The radicalized howl to Broken Arrow’s amenable mewl, it opens with bullets hitting a truce flag. The Apache’s fall from defiant brave to "whipped Injun" in the wake of Geronimo’s surrender is starkly realized, Massai (Burt Lancaster) is denied a warrior’s demise, shackled and condemned to docility in the reservation. Following a brisk escape, a bravura bit of sagebrush surrealism: Fire wagons and trolleys, saloon roistering and automatic pianos, "the wonders of the age," the bustle of Main Street viewed through anxious eyes that take special note of the Chinese immigrants who’ve find a place in it as servants. Keeping fighting versus fitting in—a native outcast’s concerns, also a rogue filmmaker’s. Painting in rapid, abrupt strokes, Robert Aldrich locates the angry severity in the it’s-okay-to-hug-an-Indian liberalism of revisionist Westerns: The wronged hero is a brusque agitator, a terrorist, a one-man uprising who deep down needs a war to function. If Massai trades rifles for plows, it’s only after sneering at a Cheyenne farmer’s domesticated counsel ("Some of the white man’s ways are hard..."), strangling his jailer with his own manacles, and manhandling his stoically faithful squaw (Jean Peters). "It's difficult being a man of peace." His counterpart isn’t the Apache sellout decked out in military blues (Charles Bronson), but the paleface hunter (John McIntire) whose hushed obsession similarly suggests a tribeless creature perched between savagery and civilization. The ending may be a studio-imposed compromise, yet the showdown in the cornfield arrestingly visualizes the film’s balance of despair and hope, desert and garden, blood and seeds. The line of influence extends from The Outsider to Thunderheart, Bronson in Chato’s Land offers a virtual remake; the most cogent criticism is by Aldrich himself (Ulzana’s Raid). Cinematography by Ernest Laszlo. With John Dehner, Paul Guilfoyle, Ian McDonald, Walter Sande, Morris Ankrum, and Monte Blue.
--- Fernando F. Croce