One of the grimmest depictions of relations between whites and Native Americans in the post-Civil War west, Devil's Doorway seems to have its feet planted in the sensibilities of several different decades -- and, most astonishingly, decades yet to come. On its surface, Devil's Doorway is an eerie stylistic exercise in western noir, similar in some respects to Raoul Walsh's Pursued (1947). But Anthony Mann's movie is imbued with a topical message that sets it distinctly apart from Pursued, in terms of its impact and, possibly, its intent as well. Looking at it 60 years on, one has to wonder if Mann and screenwriter Guy Troper (whose output did include some topical scripts) were thinking about racism and intolerance on a more general and immediate level, using the tale of Native American war hero Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) to make some points concerning the lot of African-American veterans; the postwar Civil Rights movement was just starting to coalesce at the time, and a lot of the action here could just as easily have translated into modern terms in various southern and border states. But even taken on its own terms, and ignoring any suggestion of a topical purpose, Devil's Doorway is startling in its grim, uncompromising nature -- it is one of the more hope-bereft movies to come out of Hollywood, offering few hints of solutions to the problems it poses. Indeed, watching it today, the film seems to anticipate Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue, made two decades later (on a much bigger budget), which took the real-life Sand Creek Massacre and turned it, at least in part, into an allegory about Vietnam, with just as high a body count among the honorable and decent characters. And one can't help but wonder if, indeed, someone wasn't trying to put a much more profound message across than the studio recognized -- only that could explain the bizarre story and dramatic arc, in which key characters are slaughtered quite cavalierly far before the actual (and devastating) end of the picture. In all, this is a movie that demands almost as much attention and analysis six decades on as it deserved in 1950.
by Bruce Eder review