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Devil's Doorway and Legal Swindle

not guns and butter but guns and laws
not guns and butter but guns and laws
carl richardson

The Devil's Doorway is a movie released in 1950. It stars Robert Taylor as a war-decorated Shoshone. Having returned from the Civil War after crossing 1800 miles on horseback, he blends in perfectly at the Medicine Bow bar. But when his father meets him, dressed in traditional Native American garb, he becomes a marked man. Straightaway, a lawyer, also at the bar, begins to nurture a grudge against Broken Lance Poole (Taylor). He declines to honor an Indian of rank and caliber. He also despises the fact that the object of his hatred also owns and works 50,000 acres of Sweet Meadows, some of the best land in Wyoming. On it he raises cattle at $36 a head. In Bozeman, where he makes a sale, he collects $18,000. He speaks about how bundles of money buy respect. But this is exactly the kind of support he enjoys that will fall through due to the Homestead Act of 1862.

To make sense of what is happening, as well as fight back, Poole sees a lawyer, A. Masters (Paula Raymond). As it turns out, the law is hard on Poole. He discovers that rather than a successful businessman, he is instead a ward of the state. He also learns that Indians cannot avail themselves of the Homestead Act. This is an unfair punishment for having fought the U.S., since they had little choice in the matter. Nonetheless, sheepherders are anxious to graze their stock on Sweet Meadows. They would rather not have to tango with its occupants. But they will not back down if push comes to shove. In the meantime, Poole can no longer get a drink in his hometown. Once again the law has been summoned to prevent Indians from doing something, in this case the purchase of liquor. There is a fight scene in the tavern that is more interesting than usual by virtue of how it is composed, pretty much in the old style, punctuated by reaction shots of the roughhewn faces of glued bystanders. In other scenes, the lighting is so dark that actors appear in silhouette.

I have read some but not much literature opposing Native American activism. Readers are warned that Indians will use whatever means are available to persuade them to be sympathetic to their goals. Thus, they are asked not to feel sorry for Indians, who are merely trying to undermine U.S. policies, from which they feel alienated. Logically, there is a modicum of credibility to an otherwise lame argument, insofar as there are always those who work the system. However, by and large, the danger of giving oneself over to the plight of a genuinely persecuted minority is slight. This is especially the case when it comes to Native Americans. Their demands are generally above board and just. But what hurts Americans most is the challenge Native Americans pose to their innate sense of righteousness. Americans have indeed transcended their ugly, Eurocentric origins. They can, if they choose, feel superior to their prejudicial antecedents. But in the historic mistreatment of Native Americans, they have managed to both leave behind and inherit something along the lines of a national original sin.

The viewer will not weep for Lance Poole so much as cheer him on. He is very resourceful, and more likely than not to wind up on the winning side of a fight involving either fists or firearms. He nonetheless clings to the old ways, as is shown in the ceremonial burial of his father. He also hardens himself against assisting a boy physically stressed in a coming-of-age ritual. Later, he wears a bandanna, in addition to a beaded necklace. But the modern moviegoer will not be put off by mere, exotic fashion. What is disconcerting, however, is the lack of fairness and humanitarianism written into the law. A. Masters gives Poole nothing to hope for. Personally, after mulling it over, I think Poole is the rightful owner, even though he cannot produce a bill of sale, should one be required. But the law, admittedly open to interpretation, disagrees.

It is disappointing to learn that law, the preferred alternative to arms, can outrage the conscience of peace-abiding citizens such that they would return to a level of violent thinking that took so long to supersede. The Cavalry rides in, called upon to restore order, and Poole shoots back along with his tribal brothers. This is also a point worth noting, for the Native American is not just another minority. He is, rather, a minority of exception, whose will and self-interest were deliberately overcome by force. Otherwise, pioneer Americans could never have settled on land obtained, basically, by legal swindle. The idea of a just war, such as the War Between the States, during the course of which Poole develops a higher sense of right and wrong, is once again popular today. After the Vietnam Syndrome, or whatever made Americans wholeheartedly oppose combat, had been successfully addressed in clashes of arms in Granada, and then Iraq, qualms about imperialism, or having no business inside a foreign land, have grown decidedly weak. But this, too, is yet only more cause for concern. In the film, rather than surrender in return for a "fair trial", Poole chooses to fight till the bitter end. It comes, naturally, soon enough. In real life, however, guns are more problem than solution.