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Run of the Arrow (DVD Review)

10 Aug, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Rod Steiger, Sarita Montiel, Ralph Meeker, Brian Keith, Charles Bronson.

Back in the mid-1950s, when writer-director Sam Fuller didn’t yet have to scramble quite as much to secure financing for his movies, he managed to score two Western releases in the same year. In fact, they even came out the same month if you go by IMDb.com and allow for the fact that all but the most prestigious Westerns could take a while to penetrate both Mayberry R.F.D. drive-ins and (sometimes much later) New York City 42nd Street movie houses.

This is a little misleading, though, because the distribution of Fuller’s Fox-distributed Forty Guns (just out on a typically well-produced “Masters of Cinema” Region B Blu-ray) had a smooth time of it, whereas Run of the Arrow’s theatrical release was substantially delayed after its completion in ’56. This GLOBE production (this was Fuller’s own company) then fell into the cracks when intended distributor RKO finally went under due in part to Howard Hughes’s nearly decade-long mortal wounding of it before finally unloading the franchise a year or so earlier. Eventually, Universal-International picked up Arrow and belatedly got it into theaters, just as it did for the sublimely insane Jet Pilot, Christmas TV perennial All Mine To Give and Jane Powell’s musical swan song The Girl Most Likely, to name three more orphaned RKOs from the same period.

Speaking personally, I gravitate more toward the “woman with a whip” delirium of the Barbara Stanwyck-Barry Sullivan Guns, but others disagree, and Arrow has enough of a cult following for some to use it as a head-basher against the Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves, with which it shares some similarities. One disadvantage Arrow has had for decades is print quality: Guns’ black-and-white CinemaScope still gets rendered crisply these days (and is does again on the new Blu-ray) whereas Arrow — and this was true even when I ran an AFI Fuller retrospective in 1977 — often looks both garish and somewhat faded, which is the case with the new Warner Archive print. The other issue for Arrow fanciers (and non-) is their tolerance level for lead Rod Steiger’s weight-of-the-world emoting, which one reviewer described in the ’60s, in a putdown I never forgot, as “clench-toothed blobber.” (Maybe it was “clench-teethed” — but what’s another tooth here or there?)

In any event, the movie has what one would still probably have to put on the list of defining Steiger roles, which is probably larger than many think. He’s an Irish-descended Confederate soldier who so can’t get over the South’s defeat (talk about current topicality) that he can’t even abide the reuniting of the country. Carrying these feelings to the extreme, he journeys west from Virginia to join a Sioux tribe — though naturally, there’s nothing neat or clean about this progression. First, he’s captured (along with an Indian scout, who has his own issues with the tribe) and made to endure the title marathon — a kind of “Most Dangerous Game” exercise in which he’s chased by the Sioux, after being given a head start, over rocky terrain. A key disadvantage, beyond the fact that someone of Steiger’s physique would likely get winded before long, is the footwear he’s forbidden to don. The result is abrasions that go well beyond what Epsom salts could cure.

Though someone notes that no one has ever survived this ritual without being recaptured, Steiger’s painful gallop takes him to the right place at the right time: friendlier Sioux including the obligatory femme looker (Sarita Montiel) who’s friendly, indeed — though she has the ability to see Steiger clearly than he sees himself and isn’t shy about telling him so. The other key characters and actors are a smug cavalry and former Yankee officer (Ralph Meeker) coincidentally shot and wounded by Steiger on the Civil War’s final day; a friendlier officer (Brian Keith) who keeps telling Steiger the old Edward Everett Hale “Man Without a Country” story, which has obvious parallels to the latter’s life attitude and plight; and a Sioux chief played by Charles Bronson (I don’t know what purists think, but I always liked Bronson’s portrayals of Native Americans early in his career). Montiel, whose voice here was apparently dubbed by Angie Dickinson, had just been featured in the very oddball Mario Lanza-Anthony Mann movie of James M. Cain’s Serenade and later married Mann, though the union didn’t last very long.

I like the relative dignity with which Fuller treats his characters and relationships here, though the milieu, of course, isn’t an obvious magnet for 21st-century sensibilities — and, truth to tell, I think there’s a large gap between Fuller’s very best films (Pickup on South Street, White Dog) than most of his others. Still, Arrow has a credible, grown-up resolution, and it’s easy to see why the picture has a cult — though I’m just not prepared to make more of it (if ever) until a better print comes along.

The cinematographer here was Joseph Biroc, who had an uneven but, on a content level, amazing career: It’s a Wonderful Life (with Joseph August); a slew of Robert Aldrich toughies, over a long period; all kinds of TV, including live drama; the early Ann-Margret vehicles that would be considered “essential” (including Bye Bye Birdie); Blazing Saddles and Airplane! He also shot the other Fuller movie from 1957 — yes, there were three — China Gate, which finally came out in a long overdue home market widescreen print two years ago. That’s the one where Angie Dickinson played a character named “Lucky Legs” — a better use of her gifts than hiring her to dub someone else’s lines.

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