The 1950 “Broken Arrow” was a Hollywood game changer

Time Before Now – August 1950President Harry Truman faced war on two fronts;  Korea and the U.S. Senate’s “Commie-hunting” Joe MaCarthy.  Jackie Robinson signed what was at the time, the  fattest salary deal in Dodger history; $35,000.  Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical “South Pacific” won a Pulitzer and “All the King’s Men” captured the Best Picture Oscar.  Funny-men Sid Ceaser and Bob Hope debuted variety shows on the small screen, Hank Snow debuted at the Grand Ol’ Opry and Walt Disney premiered the animated classic “Cinderella” in Boston.

August, 1950

Sometime in the month 20th Century Fox released the big-screen Western, “Broken Arrow.”   While it enjoyed both critical and box office success, it’s best remembered for setting a new standard in Hollywood’s depictions of the nation’s native people. (Left, cast members Jeff Chandler, Debra Padget and Jimmy Stewart)

Nominated for three Oscars and the winner of a Golden Globe, the movie was arguably the first major motion picture to include three-dimensional Native American characters.  Past films had often swung between painting them as nature’s innocents or brutal savages.  

Considered a vast improvement by most critics and social scientists, it was still a bit of a hybrid. Based on Elliot Arnold’s 1947 novel, “Blood Brothers,”  his fictional account was based on actual historical figures.  And while Native Americans were cast in a few roles, most of the major characters were portrayed by non-Native actors.  

In his directorial debut, Delmer Daves, (right) cast A-lister Jimmy Stewart as real life Indian Agent, Tom Jeffords. The fictionalized account has Jeffords treating a wounded Apache youth.  The Good Samaritan is then threatened by Chiricahua Apache leader, Cochise, played by Jeff Chandler, (right)  a beefcake young Jewish actor from Brooklyn. The movie was glammed up with a romance between Stewart’s character and a young Apache woman, played by 15-year-old Debra Padget.

An exception to the all-anglo cast was noted Native American actor, Jay Silverheels, who appeared as the film’s villain, Geronimo.  Historically the famed Apache warrior had no role in the events surrounding Jeffords and Cochise other than he may have served as  the chief’s translator at one point.

The real Jeffords (left) most likely became acquainted with Cochise while serving as superintendent of overland mail in Arizona Territory.  The relationship was cemented when Jeffords rode into the Cochise camp alone to request the chief’s attendance at a peace conference. 

Cochise declined the invitation but Jeffords remained in the camp for some six months.  He became the obvious choice to accompany General Oliver Howard to propose another round of treaties in 1871, eventually ending the first series of Apache Wars.

Jeffords served as the government agent for the short-lived Chiricahua Reservation from 1872 to 1875. Cochise wasn’t around to witness its demise, however.  He died in 1874 from what is believed to be abdominal cancer.  Jeffords was removed as agent soon after.  He moved to Tombstone, dabbled in mining stocks and spent the last two decades of his life homesteading in the Tortolita Mountains.  He died at 82 in 1914, and was buried in Tucson’s Evergreen Cemetery. (Above, bust of Cochise.  No actual images of Cochise are known to exist) 

While the film wandered far afield from the actual facts, it’s still is considered a turning point in the portrayal of the nation’s diverse Native American population.  Historians have cited the movie’s tolerant, well-rounded approach as influential for Westerns going forward.  

Perhaps the most important factor in its acclaim as a game changer, may have been the studio’s savvy enlistment of Native folklorict, Rosebud Yellow Robe, (right) to promote the movie.  The daughter of a well-known Lakota educator and activist, Chauncey Yellow Robe, she was born in Rapid City, South Dakota.  

The 20-year-old was catapulted into the national spotlight in 1927 when she and Chauncey made President Calvin Coolidge an honorary Lakota. Journalist Arthur Seymour’s coverage of the event received national attention and caught Yellow Robe’s attention, as well.  Despite a 25 year age differance, she and journalist Seymour married in 1929.  The union lasted until his death in 1949.

Rosebud and Chauncey Yellow Robe with President Coolidge

As a folklorict, she was appalled by the myths surrounding Native culture.  Appointed director of the Indian Village at New York’s Jones Beach State Park, Yellow Robe was a popular figure with thousands of children who visited the Plains Indian Village in the park each summer.  

Rosebud at Jones Beach

Honored with a number of cultural and literary awards, after more than six decades as a storyteller, Yellow Robe died in 1992 at the age of 85.  But she was unable to put to rest what may have been a myth about her own life; that Orson Wells had borrowed the name Rosebud from her in his classic masterpiece “Citizen Kane.”

Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive, 25 miles south of Flagstaff on Arizona State Route 89A, will take visitors past a number of locations where “Broken Arrow” was filmed.  Renowned for twelve miles of spectacular scenery with overlooks, picnic areas, crystal clear swimming holes and hiking trails, the canyon sits in the middle of Coconino National Forest.  One of the most diverse preserves in the nation, the its 1.8 million acres include the famed red rocks of Sedona to Ponderosa Pine forests.  Familiar landmarks such as Steam Boat Rock, Bell Rock and Court House Butte offer picture-perfect views. 

Oak Creek Canyon Visitors Center

The city of Sedona offers a variety of  cultural and historic attractions, including the Sedona Heritage Museum, the Sedona Arts Center along with more than 80 shops and gallaries.  For recreation guides, maps and more information go to and Sedona Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, 331 Forest Road, Sedona, (928) 282-7722.

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.