perhaps the rules of football might be strange to his family—they’re certainly strange to me—but how hard would it be to start with “a game played by two teams of eleven players on a rectangular field with goalposts at each end” and end with “in general, the extra point is almost always successful while the two-point conversion is a much riskier play with a higher probability of failure” when your future is at stake?
Or just cut to the chase and say something like “The son of the guy stealing our fish framed me but I am innocent and I shall still prevail in court!” Braveheart’s entire family is being cheated out of their fishing rights and murdered by the cannery brigade, for heaven’s sake, what’s a little football frame-up?
Did he think they would say “We believe that they are stealing our salmon and killing us but stealing their own football signals? No fiend would dare!” Because Braveheart refuses to give an explanation even though the people of his tribe repeatedly ask for one.
This is where a few more drafts of the screenplay would have helped matters. Was there a cultural reason for Braveheart’s refusal to speak? Or was it supposed to be because Frank is Dorothy’s brother? In that case, Braveheart is putting affairs of the heart over the welfare of his people and that deserves some mulling over. Whichever it was supposed to be, it’s not at all clear in the version of the film that I saw.
But wouldn’t the football story have tied into the main plot better if Frank had intentionally framed Braveheart in order to prevent him from gaining his law degree? After all, Frank has a financial stake in keeping the Yakama away from the salmon. And then there’s the little matter of Braveheart hanging around Dorothy.
Braveheart’s expulsion from school and the tribe, not to mention his branding, do not actually affect the plot or his behavior in any way. He still prevails in court and he is immediately and unquestioningly accepted back into his tribe once he knocks Ki-Yote’s teeth in. A few scenes of our hero coming to terms with his expulsion from the two most important places in his life would have been nice and in keeping with similar films of the period. (Say what you will about Tempest but John Barrymore certainly reacted to being framed, stripped of his rank and jailed!)
As you can see, this plot is not exactly coherent. All that being said, I have to give credit where credit is due. The film does directly call out racism and even states plainly that Braveheart was expelled entirely because it was the word of a non-white guy against a white guy. Further, he emerges the legal victor and we don’t have to endure another one of those infuriating “vanishing American” endings. (Yakama fishing rights have been regularly contested down to this day, by the way. In fact, there was a legal decision upholding the treaty as recently as 2019.)
The casting the very not-Indigenous Rod La Rocque is a mark against the picture but still, at a time when Hollywood was regularly slaughtering Apache and Comanche left and right, this film does directly address racism, the U.S. government’s failure to honor treaties and the casual brutality meted out to Native Americans. While they are not mentioned by name, it positively portrays the Yakama people’s struggle to protect their fishing rights and graphically portrays the abuses they face in that battle.
I should note that other movies did tackle similar topics. Redskin (1929), which was also influenced by Jim Thorpe’s life story, is the better movie, though it does share the same casting issues as Braveheart. The film was made with the cooperation of the Navajo people and respectfully portrays their culture and calls out the abuses at the so-called Indian Schools. (The title was intentionally provocative and the term “redskin” is treated as an abusive slur throughout.)
The popular novel Ramona featured a romance between the daughter of a Californio family and an Indigenous man. D.W. Griffith directed a 1910 adaptation that starred Mary Pickford and Henry B. Walthall (who also played Strongheart in the 1914 adaptation of the play). The film’s message of “He’s being discriminated against because of the color of his skin!” reads quite strangely considering the director’s history but Griffith’s capacity for compartmentalization was almost infinite. (Needless to say, condemning racism against one group does not absolve someone of inspiring the relaunch of the KKK. I know this should be obvious but you’d be amazed at the arguments I have seen related to this topic.)
Braveheart’s good intentions, though, aren’t enough to save it. There are just too many flaws in the production. For a start, the romance is a bit confusing. Obviously, this was a time when interracial love stories were unjustly blocked by the censorship boards but the way things are handled between Braveheart and Dorothy is… well, oddly remote.
Dorothy: I love you, Braveheart!
Dorothy: Father is sending me east!
Dorothy: I still love you, Braveheart!
Dorothy: Sorry I didn’t publicly defend you.
Dorothy: You’ve saved me, let’s canoodle!
Braveheart: It’s not you, it’s me.
Dorothy: Oh, okay, bye.
This would be fine, I have no issues with romance taking the back seat, but the way the film frames it, it seems like this was supposed as a grand tale of desire and passion. In practice, La Rocque and Rich come off as two co-workers from different departments making awkward smalltalk while they wait for their teams to join the video conference. And yet the poster is like:
Further, the fact that Dorothy is the daughter of the guy stealing the salmon and starving everyone Braveheart loves never really factors into Braveheart’s behavior. I am not saying he needed to seek revenge or anything, just that it seems odd that it would never come up in conversation. It strikes me that it would have been important. Then she fails to publicly defend him when he is subjected to racist slurs in public. In short, she is not his friend or his ally.
