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Color Watch: Redskin (1929)

There has been one glaring deficiency in the movies we've chosen to discuss thus far: color. For the month of January, we’re expanding our palette by watching five color films from the 1920s to the 1950s. This week, Samantha and Adam watched Redskin from 1929.

A: In Redskin, Richard Dix plays a Navajo who is caught between two worlds, the traditional ways of his family and the Western ways of his schooling. His love for a Pueblo girl further deepens his struggle to both maintain his identity and be true to his heart. On the surface it may look to be a Western, but the film is more a social drama. Although its resolution is pat, the film does a strikingly good job of showing the schisms that invariably exist when different cultures inhabit the same land.

S: I felt that this very much was a western, but from a different perspective, a look at a culture often relegated to the sidelines as villains or obstacles in the traditional western. Only instead of horses, we get cars here.

A: It almost seems like Richard Dix plays dual roles. In the university scenes he looks dapper in suit and tie, nimble and strong while running track. The look that really stands out, and makes this performance something special, is his transformation back to Navajo. He looks fierce with his jet-black threads, silver concha belt, and stark red headband. The eyeliner pushes the look over the edge—he looks like he could front a psychedelic rock band.

S: Absolutely! Haha 100%.

A: There is a third dimension to the character. I’d be remiss not to mention Philip W. Anderson’s role as the scrappy young version of Dix. I was interested to learn that instead of pursuing acting, Anderson had a nice long career as an editor.

S: Yes, I liked the kids a lot. They were very natural and the scenes between Wing Foot and his grandmother were excellent. They played together like they had a real bond.

A: This early example of Technicolor is far from the perfect look they would achieve over the next couple of decades but nonetheless it’s stunning. The colors heavily lean toward the warm and earth-toned with the sky appearing a hazy greenish gray. The blacks are devoid of detail. At times, everything seems to be awash in shades of brown. The color is so unique that each shot looks as if it was hand-colored with pastels.

S: We have the gorgeous scenery we expect from a John Ford classic. With the two-strip Technicolor we don’t get the blazing blue skies, but we do get the striking red rocks of the desert. The Pueblo scenes were shot in a real Pueblo village, usually only accessible by hand carved stairs. In order to shoot with the large Technicolor cameras, the crew built ramps and these ramps are still in use today by tourists exploring the reservation.

A: Add that to my list of places to travel. The critics at the time were unanimously impressed with the look of the film. The Chicago Tribune called it “…a glorious symphony of color and scenery.” The Los Angeles Times wrote, “In this improved technicolor process the screen takes on glowing warmth and a new depth.” The Christian Science Monitor wrote that the Technicolor was improved over the 1924 color Western Wanderer of the Wasteland (unfortunately, a lost film).

S: Funnily enough, I didn’t even notice when the film changed from color to sepia-tinted at first. I was wrapped up in the story, so the transition didn’t faze me at all.

A: Even though the non-color section—the scenes of Wing Foot pursuing the standard United States education—was a cost-saving measure, it worked thematically in making the Navajo and Pueblo scene that much more vivid. Depending on where the film played, Redskin also had a synchronized music and effects soundtrack and in the final action sequence the projectionist could employ a Magnascope lens which would dramatically enlarge the image. It would be great to have the original experience—the full soundtrack and grand finale—recreated in a movie theater.

S: The third Treasures from American Film Archives set has some of the sound disks available as alternate tracks. The opening credits feature a singer, and the music is overall more varied than the piano score on the Treasures disk. It feels more like what background music would become in talkies than a traditional silent film score.

The movie addresses a topic that we are still struggling with in modern times, racism. There is an incredible amount of racism in this film, including a scene where a group start doing their mocking interpretation of a ceremonial dance. A title card reads, “You sure acted white, for a redskin.” Of course, the main native characters are played by white actors, so a modern audience might find elements of this film, which preached acceptance, to be offensive too.

A: Speaking of offense, there was one moment in the film that scandalized me. I had to rewind it and examine it frame-by-frame just to confirm I was scandalized. And indeed, I was. Of course, I can’t go into further detail in mixed company…

Anyway, I can forgive some of the uninspired plot and sappy pleas for tolerance. The uniqueness of this movie’s color palette and the beauty of the New Mexico and Arizona scenery make this film a gem. The more I see of Dix, the more I like him. This is in the pantheon of essential Dix. Four stars.

S: I enjoyed it, but the heavy-handed message doesn’t make Redskin prime for repeat viewing. 3 stars.

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