Devil’s Doorway is an indescribably sad movie. It is directed by Anthony Mann and photographed in Caravaggesque black and white by cinematographer John Alton. The film is a story about war, peace, love and bigotry. At the end of the Civil War, a veteran of the Union Army, Lance Poole, returns to his home in Wyoming. Poole, (Robert Taylor), a Shoshone Indian, has had his fill of fighting and simply wants to live in peace on his family’s ancestral acres.
The West, however, is changing. Wyoming has become a territory and the railroad is spreading westward. Immigration from the drought ridden states of the Midwest is filling Wyoming with sheepherders who need land and water to survive. New territorial laws are Draconian in respect to Indians—they are not American citizens, but wards of the government. Land that has been in their families for generations is now open to anyone who wants to homestead there.
A lawyer named Vern Coolan (Louis Calhern) has moved West for his health. He hates Indians, especially Lance Poole, or Broken Lance, a “rich Indian.” Coolan stirs up trouble by encouraging the sheep men to homestead Poole’s land. Poole goes to the only lawyer in town other than Coolan, one A. Masters (Paula Raymond). At first horrified that she is a woman, Poole does hire her to help him.
Coolan is successful in mobilizing the sheep men and the Indians, led by Broken Lance, must fight to survive. Masters involves the army in a misguided attempt to save the man she now loves. A final battle ensues with the predictable outcome. Broken Lance, a holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his war service, surrenders to the cavalry.
A sub-theme of the film is the confinement of Indians to the reservations. Their men dead, a small group of women and children is forced to return to a reservation from their shelter on Poole’s land. Watching them trudge away to a life of confinement is heart breaking. There are no happy endings here.
Robert Taylor is superb as Broken Lance Poole. When offered the role, Mr. Taylor was happy to act in a film that, for once, saw things from the Indian point of view. It is the same year he made another film, Ambush, that saw Indians as villains. Lance Poole gradually morphs into Broken Lance as Taylor is forced to accept that the world only sees the color of his “hide.”His manner of dress changes as does his personality. Lance Poole was a happy man looking forward to the future. Broken Lance sees that there is no future for him.
The supporting cast of Marshall Thomson, James Mitchell, Edgar Buchanan, Spring Byington and Fritz Lieber, are first rate. The music by Daniele Amfithreatrof is muted and sorrowful, except for the battle scenes.
Broken Arrow, with James Stewart and Jeff Chandler, was made after Devil’s Doorway but released first. It was a more upbeat and successful take on Indians. Devil’s Doorway did make money but, according to the studio, only a net profit of $25,000. Today the film is highly regarded for its hard edged honesty, first-rate acting, subtle direction and superb photography.