Cast & Crew
Lance Poole, a Shoshone Indian, returns to his home in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, having won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in the Civil War. Despite his honorable war record, Lance is shunned by the white townspeople, who bear a grudge against him and his father because of their hold on the richest land in the region. Lance becomes embittered against the white men in Medicine Bow after his father dies because a white doctor refused him prompt medical attention after Lance himself is refused service at a local saloon. When Verne Coolan, a prejudiced lawyer, threatens to take Lance's land away under a new homesteading law, Lance hires Orrie Masters, a female attorney who has recently settled in Medicine Bow, to take his case. Complications soon arise when Lance discovers that, as a ward of the government, he is not entitled to file a claim to keep his land. Orrie tries to circumvent the homesteading law by circulating a petition to allow Lance to keep at least a portion of his land, but Coolan thwarts her attempt by spreading word through town that Lance has killed one of his men. Coolan then assembles an army composed of sheepherders to take the land by force, and a bloody battle ensues. Having suffered great losses in the battle, Lance and his Shoshone Indian fighters take refuge in Lance's cabin, and quickly turn it into a makeshift fortress. After calling in U.S. Cavalry troops and negotiating a truce with the sheepherders, Orrie makes an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Lance to give up his losing fight. Lance refuses to heed Orrie's advice, insisting that it would be shameful to give up his land to the sheepherders, and continues the fight. Lance kills Coolan, but when the Cavalry fighters join the sheepherders, Lance's men are overwhelmed and forced to surrender. Lance is shot during one last skirmish and, in the final moments of his life, gives the Cavalry commander a farewell salute.
Chief John Big Tree
George Sky Eagle
Harold A. Deane
William "bill" Phillips
William Norton Bailey
A. Arnold Gillespie
Conrad A. Nervig
Alfred E. Spencer
Edwin B. Willis
Devil's Doorway on DVD
Presumably encouraged by MGM chief Dore Schary, Mann made two very capable additions to the briefly hot "social conscience" trend that would soon be stifled by government inquisitions and industry blacklisting. The impressive, violent Border Incident takes up the cause of victimized transient farm workers smuggled across the Mexican/American border. Mann's Devils' Doorway is an even more emphatic indictment, reaching further back in history to refute cultural assumptions about Native Americans. Westerns typically faulted uncaring politicians and greedy Indian agents for the cruelties visited on pacified Indian tribes. Drawing from historical fact, Guy Trosper's screenplay directly condemns governmental policy as a thieving conspiracy to dispossess Indians of their property and remove them to "protective reservations". In the 1970s we thought that pictures like Arthur Penn's Little Big Man were groundbreaking exposés of these historical crimes. Mainstream Hollywood had tackled the same issues a generation previously, only to find that viewers tired of message films, and that repressive political elements didn't want the stories told.
One of Mann's better noir efforts was Raw Deal, a title that could well describe the storyline of Devils' Doorway. Returning home at the conclusion of the Civil War, decorated veteran and rancher Lance Poole finds that things have changed in Medicine Bow, Wyoming. A Shoshone Indian by birth, Lance has adopted many of the White Man's customs. Lance does well with his beef sales and anticipates a rosy future, as his coveted Sweet Meadow ranch high above Medicine Bow is excellent grazing territory. But new federal laws enacted to 'resolve the Native American problem" have arbitrarily classified Indians as wards of the state, not American citizens. Local tribes are booted from their traditional land and shipped off to reservations. The opportunistic lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern) declares that Lance owns nothing and intends to force him. He's solicited money from dozens of sheep men, promising to guide them to good grazing land - Lance's Sweet Meadow. Coolan's racist remarks have inflamed racial prejudice in Medicine Bow against Lance, whose good friend the Sheriff Zeke Carmody (Edgar Buchanan) now desert him as well. Concerned attorney Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) takes Lance's side, only to discover that "the fix is in" - the authorities ignore the Indian's petitions to homestead his own land. Under the law Lance is not a citizen and has no legal rights; he doesn't exist. When Lance refuses to budge, Verne Coolan goads the shepherds into storming the meadow, knowing that the Army will interpret any violence as an "Indian uprising". Lance has only two choices -- to accept gross injustice and humiliation, or see his ranch and fellow tribesmen wiped out.
