Tag Archives: Cavalry Westerns

Station West

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 22, 2014

Station West—Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Agnes Moorehead, Burl Ives, Gordon Oliver, Guinn Williams, Raymond Burr, Tom Powers, Regis Toomey (1948; Dir:  Sidney Lanfield)

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“A STRANGER IN TOWN…WHERE STRANGERS WEREN’T WELCOME!…and he found out a gal double-crossed is Deadly as Poison!”

Well cast, Dick Powell’s only western is sometimes referred to as a noir western, mostly because stars Powell and Greer frequently found themselves in films noirs but also because of the flavor of the dialogue and the shadows in the cinematography.  This is a rare western for both Powell and Greer, and they’re both very good in it.

Powell is Haven, an undercover military man investigating the murder of two soldiers killed while transporting gold.  He gets a job working for Charlie (Jane Greer), the very attractive owner of the local saloon and many other enterprises around town.  There’s a well-staged fight between Haven and Mick Marion (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, playing Charlie’s chief thug instead of his usual quasi-comic relief).  The question seems mostly to be whether Charlie is centrally involved in local crime or whether it’s her right-hand man Prince (Gordon Oliver) who’s doing it. 

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Haven (Dick Powell) and Charlie (Jane Greer) figure things out.

Chemistry develops between Charlie and Haven.  Agnes Moorehead plays a mine owner and romantic interest of the local post commander (Tom Powers).  Burl Ives is a singing hotel clerk and one-man Greek chorus as he comments on the action.  “A man can’t grow old where there’s women and gold.”  Both Ives and Greer sing, quite pleasantly.

In the end, Haven shoots Prince but Prince shoots Charlie while going for Haven.  Turns out that Haven and Charlie are in love, but that’s not going to work out.  There is snappy film-noir-style dialogue; this is based on a story by Luke Short, usually a good source for a western.  It seemed that not all the plot threads were resolved in the end, but it was pleasant to watch.  This might make a good double feature with Rancho Notorious, Blood on the Moon or Colorado Territory.  Above average; shot in Sedona, Arizona, in black and white with lots of shadows, at 80 minutes.  Good cinematography by Harry Wild.

Burl Ives was surprisingly interesting to watch in westerns.  He was in five or six of them, of which this is an early one and the only one in which he sings.  In his two best, from the late 1950s, he played strong leaders, very effectively:  The Big Country and Day of the Outlaw.

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The Last Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 15, 2014

The Last Wagon—Richard Widmark, Felicia Farr, Nick Adams, Susan Kohner, Tommy Rettig, Stephanie Griffin (1956; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Sheriff Bull Harper:  “Don’t be fooled by the color of his eyes and his skin.  He may be white, but inside he’s all Comanche.”

As the movie opens, Comanche Todd (Richard Widmark) is on the run on foot from what appears to be a posse.  He gets two of them before the leader, the brutal Sheriff Bull Harper (George Matthews), captures him.  While Harper’s taking him back for trial, they encounter a wagon train of devout Christian emigrants in Apache territory and band together with them, at least for protection from the Indians.  We’ve seen Todd kill others in the posse already, but Bull Harper doesn’t seem all that trustworthy either.

[After capturing Todd, Sheriff Harper offers to join Colonel Normand’s wagon train.]  Col. William Normand (Douglas Kennedy):  “He’s safe in your custody, I suppose. It’s just that we got women and children with us.”

Sheriff Bull Harper:  “He’ll be safe. The first time he don’t look safe, he’ll get dead.”

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The next night several young people are off swimming and, when they return to the wagons, they find them burned and everyone killed by the Apaches.  Todd, who was manacled to a wagon wheel, went over a cliff with the wagon, but he’s still alive.  And he’s the only hope of the young people to get out of the desert and wilderness alive.  Only he has the survival skills and the wilderness knowledge they’ll need.  Jenny (Felicia Farr) and her young brother Billy (Tommy Rettig) are inclined to trust Todd, but two others (including Nick Adams) don’t and the remaining one (half-Indian, played by Susan Kohler) is undecided. 

Comanche Todd:  “We’ve got six bullets, and that idiot uses up three of them on a stinkin’ rattler you could kill with a stick.”

