After the Civil War, Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas), the Indian Fighter, returns to the West and establishes a treaty with the Sioux Indians. But when two renegade frontiersmen (Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr.) seeking a legendary Indian gold mine murder the brother of the Sioux chief, tensions escalate endangering every man in the territory!
“Don’t you want to open the West to civilization?”
Whether it’s a staple like Rio Bravo or a hidden gem like Barquero, the western genre is overflowing with must-see films. I’m partial to spaghetti westerns, but willing to entertain anything involving the mythic cowboy figure. What makes a great western is simplicity: bad guy, good guy, guns, credits. High production values aren’t necessary either. Plant your camera near some purple mountain’s majesty and allow the natural settings to make the story seem larger than life. Add a bit of action, drama, or moral complexity to create that wonderful equilibrium that exists within every Western. They call him “The Man With No Name” for a reason, right?
1955’s The Indian Fighter arrived at a time when the American western was in full stride. Kirk Douglas had just launched his own production company and wanted this to be his inaugural film. He hired Hungarian director Andre De Toth, who had just released the wildly successful Vincent Price 3-D horror film House of Wax a few years earlier. This isn’t the best Kirk Douglas film, but with a talented supporting cast, gorgeous CinemaScope photography, and an attempt at complex themes The Indian Fighter becomes an entertaining watch with some really satisfying moments.
After the Civil War Johnny Hawks (Douglas) returns to the West with a reputation that precedes him. Known as “The Indian Fighter” for his violent past Hawks is now tasked with maintaining a peaceful relationship with the local Sioux tribes. Unfortunately, much of his attention is spent on the Chief’s daughter Onahti (Elsa Martinelli). Chief Red Cloud (Eduard Franz) fears the encroaching white settlers hoping to take advantage of supposed gold deposits on their lands. When scoundrels Wes Todd (Walter Matthau) and Chivington (Lon Chaney Jr.) disturb the peace it’s up to Johnny to deliver them to the nearby Army commander Captain Trask (Walter Abel). Hawks’ problems only worsen when a wagon train he is escorting is subject to an all-out war while he's sneaking off to be with the lovely Onahti.
Matthau and Chaney Jr. turn in solid performances as the greedy gold diggers bent on getting past Hawks. Kirk Douglas’ ex-wife Diana plays widowed mother Susan who hopes to steal Johnny away from his life of adventure and solitude. “Some men are natural born husbands,” he says hoping to shoo her away while staying loyal to Onahti. Portrayed by Italian Vogue model Elsa Martinelli, Onahti is tasked with taking as many baths as possible and trying not to sound Italian when she speaks. There are hints of substance to the character when she is developing her love for Johnny, but it quickly falls flat. The story goes that Kirk “discovered” her in Vogue magazine and, during production, they were rarely apart from each other. Alan Hale Jr. plays the defeated potato farmer Will Crabtree who pines for Susan with dreams of, well, potatoes! Hey, some men got it and some men don’t, right?
Predictably, The Indian Fighter is dominated by Kirk Douglas’ infectious confidence as Johnny Hawks. From leaping onto horseback to ravaging Onahti in a stream, the film is tailored to his strengths and moral dilemmas. What better way to deal with your ever-shifting loyalties as a frontier lawman than falling for the Chief’s daughter! The Indian Fighter could be considered an early revisionist western, considering it’s sympathetic views towards the Native Americans and, surprisingly, the environmental impact of settling the West. Unfortunately, De Toth’s film is mostly an effort to showcase Elsa Martinelli’s nude bathing scenes and capture frame-filling action as both unfold in front of our eyes. Truth be told, it’s not a bad set of priorities.
Kirk Douglas produced this western in which he plays a hero constantly lusting after a young girl and cast his ex-wife as a single mother pining for him. Now that’s drama! With aspirations of greatness, The Indian Fighter is a fun watch that struggles to avoid cliche at every turn of the wagon train. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing this flawed cowboy battling his sexual desires while fighting the inevitable westward expansion he was ultimately responsible for aiding.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Indian Fighter arrives on Region A Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber. Pressed onto a BD25 disc housed in a standard keepcase the film loads directly to the Main Menu.
Presented in 1080p with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio The Indian Fighter makes the transition to HD with a lively transfer given the film’s age. Colors are fresh and pop with mostly consistent black levels. Fine film grain is apparent with some intermittent specs in the image. Image quality suffers in scene dissolves. Wide angles are lush with mountainous backgrounds that stretch like a great matte painting.
The 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio track handles the proceedings well without fanfare. Hiss is present at times but scoring tracks offer a thunderous escape. Keep the remote handy as volume levels are inconsistent.
Audio Commentary: Film historian Toby Roan offers an interesting commentary that is worth a listen.
Theatrical Trailer (HD 2:26)
The Indian Fighter is an entertaining Western that should leave viewers pleasantly surprised. With the CinemaScope photography highlighting the beauty of the West and a gritty Kirk Douglas chewing up the scenery, Kino has resurrected a lovely genre film worth a watch. A respectable A/V presentation and an interesting commentary track make this Blu-ray recommended for fans of the genre and collectors alike.