Devils' Doorway may be a western, but its outrage against prejudice and profiteering is clearly meant to have contemporary relevance. Only two years earlier, star Robert Taylor had testified before the HUAC that subversive anti-American ideas were being slipped into Hollywood entertainment. Any actor committed to a political position would realize that the script for Devils' Doorway blames American capitalism and race prejudice for the crimes against the noble Red Man. Verne Cooley's mob forces Lance Poole to resist, and become an outlaw-terrorist. The rush to violence quickly overshadows hints of mutual romantic yearning between Lance and Orrie Masters. Robert Taylor surely took the part for the same reason any actor would -- it's an excellent role, and remains one of his most impressive performances.
The screenplay by Guy Trosper doesn't compromise with its content. Other movies showing Native Americans being subjected to unfair treatment (Fort Apache) blamed isolated "bad apple" traders for cheating the Indians with bad rations, or (more frequently) selling them weapons with which to rebel. Doorway's opportunistic Verne Coolan is a supremely loathsome villain, but Doorway also observes that the majority of Americans flowing into the West consider Native Americans a pestilence to be swept aside. The first step is malicious discrimination. A doctor ignores Lance's pleas for medical help for his ailing father (Fritz Leiber). Verne Coolan begins his harassment of Lance right in the barroom, through a local ordinance that forbids Indians from buying drinks. Four years before, John Ford gave Henry Fonda's remark in My Darling Clementine a humorous spin: "What kinda town is this, sellin' liquor to Indians?" In western movie terms, a man forbidden to drink in a bar is by definition not a real man.
The inevitability of violent struggle is Devil's Doorway's most subversive aspect. Most dramas about the fate of Native Americans are pessimistic tragedies, the difference here being that Lance Poole fights back. His rebellion is joined by a small band of dispossessed Shoshone holdouts. Anthony Mann dwells on violent scenes of Lance and his warriors shooting and stabbing members of Cooley's posse. Lance is even shown strangling one enemy in a bloodthirsty rage. Lance's ranch house becomes a battlefield. Verne Cooley's private vigilante army is reinforced by the U.S. Cavalry, just as in Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, made thirty years later.
Robert Taylor is unexpectedly convincing as the proud Shoshone war veteran, whose heart hardens as his former friends and neighbors abandon him. Louis Calhern truly odious Cooley easily manipulates Edgar Buchanan's weak lawman and Marshall Thompson's pliable sheep man. Spring Byington is a local matron who learns that the Shoshones pose no credible threat to their neighbors. James Mitchell is Lance's warrior aide, Red Rock; he had played a migrant farm worker in Mann's Border Incident. Paula Raymond's frontier attorney could easily have come off as a foolish idealist, but is wisely written as Lance Poole's only friend in the conflict. Loyal to a fault, Orrie keeps angling for a peaceful solution to an irreconcilable problem. We know that no authority is going to side with Lance, the righteous martyr.
Anthony Mann's beautiful direction makes a feast of glorious locations filmed in Colorado's Aspen and Grand Junction by the legendary cinematographer John Alton. Every close-up is given expressive character lighting, and the outdoor vistas are carefully chosen to contribute to the film's darkening mood. Medicine Bow's saloon begins as a friendly haven, and through Verne Coolan's influence is transformed into a sea of hostile faces. Mann's forceful blocking frequently ties close-ups together with action backgrounds, eliminating the feeling of standard coverage cutaways.
