The Western novel “Arrow in the Sun” by Theodore Olsen became the basis for the screenplay of a revisionist Western entitled “Soldier Blue”. The movie was directed by Ralph Nelson and released in 1970. The movie is a classic example of taking a book and then veering off the plot into totally new territory. Or in this case, taking a book with one theme and turning it into a movie with a totally different theme.
“Arrow in the Sun” is a revisionist tale in that its heroine is far from the typical Western female. Cresta Lee has been held by the Cheyenne Indians for two years before escaping. She is being transported to Fort Reunion to be reunited with her fiancé, a cavalry officer. She is part of a paymaster convoy that gets ambushed by warriors led by her “husband” Spotted Wolf. She escapes and is joined by the only soldier survivor – Private Honus Gant. While Honus is a typical Victorian Age male, Cresta is decidedly not a typical female. She accepted captivity without either going insane, rebelling, or going native. She did what she had to do to keep Spotted Wolf happy - you can figure that out for yourself. She plotted for two years to get away. That’s not the only plotting. Her engagement to Capt. John McNair is not for love, it’s for money and status. But that’s not the most feminist thing about her. She speaks her mind and not in ladylike language. She is obnoxious and abrasive. And very sexy in a feral way.
The arc of the Honus/Cresta relationship breaks no new ground, but Cresta does not go mushy quickly. The first half of the book reads like a buddy story. They are trekking through the wilderness to try to reach Fort Reunion when they encounter an old coot named Cumber who they discover is an arms dealer who is going to trade Winchesters for the paychest Spotted Wolf took in the ambush. In the process of escaping Cumber, Honus is wounded and they end up hiding in a cave. Cresta reluctantly nurses Honus back to health. Reluctantly because she is a survivor and he is cramping her style. Sparks begin to fly, naturally.
Honus insists Cresta continue on to the fort to report Cumber’s activities. She runs into a cavalry patrol which includes her fiancé, who surprisingly is not the jerk you assume he will be. In fact, he is the only fiancé/husband I have ever encountered in this type of story who is willing to overlook his girl’s sexual history with Native Americans. He’s even willing to accept that she was marrying him for nonromantic reasons. What’s not to like about this guy?
The novel lurches back into predictability as Cresta is recaptured by Spotted Wolf and rescued by Honus. In between the Indians ambush McNair’s unit and surround them on a hill. Cumber arrives to aid his customers and things look bleak. We get the only appearance of Coehorn mortars that I have ever encountered in a Western. Which of her suitors will Cresta choose?
The movie starts out as a standard retelling of the novel. The opening ambush is essentially the same with only minor differences. Cresta (Candice Bergen) has saltier language (the first thing we hear from her is “Don’t just stand there, get your ass up here.”), but is not as prickly and domineering as in the novel. Honus (Peter Strauss) is the same stick in the mud as in the book. The movie begins to veer away from the book with its theme of mistreatment of Native Americans. Cresta represents the “it’s their land and whites commit atrocities, too” school. She wants the Indians to get the Winchesters. Honus is your patriotic supporter of Indian policies. He goes so far as to call Cresta a traitor.
After a faithful rendering of the Cumber affair and the cave incident, the movie loses all contact with the book because director Ralph Nelson has some messaging to do. Cresta goes off and runs into a much larger unit than in the book. McNair is more of a horny milquetoast. The unit is led by a John Chivington-like “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” type who is on a mission to destroy Spotted Wolf’s camp. Cresta escapes to warn the Cheyenne and they and Spotted Wolf welcome her back with open arms (unlike in the book where she is bound and threatened). Bizarrely, Spotted Wolf insists on maintaining the peace (that he broke by massacring the paymaster detail). He rides out with an American flag (soon to be trampled by the whites, get it?) and white flag, but Colonel Iverson (John Anderson) opens fire with cannons, defeats the Indians in dueling cavalry charges (the type of thing that never happened in the West), and assaults the village. This scenario is almost completely opposite of what happens in the book because the good guys and bad guys are reversed. The resulting cinematic massacre is rife with atrocities that were hard core for a 1970s movie. (The movie was billed as “The Most Savage Film in History”.) There are rapes (full frontal female nudity), beheadings, dismemberments, etc.
The movie is interesting in its defiance of conventions. It turns Westerns on their head by having the cavalry ride to the atrocity instead of to the rescue. (In this respect it is similar to another 1970 film – “Little Big Man”.) These troopers revel in their bestiality in a cartoonish way, but their behavior and actions are probably not that far from the Sand Creek Massacre that the movie admits to reenacting. Informing the public about that “foulest crime in the annals of America” is commendable and basically accurate ( exceptions being there was no cannon fire and the Indians did not charge the cavalry). Nelson throws in a “women and children in the ravine” segment that may or may not hearken to the My Lai Massacre. The Cresta character is also revisionist and is actually less accurate than the depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre. I doubt there was a single female in the Old West that she represents. In this case, we have a character that is anachronistic. Speaking of which, the Indians are like hippies. This is emphasized by the ridiculous opening song by Buffy Sainte-Marie. At least you know where the movie is coming from before the credits are done.
My avowed theory is that most movies based on books are improvements over the book because competent screenwriters and directors should be able to improve on the story. It is hard to judge these two because the movie decides to go off on a tangent to deliver a different message than the book. I found the characters and dialogue in “Arrow in the Sun” to be superior to the movie. The movie’s decision to make the final act historical is a plus as far as I’m concerned. The movie also is more revisionist than the book. The only thing unorthodox about the novel is the Cresta character (and I suppose I’d have to say McNair is a surprise). The love triangle is much more intriguing than in the movie.
As far as which is superior, I’m going to go with “Soldier Blue” because it is an important departure from the Western genre. Having read a lot on the Indian Wars, I can empathize with an attempt to show the other side of the coin.
RATINGS - Arrow in the Sun = C
Soldier Blue = B
TRAILER - The trailer does preview the buddy/romance nature of the film. Cresta's personality comesout clearly. The revisionist nature of the film is hinted at. There is little preview of the second half which involves the assault on the village. There is some allusion to the atrocities, but no context. You also get a mercifully short taste of the theme song.
grade = B
the massacre scene