The relationships develop while Todd guides them toward safety, with death lurking constantly around every corner.  Eventually Todd saves a patrol of soldiers, who then take him into custody.  The final scene is Todd’s trial before General Oliver O. Howard, where it comes out that the sheriff and his three rotten brothers had raped and killed Todd’s Comanche wife and son and had left him for dead.  He’d been hunting them ever since. 

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Delmer Daves, like John Sturges, is one of those directors from the 1950s whose westerns are usually worth watching.  So is this.  Although it’s quite watchable, however, it’s not smoothly plotted.  The ending doesn’t have the same edge that the rest of the film does.  Widmark is excellent as Todd, keeping us unsure how bad or good Comanche Todd is, and Felicia Farr is also very good.  At this stage of his career, Widmark was playing both bad guys (The Law and Jake Wade) and good guys (Sturges’ Backlash and this) in westerns, although he had made his initial reputation ten years earlier playing psychotic killers in films noir.  To see Farr in another western, she plays the girl who catches Glenn Ford’s interest in a barroom and delays him long enough that he gets captured in the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957), also directed by Delmer Daves.  She’s also in Daves’ JubalThis film is better looking than much of Daves’ work.  Shot in color (Cinemascope and Technicolor) in Sedona, Arizona.  98 minutes.  Music is by Lionel Newman, younger brother of Alfred Newman.

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7th Cavalry

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 20, 2014

Seventh Cavalry—Randolph Scott, Barbara Hale, Jay C. Flippen, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey, Jr., Michael Pate (1956; Dir:  Joseph E. Lewis)

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The producer on the credits is Harry Joe Brown, Randolph Scott’s partner in Ranown, the production company that produced most of Budd Beotticher’s westerns with Randolph Scott.  And this appears to be a Scott-Brown production.

It’s not as good as the best Boetticher stuff.  This cavalry movie stars Scott as Captain Tom Benson, first seen approaching Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory with his fiancée Martha Kellogg (Barbara Hale) to find nobody there.  The 7th Cavalry, which had been based there, has now been mostly destroyed by the Sioux-Cheyenne allies at the Little Bighorn, and the few survivors straggle in as Benson watches.  The survivors and others blame Benson for cowardice, not realizing or not believing that Custer ordered him to go get his bride.  That includes her father, General Kellogg, who never liked Benson anyway and is at Fort Lincoln conducting hearings on what happened.

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Benson (Randolph Scott) and fiancee (Barbara Hale) are distressed to find nobody holding the fort

Benson, a former gambler and faro dealer, was close friends with Custer and resists versions of the events that would impute bad judgment to Custer.  With his military career and his marriage in question now, Benson leads a detail of prisoners from the guardhouse on a mission to retrieve the bodies of the officers.  It’s dangerous because the Sioux hold the ground and now believe it to hold big medicine for them.  Benson has fights on his hands with a couple of his men, and insubordination from others.

They make it to the battlefield site and begin to collect remains.  The Sioux appear and make it clear that they do not intend for Custer’s remains to be taken, and they surround the small detail.  Cpl. Morrison (Harry Carey, Jr.) rides into Fort Lincoln and talks to Martha, telling her he was standing beside Custer when he ordered Benson to retrieve her instead of going to Little Bighorn.  He then rides out after Benson’s detail, riding Custer’s second horse, Dandy.

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Almost to the battlefield, Morrison is shot off his horse by an Indian.  Riderless, Dandy makes his way to Benson’s beleaguered body collection detail.  The bugler sounds charge, and Dandy charges in.  The Sioux recognize Custer’s horse and take that as a sign that the detail is to be allowed to depart.  Apparently Morrison’s news about Custer’s order has changed Gen. Kellogg’s view of Benson, and everything is fine now back at the fort.

This takes the old school view of Custer as a gallant soldier.  Within ten or fifteen years, the revisionist view of Custer as a foolhardy glory hound would be more common, fueled in part by disillusionment with the Vietnam-era military.  Randolph Scott is fine, with excellent military bearing, although he seems a bit old for Barbara Hale, since he was nearing 60.  She is also fine, although there is nothing remarkable in her part.  The movie is short, at around 75 minutes, which doesn’t give enough time to answer all the questions that arise in the course of the story.  Based on a short story by Glendon Swarthout.  In color.

