“You used to shoot the Indian down. Now you cheat him and starve him and kill him off by dirt and disease. It’s a massacre, any way you take it!”
An Indian rodeo-star (Richard Barthelmess) returns for a visit to his native Sioux reservation, where he discovers that a corrupt federal agent (Dudley Digges) and his henchmen are taking advantage of his people.
As one of the first Hollywood films to take the plight of reservation-bound Native Americans seriously, this heavy-handed but sincere drama is a welcome antidote to early 20th century shoot-’em-up westerns. It’s refreshing, if depressing, to see how Indians were patronized, lied to, raped, and taken advantage of in every way possible; indeed, an incredibly strong case is made in Massacre for legal intervention, which is ultimately the direction the narrative — based on the real-life actions of John Collier, one-time commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs — takes. The rest of the fictional storyline, unfortunately, is less than convincing, with Richard Barthelmess’s anglicized Chief Joe Thunderhorse single-handedly riding into town and exposing corruption and vice while conveniently falling for a local girl (Ann Dvorak in skin-darkening make-up) and forgetting all about the blonde socialite (Claire Dodd) waiting for him back in Chicago. But the power of the movie’s social-justice message is compelling enough to make it worthy one-time viewing for historically-minded film fanatics.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- A refreshingly sincere attempt to portray the struggles of reservation-bound Native Americans
No, but it’s certainly worth a look. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.