Plot: Joe Thunderhorse (Richard Barthelmess) is a performer who utilizes his Native American heritage in his act, dressed in traditional clothes and joined by other Indians in a traveling Wild West show. But when the spotlight fades, Joe drops the native act and embraces the pleasures of the world, with women, booze, and materialism all on the menu he feasts upon. Despite his genuine connection to the Indian culture, he feels more like a white man at times since he left home when he was young, received a traditional education, and aside from his antics as part of the show, he doesn’t keep up with traditions or cultural elements. When he gets word that his father is near death, he returns to the reservation and discovers the situation is dire, his fellow Indians are in shaky condition, to say the least. A band of outsiders is preying upon the locals and Joe is sickened by what he sees. But will his distance from his own culture keep him passive or will he take action to help his people?
Entertainment Value: Massacre deals with some tough topics and doesn’t flinch in the process, especially when it comes to how the missionaries seek to break down the local traditions and install their own ideals, as if the Indian culture is somehow inferior and needs to be altered. At the same time, our lead Joe deals with his own cultural and social conflicts, as a man who has left his heritage behind and only parades it out when it benefits his career. I appreciated how directly these kind of social issues were handled here, as most movies would simply gloss over them or deal with them on a surface level, but Massacre delves deep at times. But it does have some concerns, not the least of which includes white performers in Indian roles, but overall it takes some interesting roads and make some bold choices. The movie isn’t all social drama either, as it has some western style action sequences and even a little light romance, with a wild car chases that was a personal highlight. I mean, Richard Barthelmess lassos the driver of a moving car in the chase, which is just awesome. Massacre isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t shy away from the issues and in the end, is well crafted and recommended.
The lead role is handled by Richard Barthelmess and while his performance is strong, his hats tend to steal the show. He sports one cowboy style hat that towers like a monument to southwestern fashion, the kind of massive head wear that King Kong could climb, just an epic look. Barthelmess runs with the serious tone and gives a sincere effort, one with effective emotional depth and a good amount of development. Joe’s journey fades into the background at times, which makes sense as bigger issues come into play, but it is well handled and Barthelmess is rock solid. He knows when to dial up the melodrama and go big, as well as when to be subtle and understated, so regardless of what demands are thrown his way, he comes through. Claire Dodd and Ann Dvorak also shine in prominent supporting roles, both able to work well with Barthelmess. Dvorak is fiery here and her scenes stand out as a result. The cast also includes Henry O’Neill, Charles Middleton, Dudley Digges, and Clarence Muse.