Trooper Hook—Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Earl Holliman, Royal Dano, John Dehner, Edward Andrews, Rodolfo Acosta (1957; Dir: Charles Marquis Warren)
This is both a cavalry movie and a strangers-on-a-stagecoach movie, based on a short story by Jack Schaefer (author of Shane and Monte Walsh). It makes good use of the decency Joel McCrea always projected; the strong cast, led by McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, elevates the movie slightly over what it might have been.
Sgt. Clovis Hook (McCrea) is 47, a veteran of the Civil War and graduate of Andersonville Prison during that war. He’s in charge of a detail that captures Chiricahua Apache chief Nanchez (Rodolfo Acosta) and his band, including Cora Sutliff (Stanwyck), a white woman captive who has borne Nanchez’s son. She was taken by the Apaches a few years ago while traveling from the east to rejoin her husband on his new ranch in Arizona. Most of the movie concerns Hook’s attempts to reunite her with her husband, while both Nanchez and well-meaning whites try to part her from her son.
Cora comes in for a fair amount of hostility and abuse from whites over the course of the movie. Hook reacts with more humanity. One of the best scenes comes as their relationship develops. Cora talks about the humiliations for her in dealing with the reactions of other whites; Hook tells her about his survival at Andersonville, where he pretended to be a dog in order to get more food in that hellish environment. There are references to Hook’s own wife and family, who never appear.
Hook with the captured Nanchez; the recently liberated Cora Sutliff and her son by Nanchez.
Hook, Sutliff and her son take a stagecoach toward the modest ranch her husband has built up. The stagecoach passengers include young cowboy Jeff Bennett (Earl Holliman), a Mexican grandmother and granddaughter and a talkative Charlie Travers (Edward Andrews), with a colorful ex-Confederate driver (Royal Dano). Along the way they hear that Nanchez has escaped, and he catches up with the stage. Hook resorts to a strategem to get Nanchez to let them depart, but we haven’t seen the last of him.
When they arrive at the Sutliff ranch, Cora’s husband, who hasn’t seen her for years, takes the approach most whites have. He hadn’t heard about, and wants nothing to do with, the half-Apache kid, and Cora won’t let the child go. Nanchez finds them, and the four of them make a run for it in the Sutliff wagon.
The ending is a bit contrived, with both Nanchez and husband Fred Sutliff (John Dehner) dead and Hook riding off into the sunset with the woman and her son. Hook admits he has no family; he just invented one to fend off the questions and good intentions of others. He remarks, “I’m 47. Nearly 30 of that in the Army makes a man rough. Got four months ‘til the end of my last hitch.” It sounds like a proposal, sort of.
The movie has intrusive, clunky theme music (e.g., Rancho Notorious and Will Penny) sung by Tex Ritter; such music seldom works as well as it did in High Noon. There are good supporting performances by Royal Dano as Mr. Trude, an ex-Confederate stagecoach driver, and Earl Holliman as Jeff Bennett, a good-hearted young cowboy. Rodolfo Acosta as Nanchez isn’t bad, either, in a role very similar to what he did in Hondo. Barbara Stanwyck isn’t very convincing at first, but she can act and becomes more believable as her character develops.
A still of Hook (McCrea), Quito, Cora (Barbara Stanwyck) and Fred Sutliff (John Dehner).
This was the sixth and last film McCrea and Stanwyck made together. McCrea and Stanwyck teamed in this modest western 18 years after being in DeMille’s more epic Union Pacific. The boy who plays Cora’s mixed-race son in a black wig (Terry Lawrence) isn’t great; the direction may be at fault for some of that. Unresolved question: Who got Charlie Travers’ $15,000? In black and white. Both the Four Corners setting and the stagecoach elements recall John Ford, but the direction obviously isn’t as good. In black and white.