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Trooper Hook

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 14, 2014

Trooper Hook—Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Earl Holliman, Royal Dano, John Dehner, Edward Andrews, Rodolfo Acosta (1957; Dir:  Charles Marquis Warren)

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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 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.

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Sergeant Rutledge

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 3, 2014

Sergeant Rutledge—Jeffrey Hunter, Woody Strode, Constance Towers, Juano Hernandez, Willis Bouchey, Billie Burke, Carleton Young (1960; Dir:  John Ford)

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A late John Ford movie, a combination of a pretty good cavalry movie with a so-so courtroom drama.  Woody Strode is the eponymous sergeant in the 9th Cavalry, ex-slave and now buffalo soldier First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge.  Stationed at Fort Linton in Arizona Territory, he is accused of the murder of his commanding officer and the rape and murder of the officer’s daughter.  The story moves around in time, built around testimony at Rutledge’s court martial.  The prosecutor is Capt. Shattuck (a persnickety Carleton Young), sent from Gen. Nelson Miles’ headquarters for the assignment.  Defense counsel is the apparently overmatched Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), who has long served with Rutledge and likes and admires him. 

As the story develops, largely in flashbacks, Rutledge is wounded on the night of the killings and flees Fort Linton.  He thereafter kills several renegade Mescalero Apaches and saves Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) who has just returned from the east.  Rutledge is captured by Cantrell’s patrol, escapes custody and saves the patrol, only to be finally returned to Fort Linton as a prisoner.  His patent nobility is such we never think he actually did what he is accused of, and the eventual solution and confession seem to come out of nowhere—somewhat like that in Ford’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln. 

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Woody Strode, always kind of a wooden actor more comfortable in a supporting role, gives his best performance here, and Hunter and Towers are fine, although we don’t really care much about their supposed romance.  Hunter doesn’t have a lot of acting heft, and Towers (previously used by Ford in The Horse Soldiers) seems like an actress from the 1930s.  The movie just seems to be lacking a bit in star power.  This was Billie Burke’s final movie, and, at 76, she plays the flibberty-gibbet wife of Col. Fosgate (Willis Bouchey, age 53). 

This is one of Ford’s last movies, and it is not top-flight Ford—kind of like Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn in that regard.  Still quite watchable, though.  It features Ford’s usual excellent use of Monument Valley.  Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck.  In color, even though Ford was still shooting some movies in black and white (e.g., The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).  One looks in vain for John Wayne, James Stewart, Richard Widmark or somebody of similar stature.

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Jeffrey Hunter as Lt. Tom Cantrell, with his buffalo soldiers.

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Cavalry Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 29, 2014

Cavalry Westerns:

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The U.S. Cavalry has been showing up in westerns almost as long as there have been westerns.  Cavalry movies as a subgenre came into their own right after World War II, with John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, and continued to be popular up to the Vietnam era, around 1972.  Then they largely disappeared, after Ulzana’s Raid.

The list below, which is admittedly incomplete, is a collection of westerns in which the cavalry plays some significant role in the plot.  The cavalry shows up briefly in Stagecoach, for example, but it does very little in the movie aside from chasing off the Apaches at the last minute in stereotypical fashion.  So Stagecoach is not really considered a cavalry movie.  The best of these cavalry movies have a post of their own, and more of them will have posts in due course.  If you have a nomination for a cavalry movie that is not on the list, leave a comment.  We’re always adding more as they come to our attention.

The sublists involve themes one finds only in cavalry westerns, or in military movies generally:  Dealing with the Wrong-Headed Commander, Teaching the Young Lieutenant, Managing Mutinous Troopers, The Old Scout Who’s Almost Outside the Military, and the use of Indian Scouts, usually Apaches of questionable loyalty.

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John Wayne as Capt. Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, one of the most visual of cavalry movies.

The Plainsman (1937; Sioux and Cheyennes, southern plains to Dakotas)

Santa Fe Trail (1940; pre-Civil War, chasing John Brown across Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry)

They Died With Their Boots On (1941; Custer, Civil War and the Sioux)

Fort Apache (1948; Cochise’s Apaches, Arizona)

Station West (1948; Arizona)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949; Sioux, Cheyennes, etc.)

