Jim Thorpe — All American is one of three films Burt Lancaster did in the 1950s that explored discrimination against native peoples in the US and that in their modest way pushed the boundaries of representation in American popular culture. Apache (Richard Aldrich, 1954) and The Unforgiven (John Huston, made in 59 but released in 1960) are the others. ‘When white man lick Indian, he win battle’, one of Thorpe’s room-mates tells him, ‘Indian lick white man – ‘massacre’. The film’s very title harks back to Knute Rockne — All American (Lloyd Bacon, 1940), and the discrimination of native peoples, who should be equal by law, is the overt theme of the film, as indicated from the very first with Burt Lancaster’s star entrance (below):
The film is a sports biopic of Jim Thorpe, an Algonquin from Oklahoma Territory who went to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania to keep a promise to his father. With the help of football coach Glen Scobey (“Pop”) Warner (Charles Bickford), Thorpe, whose native name is ‘Bright Path’, became one of the legendary athletes of the day, excelling in football, baseball and track, for which he won several medals at the Olympics. He was stripped of those medals for having played baseball ‘professionally’ during the summer, although he barely made enough to cover food and rent whilst playing, underlining the class underpinnings of ‘amateur.’ He recovers professionally, overcoming the debacle with the medals and racial discrimination, only to be brought low once more by the death of his only son and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage. Near the end of the film we see him in full cigar-store Indian drag, desultorily mc-ing a dance marathon in 1930. Burton is great at expressing a deadness in the eyes that speaks of struggles to maintain dignity in the face of alienation and humiliation.
Curtiz symbolises the break-up of Jim Thorpe’s marriage via the bed, and Burt, star that he is, manages to find the pin-lights with his eyes before collapsing in grief:
Alex K. Rode, Cutiz’ biographer writes that ‘The picture received generally positive reviews and grossed nearly a million dollars over its cost. Jim Thorpe — All American was characteristic of Curtiz’ postwar Warner films: a well-made, profitable picture that quickly faded from the public’s memory’.
Curtiz was the top director at Warners in the classic period for a reason. The integration of stock footage into the banquet scenes that bookend the film and in the Olympics sequence are seamlessly integrated, and must have considerably cut down on the film’s budget. The editing of the sports sequence, often in mid-motion to give flow to Lancaster’s movement and whoever doubled for him, is also very fine. It has some lovely bits, such as here below with Burt, Phyllis Thaxter and the baby.
The more emotional moments are in striking expressionist shadows that are very characteristic of the ‘shadow’ pay one sees throughout Curtiz’ oeuvre.
…and the compositions, superbly filmed by Ernest Haller, are original and striking:
In spite of all the above, the film also feels emotionally crude, pat, everything beautifully directed as to image and pacing but lacking in depth, understanding or delicacy. It vividly conveys the outline of feeling, but it always feels like it’s walloping the main point at the expense of the subtler, more complex, more contradictory dimensions of character and story. Burt Lancaster, who’s never given the credit he deserves, is superb.