Steve McQueen as a “half-breed”? It’s an idea that would be farfetched in any decade other than the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was in full flower and race and ethnicity loomed large in the popular consciousness. Yet, this is the role McQueen plays in Nevada Smith (and that Paul Newman would play a similar role a year later, in the 1967 film Hombre).
Nevada Smith takes as its basis the earlier life of a character featured in The Carpetbaggers (1964). A then 30something Steve McQueen stars as Max Sand (a.k.a. Nevada Smith), a naïve youth who unwittingly points three killers to his parents’ homestead. The trio brutally tortures and murders his parents (a white father and Indian mother) over gold. The remainder of the film dramatizes Max’s efforts to systematically find and kill the murders, now separated and living in different regions of the country.
Max Sand makes a curious avenging angel, as he is, indeed, ignorant of what makes a commanding man of the West. He doesn’t know how to read, drink or even play cards. Itinerant gun dealer Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) takes Max in and molds him into a skillful gunman. Jonas’ early efforts to socialize his charge set up the film’s review of traditional locations and qualities of Hollywood’s Western hero. This process of acculturation effectively highlights the genre’s capacity for self-reinvention.
Rather like its protagonist, this film is an interesting hybrid for its time, delivering the generic conventions of the Western — lots of action, a love interest, an intriguing and noble loner — along with an investigation of racial identity. The issue of race is explicit in the beginning of the film, when Max begins his socialization into the larger “white” community of the West. He is mentored (dare we say, “re-parented”?) by Jonas, particularly in that most important of skills — how to shoot straight and accurately. The narrative of this film posits the acquisition of a gunman’s skill and attitude as the way of transcending the limitations of Max’s mixed race parentage.
Then Max moves to town, where he meets a potentially kindred spirit, an Indian prostitute/dance hall girl named Neema (Janet Margolin), who identifies his ethnicity by noticing the moccasins he still wears. Their connection challenges the traditional Western plot, in that two Indian characters form an important alliance outside of the familiar context of the reservation, at least briefly. When Max is injured while killing one of the murderers, Neema takes him to a local reservation, where he recovers and even learns to read. The Indians are presented as sympathetic to Max’s identity crisis and their reservation as an oasis of natural beauty and civilization. Yet, this community does not appear a viable alternative for Max to settle in and find peace.
Still, he must satisfy his vengeful thirst for blood, a quality traditionally associated with Hollywood Indians (and to be fair, white cowboys as well). As a biracial character played by a white star, Max generates sympathy from a mainstream audience, fluctuating between an oppressed Indian and his white oppressor. In the instances where Max suffers racism, it appears that his Indian identity provides a safer substitute for an African American struggling for Civil Rights. This is most evident in scenes where Max confronts each of his parents’ killers, who taunt him with racial epithets, particularly about his Indian mother. The second killer, Bill Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy), calls Max “an Injun,” based on his ability to detect the direction of their path through the placement of the sun in the sky.
Suzanne Pleshette also contributes “local color” in her role as Max’s love interest, an identified Cajun girl named Pilar, who conveniently dies, ensuring that Max will remain alone in his path toward self-knowledge and emerging identity. Taking the structure of an extended journey, Max’s story takes him to communities in the old West, the Southern swamps of Louisiana, and finally, the deserts of Arizona, before he “comes of age,” or is properly socialized to join the dominant community in this very moralistic Western.
The most explicit presentation of moral choice for our hero comes during a brief stay with a clergyman. The priest Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) relates his own parents’ murder by marauding Indians. The difference in his story is that he has forgiven this “sinful” act by Max’s “own people,” and has dedicated his life to the Church. This reinforces the stereotype of Indians as bloodthirsty savages eager to scalp any white man who dared travel West, and the Christian white man as comparatively “civilized” and generous in spirit. Here the priest embodies the forgiveness that Max might have for the last of the killers. At the same time, the film doesn’t quite acknowledge collective suffering of the Indian people and systematic white invasions of Indian land.
By the end, Max has renamed himself “Nevada Smith,” and when he finds the last killer, Tom Fitch (Karl Malden), he leaves him alive, if writhing in pain. This constitutes a kind of non-violence, during an era of turbulent and interracial strife, and when the tide was threatening to turn from the non-violent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr. toward the more violent tenets of emerging black radical groups.
Nevada Smith straddles a number of different strategies to produce an impossibly complex set of expectations, using its biracial title character as a progressive symbol, its white star as a commercial selling point, and its retrograde moralism as a safety valve for a more conservative politics. It purports to present something new in the guise of traditional generic codes, and ultimately asserts a reductive dramatic resolution. Walking away from violence, especially in a film set in the violent old West, delivers a powerful message. Nevada Smith was released during a time of intense domestic social and political turmoil in the hopes of containing that struggle which, as we know, inevitably exploded.