Devil's Doorway (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: May 15, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Devil's Doorway (Blu-ray Review)


Anthony Mann

Release Date(s)

1950 (May 7, 2024)


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Warner Archive Collection)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: C

Devil's Doorway (Blu-ray)

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For decades since the beginning of the film industry, Westerns typically portrayed American Indians purely as blood-thirsty savages. Audiences saw Indians attack wagon trains, burn houses, slaughter families, and fight American soldiers, but never saw their humanity. Devil’s Doorway was one of the earliest films to look at Indians from an entirely different, even sympathetic perspective.

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor, Camille), a Shoshone Indian, returns from the Civil War as a sergeant major proudly wearing the Congressional Medal of Honor. Back home in the Wyoming territory called Sweet Meadows, where his family has resided for generations and now raises cattle, he learns that the Union he fought for is disenfranchising him and his people. The white easterners’ move westward has brought with it laws that relegate Native Americans to wards of the government, not American citizens, with no rights to homestead land or claim it as their own. Lance’s father is pessimistic about the fate of his people: “An Indian without land loses his soul.”

Instigated by bigoted lawyer Verne Doolan (Louis Calhern, Julius Caesar), newly arrived sheep farmers demand to settle on parcels of Sweet Meadows to begin raising their own families and working the land for themselves. Lance seeks advice from young lawyer Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond, Bandits of Corsica), who appeals to the government to amend these laws so the tribe can retain ownership of the land they have always regarded as home. When the territorial legislature rules against the Shoshone, they have no other alternative than to fight for their rights.

The screenplay by Guy Trosper is clearly sympathetic to the Indians’ point of view as they suffer under laws made by white men to favor white men. The element of irony is forefront as the very nation that awarded Lance its highest honor now has laws to disenfranchise him and his people and take their land. Lance is intelligent, dignified, and proud. Unlike the prevailing stereotype of the period, he speaks perfect English. He doesn’t act rashly or indiscriminately. When he’s told about the laws, he works cooperatively with his well-meaning lawyer. His anger is well deserved. Orrie is the voice of reason and common sense, but her sincere efforts fail to persuade a government determined to marginalize the Indian population.

It’s unlikely there would have been a female lawyer at that point in history, especially in the west, but the character of Orrie is more a conduit of information than a believable character. Lance needs an ally, and Orrie is forthright and honest, contrasting sharply with Doolan. She’s a sympathetic ear when others are deaf to the Indians’ cause.

Robert Taylor seems an odd choice to plays a Shoshone Indian, but at the time it was common in movies for white actors to play minorities. Charlie Chan was played by a series of white actors, Myrna Loy specialized in Oriental roles, Jeff Chandler played Apache chief Cochise in Broken Arrow, Natalie Wood played Puerto Rican Maria in West Side Story, and Laurence Olivier played the title role in Othello. Even as late as 2013 Johnny Depp took on the role of Tonto in The Lone Ranger.

Taylor’s star stature works well for this role. He’s powerful as a man with deep convictions, unafraid to face prejudice and oppose injustice. The only aspect that would be considered distasteful today is the make-up used to darken Taylor’s complexion.

Director Anthony Mann (Quo Vadis) gives Devil’s Doorway a brisk pace and an exciting climactic showdown between the Indians and their adversaries. Mann stages the action effectively and spreads out critical exposition among several characters so that we hear several points of view. Louis Calhern’s character, lawyer Doolan, is pretty much right out of the silent era with his black outfit, inbred hatred, and ability to rile up a mob. I almost expected him to twirl his mustache as he invoked the law. Marshall Thompson in a small role as a sheep herder explains that he and his fellow sheep herders want the right to settle and raise their flocks. Mann creates some exciting moments as the Indians use dynamite on a raid against the sheepherders to make a point. In one suspenseful scene, Indians move silently under cover of darkness to attack, disproving the white men’s belief that Indians never attack at night.

Later films that portrayed Native Americans in a sympathetic light include John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, Dances with Wolves, Little Big Man, and the recent Killers of the Flower Moon.

Devil’s Doorway was shot by director of photography John Alton on 35 mm black & white film with spherical lenses and presented in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Image quality on the Blu-ray is excellent, with clarity and contrast exceptional for a film this old. The photography captures the massive land expanse of the Wyoming territory. Taylor’s dark make-up is initially distracting. Details are well delineated, especially the stripes and Congressional Medal on Lance’s uniform, decor in a bar, and the long log dwelling that Lance calls home.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound mix is by Western Electric Sound System. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Lance and the other Indians speak normally and do not use the “Hollywood Indian lingo” of fractured grammar and monosyllabic words. Sound effects include gun shots, dynamite explosions, a telegraph’s transmitter, bodies being punched in a bar fight, horses galloping, crackling fire, and ambient town street noise. Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score enhances the action sequences and adds mood to some of the dramatic scenes.

Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release from the Warner Archive Collection includes the following:

  • The Chump Champ (7:17)
  • Cue Ball Cat (7:06)
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (1:48)

The Chump Champ – In this 1950 Droopy cartoon directed by Tex Avery, Droopy and Gorgeous Gorillawitz (Butch) are competing in the Olympics to be the King of Sports. Adding to the prize is a kiss from the Queen of Sports. Gorillawitz imagines a pretty girl dog being his queen and decides to win at all costs even though the judge says the best man must win fair and square. They compete in several events, but in each one, Gorillawitz’s efforts to cheat backfire.

Cue Ball Cat – Made in 1950, this Tom & Jerry cartoon directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera finds Tom playing pool in a deserted pool hall, pocketing two balls by crafty means and then waking up Jerry by shooting the 10 ball into the pocket where he’s sleeping. Jerry awakens just in time to avoid the 10 ball and is carried out to the ball return, where the 10 and 13 balls smash the mouse between them. Jerry determines to get even and some back-and-forth mayhem ensues.

Devil’s Doorway is an unusual Western for its time in that it treats sympathetically the American Indians and their struggle during the country’s western expansion. Rather than portray the Indian as a dangerous impediment to progress, director Anthony Mann shows him as thoughtful and smart, willing to resort to violence only when all else fails. The film must have been an eye opener for audiences brought up on movies in which Indians were never shown in any depth. The film dramatically illustrates how a law can benefit some while hurting others, a message that still resonates over 70 years later.

- Dennis Seuling