Steven Hellerstedt | 10/22/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"For anyone under the impression that Hollywood's sympathetic treatment of the American Indian occurred no earlier that BROKEN ARROW, and certainly no later than DANCES WITH WOLVES, and that John Ford discovered and was the first to paint cinematic masterpieces against the magnificent backdrop that is Monument Valley, THE VANISHING AMERICAN will come as a shock and revelation. Not only was Hollywood doing it before the movies talked, in many ways they were doing it much better.
Richard Dix stars as Nophaie, leader of a Navajo Indian tribe living on a Mesa, Arizona reservation and participant in a love-triangle of sorts between saintly teacher Lois Wilson and corrupt Indian agent Noah Beery.
It's a while before THE VANISHING AMERICAN introduces its main players and arrives to tell its modern day story, though. Whole populations of peoples arise, flourish and die off against the imposing mesas and bluffs and desert stretches of Monument Valley, a Monument Valley presented without quite the muscular suppleness technology allowed Ford in the coming decades. The first reel takes us from cliff dwellers to basket weavers to the mid-16th century arrival of Spanish explorers. The root causes of a group's destruction is clearly presented. Priests are mocked and ridiculed, the martial spirit is stunted or non-existent, people become fat and lazy. These pre-Columbian slackers are ripe for the plucking, and plucked they are. But even a martial race, Nophaie's ancestors, are helpless against the technologically superior Europeans, who first appear riding "monsters" and carrying "thunder sticks." This slightly dubious cultural Darwinism, which puts the pious warrior at the top of the food chain, undergirds the movie, so it's no surprise that Nophaie is constantly presented as the greatest warrior in his tribe.
What makes THE VANISHING AMERICAN remarkable is its critique of then present-day Indian relationships. The Mesa Navajos have been herded onto a barely fertile strip of land. The Indian agent steals their horses and their land. Treaties have been made and broken. A number of Native American men volunteer for service in World War One and come back with honors only to discover that Indian agent Beery has discovered another method of bilking his charges. Still cheated.
What I liked most about THE VANISHING AMERICAN was that it took a sensitive look at issues critics of Westerns rightly accuse the genre of ignoring: betrayal, broken promises, corruption, even miscegenation anxieties. Another strength of the movie is that it addresses what was then current conditions. The final act in this 1925 pits WWI Navajo vets against a corrupt Indian agency. There appears to be a number of Native American extras in this one, as well.
The print is in good shape, all things considered. There are no extras save chapter selections, but a new score (considering the applause heard at the end, I assume it was recorded live) makes this a worthy addition to any Western fan's collection.
Zane Grey's western novel turned into a silent film epic
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 11/27/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
""The Vanishing American" is one of the great silent epics. Directed by George B. Seitz from a Zane Gray story, this 1925 silent film stars Richard Dix as Nophaie, a modern American Indian who heroically fights the Germans on the battlefields of Europe in World War I only to return home and find his people are still being horribly mistreated by a crooked Indian Agent named Booker, played by Norah Berry. One of the first films filmed on location in Monument Valley, this 148-minute epic also stars Lois Wilson as Marion Warner, the local schoolmarm who encourages Nophaie to make something of himself, and if you can spot Gary Cooper as an extra in this one you have better eyes than I do (but that is not saying anything). "The Vanishing American" puts the plight of the Indians in the context of the inevitable march of history where one culture inevitable crushes another. Yes, there are melodramatic elements and the acting is slightly above par for a silent film, but there is a sense of scope and an attempt to make a "message" film that I appreciate given the times. Remade in 1955 with Scott Brady, Forrest Tucker and Audrey Totter in the three main roles, except now the hero's name is "Blandy"; I rest my case. Trivia Note: the production brought a herd of 14 bisons to Catalina Island for the film and ended up leaving them behind. Today the herd has grown to about 225 and is actually being hunted to control their numbers."