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The Outsider

The Outsider(1961)

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teaser The Outsider (1961)

The true story of World War II hero Ira Hamilton Hayes, a Pima Indian from an Arizona reservation, is one of the great American tragedies and one that deals with complex issues of personal identity, national fame and racial prejudice. Hayes had never ventured off his tribal land until he left to enlist in the Marines. After a grueling stint in Boot Camp, he was transferred to the Pacific where he saw action in the bloody fighting at Iwo Jima. After he was identified as one of the soldiers lifting the American flag on Mt. Suribachi in Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph, he was summoned to Washington, D.C. by the President and, along with the surviving members of the men in the photograph, was drafted into participating in a war bond drive to raise money for the armed forces. Still suffering from grief and depression from his war experiences and the deaths of his Marine friends, Hayes quickly went into a downward spiral, acerbated by his new-found taste for alcohol and the pressures of being trotted out as a national hero in endless public appearances. Even his own tribal community tried to pressure him to become a Washington lobbyist in the hope he could improve living conditions on the reservation but his drinking problem sabotaged any efforts he made. He then disappeared from the public eye, working in menial jobs and getting arrested habitually for drunkenness. Hayes eventually returned to his reservation a broken man and died of exposure after a night of heavy drinking on January 24, 1955.

His story was most recently told in Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Clint Eastwood's award-winning drama about the soldiers immortalized in Rosenthal's iconic photo which was snapped on Feb. 23, 1945. Hayes (played by Adam Beach), however, was only part of the story depicted in Eastwood's revisionist history lesson. The Pima Indian's sad story was actually the main subject of two earlier works, one of which was a television production entitled The American with Lee Marvin in the title role, and the 1961 biopic The Outsider, directed by Delbert Mann and starring Tony Curtis as Hayes.

A sympathetic, well-intentioned social drama, The Outsider takes artistic license with some of the facts for dramatic reasons and adds a fictitious character, Jim Sorenson (James Franciscus), as Hayes' best friend; he was allegedly based on Hayes' fellow soldier Franklin Sousley. Inserting a fabricated character into the film biography of Hayes and have him play an important part in his life is problematic but so is the absence of any Native American actors in any of the main roles in The Outsider. Having Caucasian actors play ethnic roles was nothing new for Hollywood and this practice was still fairly standard up until the early sixties. Nevertheless, it is still jarring to see Tony Curtis in dark skin makeup with stylized eyebrows and hair.

But the main weakness of The Outsider is its superficial presentation of Ira Hayes' short, unhappy life; the title character remains an enigma and we never learn what makes him tick. His intense desire to become assimilated into white culture and become a good marine is realized through his relationship with Sorenson, which as depicted on-screen, suggests it is something much deeper than just a friendship. How else to explain Hayes' shocked response to his friend's death on the battlefield and his downward spiral that begins in reaction to that? According to The Outsider, this was a personal tragedy from which he would never recover. (He would probably be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome now and treated). In the end, Hayes comes off as a man who barely had a life and spent his short years locked in a prison of his own making a man estranged not just from his own culture but from the human race.

Despite the film's low key approach and downbeat tone, The Outsider deserves credit for tackling an unpopular topic in the Pre-Civil Rights era and even Tony Curtis considers the film one of his better dramatic efforts. In his autobiography, American Prince, he wrote, "People tell me I should have won an Oscar for my portrayal of Ira, but even though a lot of people went to see the picture, there wasn't enough buzz about it to move the Academy's voters. But I loved playing this role; I felt a special empathy for anyone in pain, especially the pain of being shunted aside or treated poorly."

One final bit of trivia: You can see the real Ira Hayes playing himself in a recreation of the famous flag raising scene in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), a John Wayne war drama directed by Allan Dwan.

Producer: Sy Bartlett
Director: Delbert Mann
Screenplay: William Bradford Huie, Stewart Stern
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Ted Haworth
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Film Editing: Marjorie Fowler
Cast: Tony Curtis (Ira Hamilton Hayes), James Franciscus (Pvt. James B. Sorenson), Gregory Walcott (Sgt. Kiley), Bruce Bennett (Gen. Bridges), Vivian Nathan (Nancy Hayes), Edmund Hashim (Jay Morago), Paul Comi (Sgt. Boyle), Stanley Adams (Noomie), Wayne Heffley (Cpl. Johnson), Ralph Moody (Uncle).
BW- 108m.

by Jeff Stafford

American Prince by Tony Curtis (Harmony)
Ira Hamilton Hayes on
Ira Hayes on

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