Ambush (1950; Apaches, Arizona)

Two Flags West (1950; Civil War, New Mexico)

Rio Grande (1950; Texas-New Mexico, Apaches)

Rocky Mountain (1950; Civil War, southern California, Shoshonis)

Tomahawk (1951, Red Cloud’s War and Fetterman Massacre, Wyoming, Sioux)

Apache Drums (1951, Mescalero Apaches, Arizona)

The Last Outpost (1951; Post-Civil War, Confederate raiders, Arizona)

Only the Valiant (1951; Apaches, New Mexico)

Slaughter Trail (1951, Navajos, New Mexico)

Red Mountain (1951; Civil War, Confederate Raiders, Colorado)

Warpath (1951; Sioux, Dakotas)

Wild Stallion (1952)

Bugles in the Afternoon (1952; Dakotas)

Springfield Rifle (1952; Colorado, Civil War)

Last of the Comanches (1953; Comanches)

Thunder Over the Plains (1953; Reconstruction Texas, Vigilantes)

Escape from Fort Bravo (1953; Civil War, Apaches, Arizona)

Hondo (1953; Apaches, Arizona)

War Paint (1953; Death Valley)

Conquest of Cochise (1953; Apaches, Arizona)

Charge at Feather River (1953; Cheyennes)

War Arrow (1953; Kiowas, Texas)

Seminole (1953, Seminoles, Florida)

Column South (1953; Apaches, Navajos)

Drum Beat (1954; Modoc War, California-Oregon)

Arrow in the Dust (1954; Nebraska-Wyoming, Pawnees and Apaches)

They Rode West (1954; Kiowas, Comanches)

Battle of Rogue River (1954; Pre-Civil War, Oregon)

Sitting Bull (1954; Sioux, Northern Plains)

Southwest Passage (1954, camels vs. Apaches, Arizona-N.M.)

The Yellow Tomahawk (1954; Cheyennes)

The Command (1954)

Saskatchewan (1954; Sioux in Canada)

Smoke Signal (1955; Utes, Grand Canyon)

The Gun That Won the West (1955; Sioux, Red Cloud’s War, Wyoming)

The Last Frontier (1955; Sioux, Red Cloud’s War, Wyoming-Montana)

7th Cavalry (1956; In the Wake of Custer, Dakotas-Montana)

Comanche (1956; Comanches, Texas)

Pillars of the Sky (1956; Yakima War, 1855, Oregon-Washington)

Trooper Hook (1957; Apaches, Arizona)

Run of the Arrow (1957; Sioux, Red Cloud’s War)

Ride Out for Revenge–Calhoun (1957; Cheyennes, Colorado?)

Tomahawk Trail (1957; Apaches, Arizona)

Revolt at Fort Laramie (1957; Civil War/Red Cloud’s Sioux, Wyoming)

Escort West (1958; Modocs, California?)           

Fort Bowie (1958; Apaches, Arizona)

Oregon Passage (1958, Shoshones, Oregon)

Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958; Apaches, New Mexico)

Apache Territory (1958; Apaches, Arizona)

Fort Massacre (1958; Apaches, Arizona)

They Came to Cordura (1959; Mexican revolution)

The Wonderful Country (1959, chasing Apaches in Mexico)

Yellowstone Kelly (1959; Sioux, Montana)

The Horse Soldiers (1959, Union Cavalry, Civil War in the East)

Pillars of the Sky (1868, Palouse War, Oregon)

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Buffalo soldiers on patrol in Sgt. Rutledge.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960; Apaches, Arizona)

Two Rode Together (1961; Comanches, Texas)

A Thunder of Drums (1961; Apaches, Arizona)

Sergeants 3 (1962; Indian Territory, 1870)

Cheyenne Autumn  (1964; Cheyennes, Oklahoma to Montana)

A Distant Trumpet (1964; 1883, Apaches, Arizona)

Advance to the Rear (1964; Civil War, comedy)

Major Dundee (1965; Civil War, Apaches, Mexico)

The Great Sioux Massacre (1965; Sioux, Custer in the Dakotas)

The Hallelujah Trail (1965; Cheyennes, Colorado, comedy)

The Glory Guys (1965; a Custer-figure in the Southwest, like Fort Apache)

Fort Courageous (1965)

Alvarez Kelly (1966; Confederate Cavalry, Civil War in the East)

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Duel at Diablo

Duel at Diablo (1966; Apaches, Arizona)

Savage Pampas (1966; Argentina)

A Time for Killing (1967; Confederates, Utah to Mexico)

Custer of the West (1967; Sioux and Cheyennes, Kansas, Dakotas, Montana)

40 Guns to Apache Pass (1967; Apaches, Arizona)    

Chuka (1967; Arapahoes, 1876, New Mexico?)