Many of the film’s problems can be blamed on the fact that the filmmakers were too ambitious with their remake. William deMille’s play, Strongheart, was about a Native American guy who attends college and gets caught up in the theft of football signals but that was all it was about and nothing more. The play does call out racism but there was no particular political message or call to action, just straight collegiate hokum.
You see, when adding a plot element to a story, you need to consider how it will reweight and potentially unbalance that story. For example, if you make a movie about a guy who is trying to bake the perfect cake and works days and night to accomplish his dream (using tons of flour and butter and eggs in the process) but then choose to add the little detail like “Oh yeah, this takes place during the London Blitz!” you have totally unbalanced your story. Blackouts, rationing and the draft all come into the plot and cannot be ignored. It’s suddenly not so cute to see the hero burning through a bag of flour every two days. The new setting and details have to be carefully considered to avoid coming off as flippant.
And that’s what’s wrong with Braveheart. The fishing rights story, especially when murder is involved, is so much more serious and so much more important and so much more real that the football signals story seems to be a bizarre and pointless detour. Who cares about the stupid football game? People are being murdered back home and starvation is at the door!
Cecil B. DeMille was fiercely loyal to his brother and would have likely opposed giving the original source material the old heave-ho but that was obviously what was needed here. I was completely ready to settle in and watch Braveheart and his family fight to win back their salmon and I would still watch a film about that very situation if they made one today.
While Nipo Strongheart is sometimes credited as the screenplay’s co-writer, his contributions were more in matters of culture and history. It was the responsibility of the film production team to make sure everything fit together smoothly. That’s not what happened. The elements that were, presumably, Strongheart’s contributions are all just kind of plunked into the old hokum and the seams show badly. It’s like plopping artisanal goat cheese onto a reheated frozen burrito.
Mary O’Hara is the other credited screenwriter and given the extraordinarily bonkers plot of Framed (1927), one of the films she scripted after Braveheart, I think we can safely say that some of the more eccentric moments can likely be credited to her.
(Oh, and the reason for renaming the film was due to the fact that a very handsome German Shepherd had become a superstar under the name of Strongheart and retaining the old title of the play would have likely led to all sorts of confusion and possible legal action.)
I should also mention that director Alan Hale (best known as the go-to Little John Actor of Hollywood) could direct action but he did not seem to know how to handle the film’s more emotional scenes. Everyone is stiff and you don’t really get the sense of an inner life anywhere. Considering the sensitive performances that can be found from this exact period in film history, this is a fatal blow to the film. (Compare, for example, Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy in The Enchanted Cottage under the direction of Jack Robertson or Rudolph Schildkraut in His People under the direction of Edward Sloman.)
Does Dorothy feel guilty about her family’s continued abuse of the tribe? We don’t know. How did Standing Rock feel after expelling his son? We don’t know. How did Braveheart feel as he toiled away for his tribe’s fishing rights while knowing he was unwelcome in his childhood home? We don’t know. Leaving Tyrone Power, Sr. with nothing to do is especially egregious considering his formidable talent.
I realize this was a mainstream programmer but there were plenty of mainstream programmers that handled much heavier questions with aplomb. I’m not saying every programmer has to turn into heavy drama but I do expect something more than the characters being pushed around the screen like action figures, especially when this picture was meant to expose racism and injustice. Director Lois Weber had these sorts of scenes mastered in the 1910s, for heaven’s sake.
I should mention that Braveheart opened to nearly universal praise with fan magazines and trade periodicals alike complimenting Hale’s direction, La Rocque’s performance and more. The Educational Screen, which never missed an opportunity to be horrendous, was careful to applaud the fact that Braveheart “did not forget the barrier his race put between” himself and Dorothy and now I want to smash something.
Regarding the general acclaim awarded to Braveheart by film critics of the day, all I can say is that these were the same people who panned The Canadian soon after so I have every reason to doubt their taste.
The film cost $290,000, which a lot for a film of its type, but only brought in $249,000. DeMille’s programmers of the period were pretty much all the same story: lavish production values and higher-than-average budgets for their respective genres… and few of them broke even, let alone showed a profit. So, the box office success (or lack thereof) doesn’t say much about audience reception as much as it does about the distribution and budgeting woes of DeMille’s company. In fact, it was the third-highest grossing DeMille programmer out of the ten released that fiscal year.
Braveheart is an interesting but confused patchwork of a film. It changes genres like most people change their socks and never really seems to settle on a topic. The romance is an afterthought and the odd focus on football completely derails the more interesting fishing rights plot.
On the other hand, it was refreshing to see a mainstream production so directly address institutional racism and have the message be, basically, “Yes, he was framed and nobody believed him because of his race and that’s horrible.” The fact that the production made this stand against racism under the guidance of a civil rights activist of the Yakama nation is also significant.
So, I would say that the film is worth seeing but I can’t describe it as exactly polished. The people who made it clearly had good intentions but, alas, a few more runs through the editing process would not have been amiss.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD, I recommend getting the Grapevine release due to the quality score by Christopher Congdon. This is a picture that needs all the help it can get and good music improves it considerably.
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