One of the most uncomfortable sub-genres of the Western is the assimilation narrative. Broadly defined as a story wherein a white person joins a Native American people and adopts their ways, assimilation narratives are heavily codified. First, the protagonist has to be an outcast, whether by fate or their own volition. Second, there has to be an initiation rite wherein they prove themselves worthy of acceptance. And third, perhaps most uncomfortably, the white person demonstrates such superior aptitude at living with Indians that they master their language, customs, and traditions in a curiously brief amount of time. Two of the most notable examples are and Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse (1970) and Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990). Though both films attempted to portray the Native Peoples involved with some level of dignity, both ultimately told stories about white people who so successfully “become Indians” that they usurp power within their communities from born-and-bred Natives.
Perhaps this is why Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow is such an anomaly. On the surface the film is about O’Meara (Rod Steiger), a Confederate Civil War veteran so devastated and incensed by the South’s surrender that he forswears his country, moves out West, and joins the Sioux. But Run of the Arrow is actually about something much more surprising, particularly for an American studio film of the 1950s: the impossibility for White People to ever truly understand and adopt Native American ways. In a sense, it’s an anti-assimilation narrative.
The film’s central scene is the eponymous “Run of the Arrow,” supposedly a Sioux ritual wherein individuals sentenced to death are stripped of footwear, given a head-start, and chased through the desert. If the bare-footed victims can outrun and escape their pursuers, they are allowed to live. After being captured by the Sioux, O’Meara invokes his right to the Run. And, miraculously, he becomes the first person in history to survive it. Afterwards he is accepted into the Sioux People, marries a Squaw, adopts a son, and becomes an honored warrior. But here’s the catch: unbeknownst to the Sioux Elders, he only survived the Run because he cheated and hid. So his very assimilation, his very legitimacy as a Sioux is based on a lie.
As the film continues, O’Meara is ordered by the Elders to help representatives of the United States Army set up a fort in non-disputed land per a treaty agreement. After a renegade Sioux initiates hostilities with the soldiers, O’Meara is forced to finally come to terms with his true loyalties: with his adopted people or with his fellow Americans. And shockingly, he chooses the latter. As he heads back to the States, the Sioux remain masters of the frontier, triumphant, undefeated.
As a whole, Run of the Arrow isn’t particularly exemplary as a piece of filmmaking. While perfectly serviceable, it fails to live up to the standards of the man who gave the world films like Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963), and The Big Red One (1980). Steiger seems perpetually tired and mumbles most of his lines. There are only three times when the film truly comes to life: a characteristically Fuller-esque opening where O’Meara shoots a Yankee soldier, steals his rations, and eats them on top of his dying body (compare this with the melon-eating scene in his earlier film The Steel Helmet ); the “Run of the Arrow” sequence; and the climactic fort battle where the Sioux annihilate the American soldiers. But as a Western, especially a Western which concerns itself with Native Americans, it’s remarkable in its own way.