Soldier Blue (1970; Southern Cheyennes)       

The Bravos (1972; Kiowas, New Mexico?)         

Ulzana’s Raid (1971; Apaches, Arizona)

The Revengers (1972; Comanches)

Dances With Wolves (1990, Lakotas)

Geronimo:  An American Legend (1993; Apaches, Arizona and Mexico) 

In Pursuit of Honor (MfTV, 1995)

Buffalo Soldiers (MfTV, 1997)  

Hostiles (2017, Comanches and Cheyennes) 

 CavFtApache Henry Fonda in Fort Apache.    

The Wrong-Headed Commander

Fort Apache

Two Flags West

Ambush

Bugles in the Afternoon

Seminole

War Arrow

Column South

The Yellow Tomahawk

Fort Bowie

Tomahawk Trail

The Last Frontier

7th Cavalry

Saskatchewan

Run of the Arrow

Comanche

Ride Out for Revenge

Oregon Passage

Yellowstone Kelly

The Raiders

The Glory Guys

Custer of the West

Fort Courageous

Chuka

Little Big Man

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Bruce Davison and Burt Lancaster in Ulzana’s Raid.             

Teaching the Lieutenant

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Hondo

A Thunder of Drums

A Distant Trumpet

Ulzana’s Raid

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John Russell and Joel McCrea in Fort Massacre.

Mutinous Troopers

Only the Valiant

War Paint

The Command

7th Cavalry

Revolt at Fort Laramie

Saskatchewan

Apache Territory

Fort Massacre

They Came to Cordura

Fort Utah

Chuka

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John Wayne as Hondo Lane in Hondo.

The Old Scout

Ambush (Robert Taylor and John McIntire)

Hondo (John Wayne and Ward Bond)

The Yellow Tomahawk (Rory Calhoun)

Apache Territory (Rory Calhoun)

Yellowstone Kelly (Clint Walker)

Major Dundee (James Coburn)

Duel at Diablo (James Garner)

The Stalking Moon (Gregory Peck)

Valdez Is Coming (Burt Lancaster)

Ulzana’s Raid (Burt Lancaster)

Geronimo:  An American Legend (Robert Duvall)

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Jorge Luke as Ke-Ni-Tay in Ulzana’s Raid.

Indian Scouts

Ambush

War Arrow

Apache Drums

Tomahawk Trail

Oregon Passage

A Distant Trumpet

Major Dundee

Ulzana’s Raid

Geronimo:  An American Legend

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The Last Frontier

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 11, 2014

The Last Frontier—Victor Mature, Guy Madison, Robert Preston, Anne Bancroft, James Whitmore, Pat Hogan (1955; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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Since this is an Anthony Mann western (albeit without James Stewart), there are not one but two psychologically tortured characters.  The first is Jed Cooper, an almost feral man-child played by Victor Mature, a trapper who has apparently been raised in the wilderness by Gus (James Whitmore).  The other is Col. Frank Marston (Robert Preston), who got 1500 men killed in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and is now referred to as “the Butcher of Shiloh.”  He seems both unbalanced by that experience and surprisingly confident in himself. 

It’s 1864 in the mountains of northern Wyoming and southern Montana, the land roamed primarily by the Sioux.  Three mountain men-fur trappers (Gus, Jed and Mungo, an Indian of unspecified tribe) are taking the results of their annual labors to sell, when they are stopped by Indians who are painted for war.  It turns out they are led by Red Cloud, who takes their guns, horses and furs and tells them they are no longer welcome in his lands because of the new fort built by white men.

