Buster Keaton in THE PALEFACE (1922) – Surprisingly sympathetic look at Native Americans

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Dealing as it does in many of the typical “How!” stereotypes, it’s difficult to believe that modern Native-Americans might enjoy The Paleface. But in its sympathy towards the Indians’ point of view and their eventual comeuppance of the movie’s white villains, it comes as a stark and very funny relief to the gaseous self-righteousness of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, which came almost 70 politically corrected years later.

Unusually for a Buster Keaton short, The Paleface spends a generous amount of time setting up its premise. It begins by showing an Indian tribe at peace; indeed, the movie goes so far as to show the tribe segregated by choice, not because they were relegated to it by “white men.” And based on this movie’s characterizations of said white men, the Indians are well rid of them.

It seems that some shady oil barons want the Indians’ land for their own (money-grubbing, naturally) reasons, so when an Indian spokesperson is given a deed for the land, one of the barons’ flunkies knocks the rep out cold and leaves him a silver dollar as “payment” for the deed that was “given up” by the Indian rep. With deed in hand, the barons send a note to the Indians giving them 24 hours to get off their land. The Indian chief (Joe Roberts) instructs the tribe to kill the first white man who passes through their gate.

Naturally, the first entrant is Buster, trying to catch an elusive butterfly. The ensuing adventures transform the ever-resourceful Buster into a Don Quixote for Native Americans. Buster begins his sojourn by being marked for death by the Indians, only to come full circle and be welcomed as the middleman between their tribe and the barons. As with everything else he does, Buster gets straight to the point: If the white men don’t do what’s right, they’ll get what they deserve. Sure enough, the barons underestimate Buster and live to regret it; he conducts a war dance in the barons’ boardroom (literally conducts it – as the Indians furiously dance in a circle around the white men, Buster rhythmically waves his arms as if directing an orchestra).

The Indians retain their deed, and Buster is rewarded with the hand of a beautiful Indian princess on whom he has had his eye. The movie concludes with one of Keaton’s funniest playing-with-the-movie-medium gags: Buster indulges in a long kiss with the princess. The title “Two years later” follows, leading us to expect a shot of Buster with the princess and their children. Instead, we see Buster in the very same embrace with the princess, pausing only to take a breath before he resumes the kiss. For all we know, they might still be locked in the same position.

Keaton biographer Marion Meade calls The Paleface “absurdist.” On the contrary, the movie shows why many critics and movie buffs regard Keaton’s viewpoint as more contemporary than Charlie Chaplin’s. Here, Buster never asks for pity, is resourceful to a fault, and sides with the outsider in a way that makes you automatically side with him. It’s way too much to suggest that a movie could bring about world peace; still, one wonders if a few world leaders couldn’t be at least slightly humbled by watching The Paleface and taking its modest message to heart.

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