When the blacklist forced prominent leftist directors like Joseph Losey, Cy Endfield and Jules Dassin into exile in Europe, socially critical films like The Prowler, The Underworld Story and Devils' Doorway disappeared from American screens. The studios opted for non-controversial subject matter. The 1950 movie now remembered as a pro-Native American epic is Fox's Broken Arrow, an "Apaches are people too" romantic semi-remake of the Polynesian tragedy Bird of Paradise. Frontier scout James Stewart marries Apache maiden Debra Paget. But the archaic Production Code did not permit the depiction of mixed marriages. Instead of jumping into a volcano, Paget's princess is sacrificed to bring tribal peace. Broken Arrow's audience-reassuring conservatism is the opposite of the liberal moral outrage of Devil's Doorway.
Anthony Mann's subsequent films fell into line with the conformist '50s, especially those made in partnership with James Stewart. The team's westerns are of a high artistic quality but they dropped all social comment in favor of simplistic moralizing. The Stewart-Mann Thunder Bay promotes and defends the oil industry's drilling in costal waters, dismissing the 'uninformed' concerns of fishermen and ecologists.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Devils' Doorway is a beautiful transfer of this stunning show. John Alton's talent wasn't limited to low-key noir moods, as his B&W cinematography here is so good that we never wish the film were in color. The sound is excellent as well, with Danielle Amfitheatrof's busy music score matching the film's dark themes.
The WAC's trailer indicates that MGM's studio publicists considered social relevance to be a promotional liability. The trailer uses every shot available of Robert Taylor when he's not in Shoshone garb. The film's grim storyline isn't even hinted at, while a repeated text tagline assures us that the show is, "a Great Drama of Flaming Frontiers!"
For more information about Devil's Doorway, visit the Warner Archive Collection.To order Devil's Doorway, go to TCM Shopping.
By Glenn Erickson
Devil's Doorway on DVD
In Devil's Doorway, Robert Taylor plays Lance Poole, a Shoshone Indian who has just returned to his people in Wyoming from fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Despite having won a Congressional Medal of Honor, his reception back home from the white community is less than welcoming. His dying father warns him that the acreage that they have tended and farmed for years will be taken from them by the government but Poole remains optimistic until he gets a taste of the white man's law. He quickly learns that an Indian is not a legal citizen of the United States and has no land-owning rights. Soon a corrupt, racist lawyer (Louis Calhern) stirs up hostile feelings toward the Shoshone tribe in town and encourages homesteaders to come and stake claims on Poole's land. At first Poole attempts to use legal means to protect his rights by hiring the only other lawyer in town - O. Masters (Paula Raymond), who turns out to be a woman to his great surprise. Despite the best intentions, Masters' case for Poole is undermined and rendered ineffective by the white establishment lawmakers and Poole is left to take matters into his own hands with violence and senseless slaughter the end result.
Devil's Doorway was Anthony Mann's first western and marked the beginning of a remarkable period in his career when he revitalized the genre with a series of brilliant films, many of which starred James Stewart (Winchester '73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Far Country, 1954) and featured psychologically complex characters and stunning natural settings, mostly filmed on location. According to Mann, Devil's Doorway began with a phone call: "I was under contract to Metro and had just made my first film for [producer] Nicholas Nayfack. Nicholas called me and asked, "Would you like to make a western? I've a scenario here that seems interesting." In fact, that "interesting" scenario was the best script I've ever read! I prepared the film with the greatest care..."
Mann requested and got MGM star Robert Taylor for the lead role and John Alton to handle the cinematography. Alton had previously collaborated with Mann on a string of taut, atmospheric film noir thrillers such as T-Men (1947) and he brought a similarly dark and ominous look to Devil's Doorway. The film's expressionistic lighting and stark vistas have often been compared to the look of an Ansel Adams photograph and some sequences have a power and intensity that practically leap off the screen. The barroom confrontation scene between Poole and a bullying gunslinger, in particular, is a casebook example of Alton's style. A sense of menace is established from the opening shot as Poole and his Shoshone companion enter the bar and thunder cracks in the distance, signaling an approaching storm. Inside, Coolan and his hired gun are in the foreground as we see Poole from their point of view, being refused service at the other end of the bar - "No liquor for Indians." After being threatened at gunpoint, Poole attacks his oppressor and the brawl alternately mixes close-ups of the fighters' contorted faces with passive reaction shots of the neutral observers while the deadly free-for-all is occasionally illuminated by flashes of lightning. There is no dramatic music used, only the sounds of the two men fighting and the outside storm. Rarely has the struggle between good and evil been visualized on screen in such potent, primeval terms.