The three decide to head for newly-built Fort Shallan (fictional, apparently), which is understaffed because of the Civil War still raging in the east.  Capt. Glenn Riordan (Guy Madison) is in charge, since his commanding officer was killed by Indians.  He takes on the three as civilian scouts.  Jed is fascinated by the military and civilization and its trappings, although he’s never been around white people much.  Riordan won’t let him enlist in the military, judging correctly that he’s temperamentally and developmentally unsuited to such a regimented life.  Jed is also taken with Corinna Marston (a blond Anne Bancroft), wife of the missing Col. Marston.  She’s having none of his roughness, though.  For now.

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Jed (Victor Mature) and Mrs. Marston (Anne Bancroft).

Marston has been commanding Fort Medford (also fictional), from which his forces have been driven off and which has been burned to the ground by Indians.  He arrives with a few soldiers and by virtue of his higher rank assumes command at Fort Shallan.  Marston is obsessed with getting back at the Indians in battle, whereas Riordan thinks the only hope for survival in hostile territory is to wait out the approaching winter in the fort, after which the Civil War may end and allow for more troops to be sent out to this remote wilderness.  Fort Shallan’s troops are both untrained and too few to attack the Indians with any chance of success. 

It also becomes clear that there are tensions between the Marstons in their marriage.  And Jed and Corinna become more attracted to each other; that is, Corinna allows Jed to get closer.  He never had much restraint about his attraction to her.

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Col. Marston (Robert Preston) trapped in a bear pit.

Marston insists on accompanying a patrol stocking up on water near Red Cloud’s camp.  He and Jed scout the camp and Marston falls into a bear trap pit.  Jed refuses to help him out of it unless he agrees to give up his foolhardy plans to attack the Indians.  Back at the the fort, Gus and Corinna talk him into rescuing Marston anyway.  Marston gloats, “She wouldn’t let you do it, would she?”

Far from giving up his plans for attack, Marston proceeds with them.  He encourages a sadistic sergeant to attack Jed and when the fight results in the sergeant’s death, Marston calls for Jed’s execution.  Jed escapes into the forest and observes as Marston leads out a force guided by Gus.  The force is ambushed by Sioux, and Jed joins in the fighting, leading as many of the soldiers as can disengage back to Fort Shallan.  Both Gus and Marston are killed.  In the final scene, Jed is shown as a sergeant in a blue uniform at Fort Shellan in the winter.  Corrina Marston is still there.   Mungo (Pat Hogan) has gone back to the mountains.

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Jed scouts during the foolhardy battle with the Sioux.

Somehow that seems an unsatisfying ending for a spirit as independent as Jed’s.  Mann said that the ending was forced on him by the studio.  Victor Mature seems a little old to be as wild as Jed acts sometimes, but he’s fine.  Mature was actually eight years older than James Whitmore, who plays his father-figure Gus and is said in the film to have raised him.  The best performance in this film is given by Robert Preston as the snakily out-of-kilter Col. Marston (reminiscent perhaps of the Captain Queeg character who provokes a mutiny in the the World War II story The Caine Mutiny).  Madison is good as Riordan, and Anne Bancroft is fine as Corinna. 

This is a watchable western, but not among Mann’s best.  Based on the novel “The Gilded Rooster” by Richard Emery Roberts.  In color, 98 minutes.  Not to be confused with a 1986 television movie with the same title, set in Australia and directed by Simon Wincer.   On television, this has sometimes been shown with the title Savage Wilderness.  Although the story is set in the Northern Rockies, filming was done on location in Mexico.  That snow-capped mountain looming above the fort and the forests is Mt. Popocatapetl.

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Historically, the events in this seem a little premature.  Red Cloud’s War is usually dated from 1866 to 1868, when it was ended by the Treaty of Fort Laramie and the U.S. army gave up Fort Phil Kearney, which was burned to the ground by the Sioux as soon as it was vacated.  It’s still generally considered the only white-Indian war in U.S. history which the Indians won.  The effects of that victory lasted only eight years, however, until the next Sioux war, in which Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was wiped out but the Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahoes were forced onto reservations and lost these lands in Wyoming and Montana.   Some summaries place the events of this film in Oregon, perhaps because of the reference to Fort Medford and the beautiful mountain scenery, but Red Cloud’s war never got anywhere close to Oregon.  It was concentrated along the Bozeman Trail from central Wyoming to the gold mines of western Montana.

