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"Half-Breeds" in The Tin Star

Here's another classic movie from director Anthony Mann, who helped launch a wave of Westerns with revisionist views about Indians.

The Tin Star (1957)

Another Great Anthony Mann Western, March 21, 2007
By Terence Allen (Atlanta, GA USA)

Anthony Mann was known for the great hardbitten Westerns he made with frequent collaborator James Stewart, such as The Naked Spur, Winchester '73, The Man From Laramie, and others. But he did make one Western with Stewart's best friend and another Western movie stalwart, the great Henry Fonda.

Fonda comes into a small town with an outlaw dead over a saddle. He's a bounty hunter, formerly a lawman who has become cynical with life and justice, and prefers the pay and independence of bounty hunting to being a town marshal. The town has a young and very inexperienced sheriff, played by Anthony Perkins, who is struggling to hold the town together as a bigoted bully played by Neville Brand tries to force his way into the sheriff's office. Fonda takes a liking to Perkins, and tries to show him the tricks of the trade. When two half-breed brothers kill the town doctor, events spiral out of control.

The Tin Star is full of wonderful performances, from Fonda who sees in the idealistic Perkins the younger man he used to be and learns to love again thanks to Betsy Palmer, who plays a widow who has a half-breed son; to Perkins, who hits the right notes as someone who'll make a fine lawman if his dumb mistakes don't kill him first, and Brand as a menacing, hateful brute who runs over as many people as he can. John McIntire (another frequent Mann collaborator) is also great as the town doctor.

This is an all-time classic. Don't miss it.

Anthony Mann's best post-James Stewart Western, March 5, 2006
By Trevor Willsmer (London, England)

The Tin Star is full of Anthony Mann's typical plays on perspective and symmetry, the cinematic possibilities of which few other directors have ever really grasped—not merely visual but emotional and thematic as well (the opening shot is repeated in reverse as the closing shot, but with an entirely different meaning). Although it's set mostly in the town limits as Henry Fonda's embittered bounty hunter finds himself reluctantly passing on tips to the temporary sheriff (Anthony Perkins, still a nice, awkward young guy here before a lifetime of psychopathic typecasting), his great use of location to define and place characters is omnipresent: check out the great sheriff's office with its huge window overlooking the town which puts both men at the heart of the town while effectively keeping them outside it. Indeed, the film is all about outsiders either trying to belong or trying to dominate, throwing in a surprising subplot about racism that allies its misfits and broken angels.

Morg returns to town, and soon afterward, Bart Bogardus, the dead outlaw's cousin, repeatedly shoots a "half-breed" in the street, then claims that the killing was in self-defense. Ben nervously demands Bogardus' weapons, but he threatens the sheriff with his gun. Morg shoots the gun out of Bogardus' hand, and later, Ben asks Morg, who has revealed that he was once a sheriff, how to handle troublemakers.

That night, Morg admits to Nona that, while he wants to continue his stay in her home, he, like most white people, was reared to hate Indians. Her husband, she replies, was killed for having the courage to stand up for himself as an equal, and since then, she adds bitterly, the townspeople have turned their hatred on her and her son.

Rob's comment
Michel Ray, the actor who played the part-Indian boy, has a Brazilian father and an English mother. He may be naturally dusky, but it almost looks as if the moviemakers powdered his face to make him darker.

The "half-breed" killed in the street is nameless and faceless. The villainous "half-breed" McGaffey brothers don't look anything like Indians.

And that's it for the "Indians" in The Tin Star. There are no real Indians, only "half-breeds" who don't look or act like Indians.

Mixed message
For our purposes, the heart of The Tin Star is the exchange between Nona and Morg the second night.

NONA:  I was wrong about you last night.

NONA:  I shouldn't have gotten mad. I'm just so used to everybody hating Indians.

MORG:  We're raised that way.

NONA:  Well, I wasn't.

NONA:  My father was an Indian agent. He respected Indians and he liked them. So did I. I grew up with some who were really fine men.

MORG:  When you grow up hating them, you don't get rid of it easy.

NONA:  I know.

NONA:  They say the only good Indian is a dead Indian.

NONA:  When they find one with a man's pride and courage to stand up as an equal, they kill him.

NONA:  And it isn't called murder.

NONA:  They've just made him a good Indian.

NONA:  And it doesn't even end there.

NONA:  Not when there's a boy to hate and a woman to take it out on.

The movie's attitude is that prejudice is bad. But the only one who actually expresses prejudice against Indians is the town's troublemaker, Bart Bogardus. The alleged prejudice against the boy Kip is merely stated, not shown.

So the racism here is the work of a few bad man. There are no government policies or systemic forces oppressing Indians. If you eliminate the rotten apples, everyone can live happily ever after.

And what's with making the four Native-oriented characters "half-breeds" rather than full Indians? Not only that, but three of the four are negative: the two killers and the hapless victim who apparently started a fight. What are we supposed to conclude from this: that half-breeds are as tainted as their mixed blood suggests? That they're understandable objects of pity and scorn because they have none of the inherent dignity of "noble savages"?

To sum it up, The Tin Star says that many half-breed Indians are bad, but prejudice against them is bad too. That's better than the message in earlier Westerns, but it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Other than that, The Tin Star is a fine Western. The reviews above have captured its noteworthy qualities. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

Related links
The best Indian movies

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