Film studies: Real Indians don't cry. So why did Iron Eyes Cody?

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What are parents trying to believe when they name their children - that they are re-identifying some strain of nature that has always been there, or that they are naming some fresh hope, some new chance? Are we seeing real people, or are we just authors trying to rework old characters?

There are recent deaths in the papers to set you thinking. Take Jerry Quarry, that forlorn boxer. His was a rugged name, if you like - Irish somehow, the source of rock and rockiness, a name for posters. Quarry v Frazier, the "Great White Hope" against ... the opposite of great white hopes. Then there was David Manners, an actor in some of Universal's horror classics - what a name for a man as empty as he was handsome. Shouldn't it always be David Manners who asks "anyone for tennis?" without grasping that the only spare player is that starchy Count who insists on blood matches?

Then there was Iron Eyes Cody, who died in Los Angeles, 4 January 1999, at the age of 94. He said - or had he been told (how do we know these things for sure? Yet how surely we all hope to avoid the Foundlings Home) - that he had been born in Oklahoma Territory, the son of a Cherokee named Thomas Long Plume, and a Cree mother.

Could have been. Except that the name "Cody" came into it somehow, and Cody in 1907 was the most bamboozling name in Wild Westing - travelling shows that "presented" the huge story of the frontier in a tent. Plus the fact that Iron Eyes and his parents were soon in Hollywood: so soon, he said later, that at the age of five, he appeared in DW Griffith's The Massacre, 1913.

Did the other kids in LA call him Irony, or Fe, for short? Two things that seems certain are that "Iron Eyes" had a fine, noble face that was not "white", and that he followed his father into the trade of supplying costumes, horses and what you might call "lore" for westerns. Look closely at that genre, and you will realize that "lore" meant making it up as you went along, and being able to deliver 25 horses and more-or-less able- bodied "savages" at 6am in the Valley. It was in a similarly disreputable area that Erich got a footing as an "expert" on Austro-Hungarian uniforms and the correct Prussian way to sneer. He added a "von" to his name, for authority - and he was a genius, so it turned out OK.

"Iron Eyes" became one of the most famous Indian faces in classic westerns. It's him, for sure, in The Covered Wagon, The Plainsman, Union Pacific, My Little Chickadee, Western Union, The Paleface (looming over Bob Hope) and on and on. Over a hundred pictures, with that steady, enduring head - being fearsome, being honourable, being bloodcurdling, being ridiculous. Of course, all of those "readings" were white reactions. To the few real Indians, there was never an adequate portrait of their experience. "Iron Eyes" is hailed in some books as the only actor who ever played both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse - the two nemeses of Custer. But to the Lakota, the nation that claimed those two chiefs, such prowess was a betrayal.

On the other hand, Iron Eyes was prosperous; he had a little business, supplying the movies. He also had a sister who went public later on and said he was a sham - an Italian-American, she said, out of New Orleans, someone who might have been a minor hood in The Godfather if he'd been lucky. Look at the face again, and you have to wonder.

Well, it hardly mattered, because the western died, and Iron Eyes was too old to go to court. But then a strange thing happened. It was 1971, and an advertising agency was hired by Keep America Beautiful Inc to do a TV commercial about what we'd now call eco-disaster. It was pretty new then. And the agency had the idea of a noble savage who moved from sylvan glory to the edge of some putrid city. We see his face and a jewel of tear sliding down it.

Don't feel too superior too fast. You're right: this is a culture hooked on the fake and the sentimental. But that commercial is history. It raised billions of dollars to help protect the wilderness of America - the natural one, I mean. And Iron Eyes was the face. But wait for this. He had to cry. Somehow he found the wit to say, "Real Indians don't cry". No problem, Chief, said the agency, we'll do it with glycerine. So Iron Eyes is famous for ever, and one touch above it all. But useful.

Maybe his death will free the truth of whether he was Cherokee or Corleone - but both tribes are potent in our legend, and equally authentic. More or less in this unofficial foundlings park, we all have our fake side - or are we all character actors? Jerry Quarry used to say he came out of The Grapes of Wrath - he was a child in the migrant labour camps of California - but you knew it was a PR man's line. Quarry was thick, and by the age of 50 he was so punchdrunk his family were always having to watch out in case he wandered off. The Great White Hope had a return address sewn inside his clothes.

And David Manners? Great name. You can just imagine the moment when he chose it over the impossible one bestowed by real parents - "Rauff de Ryther Duan Acklom". Now there's a name to make Iron Eyes weep.