William Witney is a director whose films have given me hours of uncomplicated pleasure. I've always been a great defender of his directorship, especially in movie serials he made in collaboration with John English, among which Adventures of Captain Marvel, probably their most famous work, is a cinematic prelude to all Indiana Jones actioners and even late Fritz Lang adventure films. That's why I encouraged the editor of the first encyclopedia of film directors in Farsi/Persian to include Witney/English among his 1000 chosen names for the book. Convinced by my arguments about the importance of this duo in establishing high standards for low-budget action films, the editor asked me to write the entry myself which I immediately accepted.
|William Witney [source: Vimeo]|
During the process of researching and writing I learned that Witney is a favorite of Quentin Tarantino and it didn't surprise me. On the contrary, I saw that the exploitative, fast-paced and one-dimensional films of two directors can correspond very well. But recently, after watching Django Unchained, which I loathed, I read Kent Jones' response to a Tarantino interview which showed to me the superstar director of Django has been carried away by his assessment of Witney as the most democratic Western maker, inasmuch as to bash John Ford as someone very un-Witney.
If you want to continue reading here, and you haven't already read the Ken Jones article on Film Comment website, I strongly recommend going there first, because what I'm going to offer is just a small piece of evidence to what has been so aptly said by Jones.
|Kent Jones [source: Vimeo]|
First of all, Indians, for the most part, are absent in Witney's Westerns, due to the fact that his output in the genre is narrowed to Roy Rogers (and other singing cowboy) films which were mostly benevolent, made-for-young-boys comedy actioners with minimum of violence shown.
It is true that comparing to other low-budget filmmakers of his generation, Witney was more aware of the prejudice against minorities, but as far as his directorial assignment was concerned it never stopped him from killing Indians in films. For the sake of a scrutiny, I re-watched Witney's last two Westerns, Apache Rifles and 40 Guns to Apache Pass, made in 1964 and 1966 (in some sources, '67) respectively. It seems to me that both films are made in one production undertaking and later edited into two action flicks. Most of the props, extras, supporting actors, landscapes and of course the main star (Audie Murphy) are interestingly identical. However, the rapid change in Witney's attitude toward Indian Americans between the first and the second film can explain the apolitical, hasty nature of an essentially B filmmaker: While Apache Rifles contains a semi-revisionist approach toward the Indians, the second film, only in one sequence stupidly kills more than 12 Indians by one white officer.
|John Ford [source: The Guardian]|
It is in the same film that the young, headstrong (and always sexy) son of an Indian chief rebels against white men and kills a good number of them, only to justify a series of Indian killing scenes by the US Cavalry which shortly follows. Of course, the Indian troublemaker is played by a white man, Michael Dante, and that's why he can be presented as sexy and eye-catching. It worth reminding that Apache Rifles was made in the same year as President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, abolishing racial segregation in the United States, and when John Ford made the Cheyenne Autumn.
Here, I've edited a video out of the aforementioned Witney Westerns, just to remind myself how easy it is to distort the fact even when the truth is one or two clicks away. The digital is not as decisive as it may seem when it comes to printing the legend, what Tarantino is so good at.
There is no denying that the filmography of John Ford or any other western maker of that era is inevitably marked with misrepresentation of Indians, though with various degrees of slander. What makes Ford an exceptionally unique figure in the genre is his bold attempt in reconstructing the social and political crux of the genre, therefore thoroughly rewriting the Western myth. As Ford grew older he questioned more, and questioned sternly. Based on his films, John Ford, especially in the 60s, by and large, printed the fact. On the other hand, Witney killed more Indians in his last for-the-big-screen Westerns than any other films he had made prior to that date.
Still, I don't think Witney had anything against Indians, the way Ford couldn't have any, back in the 1930s or 40s. These people were making films based on the cinematic conventions established by thousands of filmmakers and films, if we don't count billions of viewers whose conformity could not be ignored. For these filmmakers creating tension and psychical struggle was one of the basic elements of action film, though it is true that the degree of misrepresentations can vary from offensive (Indians of of Gunga Din) to idiotic and funny (Persians of Omar Khayyam).
I agree with anyone who says American cinema is deeply responsible for reduction of the minorities to a faceless 'Other,' but I'd also ask myself why Tarantino is not protesting against new faceless 'Others' of Hollywood, if he is in such a revolutionary mood? Why he is not touching on the presentation of Iranians in Argo or Afghans in Zero Dark Thirty and other recent examples of racism in mass entertainment? I can understand that while opposing to the past and its misdoings won't cost much for the man, rebelling against the culture and attitude that has ascended him to the throne wouldn't mean anything but self-destruction. In this sense, Tarantino is more like one of the sterilized cowboys of Whitney films with their straightforward and predictable sense of heroism than a John Ford misfit whose quest for truth ends in tragic marginalization.