The Seminole Indian tribe were the original Floridians. They most likely have been there since long before Jesus Christ walked on this earth. The tribe controlled Florida long after the first European settlers arrived in the New World. By the 1700’s both British and Spanish settlers began to move into what would become known as the Sunshine State. Pretty soon the natives were being tortured and murdered. The Seminoles were losing their lives and their land. In 1821, The U.S. acquired Florida from the Spanish. In an 1823 treaty the U.S. gave the Seminoles about 100,000 acres of land in the Everglades.
This is where our film begins. A mix of fact and fiction, mostly fiction, the film tells the story of Osceola, true life mixed breed chief of Florida’s Seminole Indians and the battle with the U.S. Army who now has orders to resettle the tribe out west as Florida’s agriculture begins to grow.
Made in 1953, it was one of five films that year directed by Budd Boetticher. By this time Boetticher had been directing for about ten years and had over fifteen low budget programmers to his credits. Best known among them included The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) (1), Red Ball Express (1952) and Horizons West (1952). Still ahead were the seven Randolph Scott westerns that would cement both their names as one of the best teams in the western genre.
Unlike most westerns at that time, it’s really an eastern western, Seminole is sympathetic toward the Native Americans. The film opens at Fort King in the Florida territory. New West Point graduate, Lt. Lance Caldwell (Rock Hudson) is being court martialed for allegedly killing a soldier. In flashback Caldwell recounts his version of the events leading up to his trial. He has been newly assigned to Fort King under the command of Indian hating, Major Degan (Richard Carlson). Degan’s orders are to move the Seminole tribe out of Florida and further west. Florida’s agricultural land is growing and the Indians are in the way. Young Caldwell has been assigned here because he knows the Seminole’s, having grown up in the area, friends with Seminole leader Osceola (Anthony Quinn) and Revere Muldoon (Barbara Hale), Caldwell’s childhood sweetheart.
Caldwell wants to talk with the Seminoles. Especially with Osceola in an attempt to work out a peaceful agreement. Instead, Major Degan wants to send his men on a senseless mission through the Everglades, carrying a giant cannon on four wagon wheels through the wetlands. He wants to destroy every Indian in his path. In this senseless battle plan, Degan and his men face two obstacles. A ready and capable fighting force of Native Americans and a nature force…The Everglades.
The Everglades are swampy and jungle like. Two million acres of wetlands filled with a variety of wildlife from birds and panthers to snakes and alligators. The soldiers are not prepared for this kind of environment. Add to that the bugs, the overbearing humid heat, the slogging through the swamp like terrain drenched in sweat. A three day trek, exhausted, some drop into the swampy waters. All this only to come face to face with a deadly attack by the Seminoles.
After the battle, Revere is sent by the military to see Osceola to convince him to surrender under a white flag of truce. While Lance was away at West Point, Revere and the Indian Chief fell in love. He trust her and agrees, but is double crossed by the Major. The Indian chief is arrested and put into a confinement hole. Kajeck (Hugh O’Brien), one of Oscula’s warriors, attempts to free the Chief killing a soldier during the process. Caldwell comes to help his friend but is too late. Kajeck quickly disappears and Caldwell is found with the dead man. He is arrested for the death of the soldier.
Much of the exterior was filmed in Florida’s Everglades which adds a nice touch of realism. It’s definitely an unusual kind of terrain for a western film. These Everglades battle scenes are highlights, they are thrilling and are set up and choreographed superbly. Seminole is also one of the very few films from this period to dare to show a racial romance as well as, in general, reflect a sympathetic view of the Native Americans with the white soldiers as more or less the bad guys.
On the minus side, never a big fan of Rock Hudson, I found his performance rather stiff. At this point in his career, his breakout role (The Magnificent Obsession), to full fledge stardom was a year away (2). Richard Carlson (It Came from Outer Space) as the despicable Major on the other hand seems to have enjoyed eating the scenery more and more as the film went on. Barbara Hale (Perry Mason) as Revere Muldoon looks beautiful, but that may be part of the problem. Her clothing, her hair and her hats are all a little too clean and neat for sweaty, swampy Florida. Then again, all the clothes look just a little too neat. Cast also includes the aforementioned Anthony Quinn, Hugh O’Brien as well as the future Professor on Gilligan’s Island, Russell Johnson.
Seminole is not a great western but it’s an interesting diversion from the usual fare.
(1) Made for John Wayne’s Batjac Company and based on Boetticher’s real life experiences with Bullfighting.
(2) That same year, Hudson starred in Taza, Son of Cochise spitting out silly dialogue like “Unga Bunga Wunga” or something close to that.