Devil's Doorway is also unique for its refusal to fall back on the clichés of the genre. There is no romantic subplot to detract from the rising tension in the narrative and no "happy ending" for our hero either - the movie ends in genocide with the surviving Shoshone women and children being escorted by the cavalry to a reservation. Most unconventional of all is the introduction of O. Masters, the female lawyer, who seems like an anachronism in the frontier town of Medicine Bow. But, like Poole, she's an outsider in her own community who is further discredited for representing and defending a Shoshone Indian. While there is an undeniable attraction between Masters and Poole they never acknowledge it directly though they are well aware of how the racist townspeople will view their mutual alliance.
Many critics at the time felt that Robert Taylor was completely miscast in the role. Despite the exaggerated dark skin makeup, however, Taylor delivers a forceful and commanding performance as Poole. Long past the matinee idol stage of his career, Taylor had matured into an impressive actor by this point in his career. His once boyishly handsome features had hardened into a stoic, world-weary mask which made him ideal casting for tough, uncompromising characters. And even though Taylor had made a few westerns in his career prior to Devil's Doorway, his best work in the genre can be found in the fifties starting with this Anthony Mann film and continuing through the early sixties with such highpoints as The Last Hunt (1956) and The Law and Jake Wade (1958) along the way.
As noted earlier, Devil's Doorway was unfairly dismissed by most critics upon its release as being a less successful imitation of Broken Arrow but there were some favorable reviews such as The New York Times which deemed it "a Western with a point of view that rattles some skeletons in our family closet." But the film's most ardent admirers would emerge much later when the movie was finally seen by film scholars in the context of the Hollywood Western and Mann's career. Jeanine Basinger in her book Anthony Mann wrote that Devil's Doorway "is not only an honest portrayal of the plight of the Indian, but it also has an interesting portrait of a preliberation woman. It is in every way a modern film." And Phil Hardy in his reference work, The Encyclopedia of Western Movies, said "What makes the film so impressive is [Guy] Trosper's articulate script and Mann's handling of the theme of identity - the major theme of Mann's series of classic Westerns in the fifties - with Taylor caught - literally, his dress alternates between that of Indian and white man - between the conflicting identities and loyalties of Indian and American." In the end, Anthony Mann has the final word on Devil's Doorway: "I think the result was more powerful than Broken Arrow, more dramatic, too." An immodest statement perhaps, but undeniably true.
Producer: Nicholas Nayfack
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Guy Trosper
Cinematography: John Alton
Film Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Leonid Vasian
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cast: Robert Taylor (Lance Poole), Louis Calhern (Verne Coolan), Paula Raymond (Orrie Masters), Marshall Thompson (Rod MacDougall), James Mitchell (Red Rock), Edgar Buchanan (Zeke Carmody).
by Jeff Stafford
Anthony Mann by Jeanine Basinger
The BFI Companion to the Western, edited by Edward Buscombe
The Films of Robert Taylor by Lawrence J. Quirk
Tne Encyclopedia of Western Movies by Phil Hardy
I send you my father to the Land of the Great Mystery. May you ride with him on the North Wind.- Lance Poole
Two Hollywood Reporter production charts in mid-September 1949 referred to this film as Devil's Holiday. Although a September 1949 Daily Variety news item states that Frank McGrath was cast in this film, his participation in the released film has not been confirmed. That same news item adds that location shooting was done around Grand Junction, Colorado.