Grayeagle has been compared unfavorably with The Searchers, and by a source that also claims forty minutes have been removed from Pierce’s film.
It ought rather to be suggested that Grayeagle is, on the contrary, an intensely elaborated joke on (though not against) John Ford, even (or especially) at its current running length of 104 minutes.
The confusion arises from Pierce’s need to sustain 103 minutes of film before the punchline, and this he does by virtue of a studious appreciation of Catlin’s paintings, which are brought to mind throughout. Attention is paid, as well, to some aspects of Penn’s Little Big Man in its concern with authenticity.
Pierce has a good trick of placing his camera just so, rather low with reference to the horizon, and unobtrusively, to give an impression of tepees on the Plains in accord with Catlin’s representations. In fact, Catlin has a similar trick, using the edge of the picture frame to suggest an unseen expanse beyond it.
A young woman (Lana Wood) is kidnapped by a brave, Grayeagle (Alex Cord), her father (Ben Johnson) and another settler (Jack Elam) seek her out, assisted by a friendly Indian (Iron Eyes Cody).
The punchline, revealed to anybody who cares, has the girl sent back to her father, then Grayeagle comes calling, and before she rushes out to meet him, she hurriedly seizes a feathered Indian hair decoration from the mantle and puts it on like any girl meeting her date. The last shot is Ford’s view from the doorway.
Among the interesting details is this very cabin, a solid, low construction of slender logs, with a sod roof adorned by tossing bleached antlers on it.
The critical position mirrors precisely the situation depicted in this film. A longboat sails to the coast of America to fetch a party of Vikings held captive by Indians. Long years have passed, the captives are blinded, unshorn, enduring by virtue of the hope and faith of their captain (Mel Ferrer). Well before Missing in Action (dir. Joseph Zito), they are whisked off under a flight of missiles from their captors, in a greatly exciting finale.
The Viking armament consists of crossbows, a precision instrument. It’s customary to recall the Vikings as savage plunderers, though the Arts & Crafts movement in Scandinavia looked favorably on their skilled ornamentation, and here the peculiar isolation of their situation throws into relief quite vividly their abilities as seafarers and men of invention. This is the main dramatic thrust of the conception, presenting the Viking contribution to civilization in the starkest terms.
The longboat is slowly moving through an inlet, an Indian maiden (Susie Coelho) signals to it by holding a brazen dagger so that the sun reflects on it in the form of a cross. With all due respect to Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide, this “low grade hokum for the easily pleased” is rather grandly built around this magnificent craft, a sturdy defense against marauders, a magnificently bulky item rowed slowly amidst greenery while the rescue party fights its way back.
The slow measure of this scene is the measure of the film. Cornel Wilde makes a narrow-eyed assessment of the chances as the Indians attack, his skeleton crew fend them off with an eye to their shipmates’ return, the boat begins lumbering down the inlet for the open ocean. Meanwhile, the rescue party limps and scampers through the woods, assailed by the captors (and their wise woman, the utterly surprising Kathleen Freeman) and bolstered by stout and fearless Olaf (Jimmy Clem), who turns to face the enemy.
Jack Elam gives a Druidical rendition of the character Death Dreamer. Lee Majors is the calm, reflective quester of the expedition. TV Guide pays too little for its movie reviews, but far more than they’re worth. The critic is likely to find himself, a lonely Viking, fighting his way through a horde of the unculturated with the point of his pen to rescue this quite unusual film from their obliviousness, but the result is well worth the trouble.