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They Died With Their Boots On

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 26, 2013

They Died With Their Boots On—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy, Sidney Greenstreet, Anthony Quinn, John Litel, George Grapewin, Hattie McDaniel, Jim Thorpe (1941; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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From the heyday of the Flynn-de Havilland partnership comes this old-fashioned, adulatory and not-very-factual biopic of George Armstrong Custer, depicting both his Civil War service and his demise at the Little Bighorn.  In fact, it was their eighth film in seven years and their last film together.  Errol Flynn in a mullet is Custer; De Havilland is his wife Libby.  This was clearly a big budget production for its time, and it has a longer-than-average running time, too—140 minutes.  Flynn and De Havilland are watchable, but the plot neither makes much sense nor does it follow history very well. 

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Plebe Custer doesn’t get along with Ned Sharp at West Point.

The first half of the movie shows Custer at West Point, doing badly, making it into the Union army during the Civil War as a cavalry commander, wooing and marrying his wife Elizabeth Bacon, developing a headlong and heedless attacking style and then becoming an Indian fighter after the war.  In the later portion of his career, it shows him fighting on behalf of the Indians against those dishonest whites who would sell them alcohol, not slaughtering them in search of further military acclaim.  And, of course, in the end he dies with his entire Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.

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Taking a final leave of Libby before heading for the Little Bighorn.  And Custer still doesn’t get along with Ned Sharp.

The historical Custer was a relentless glory hound without much scruple.  This film captures his headstrong quality but makes him out to be much more admirable and somewhat smarter than he actually was.  Flynn was always watchable at this stage of his career, and de Havilland makes an admirable Libby.  A young Arthur Kennedy is Ned Sharp, an unscrupulous Civil War nemesis of Custer and a later an unscrupulous sutler whom Custer tricks into dying with the Seventh Cavalry.  A young Anthony Quinn is Crazy Horse, who was never captured by Custer as this movie depicts.  The plot points about Custer cleaning up Fort Lincoln and fighting a corrupt Indian agent-supply system are fiction.  Here Custer fights supposedly fictional reports of gold in the Black Hills; actually, Custer led the expedition that first found gold there, and he abetted the influx of whites to the area instead of resisting it.  The movie omits the massacre of peaceful Cheyennes that Custer carried out on the Washita.

DiedBootsLastStand2 At his last stand.

DiedBootsRealCusters The real Custers.

Worth watching for Flynn and de Havilland, and to get a sense of how Custer used to be seen 70 years ago after his widow had spent the 50 years after his death publicly tending the flame of his heroic memory.  (The real Libby died in 1933.)  The action is good.  Well made for its time.  Hattie McDaniel is what she usually was, a mammy-type domestic to young Libby—a stereotype that doesn’t play so well now.  George Grapewin is California Joe, a crusty and colorful civilian scout for Custer.  Sidney Greenstreet is Gen. Winfield Scott, who initially advances Custer’s career (although it seems unlikely the two ever really met and the elderly Scott played no active role in the Civil War).  An aging Jim Thorpe was said to have been an uncredited extra on this movie, and he claimed to have decked a belligerent (and typically drunk) Flynn.  Custer was as bad a student at West Point as this movie depicts, however.  The depiction of Indians is fairly sympathetic for 1941.  In colorful black and white.  Music by Max Steiner.

DiedBoots2StarsWalsh Walsh with his stars.

Raoul Walsh was a main-line director from 1913 into the 1960s, today remembered more for gangster movies (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat) than for westerns, although he made a number of those, too.  This one goes with his The Big Trail (1931, starring John Wayne in his first leading role) and Colorado Territory (1949, a remake of his High Sierra in an older western setting with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo) as eminently watchable examples of his work in westerns.  One of his earliest films was a quasi-documentary The Life of General Villa (1912 and 1914, both now lost), starring Villa himself.  Walsh, who did some directing with Christy Cabanne, had a bit part playing Villa as a young man, although his career as an actor was largely over by 1915.  The Villa film was made when Walsh was only 19 and Villa was still regularly in the U.S. news in a positive way, two years before his attack on Columbus, New Mexico, provoked a punitive (and largely futile) expedition under Gen. Pershing.  The film has apparently been lost, and its making became the subject of a 2003 HBO film And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself.

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Alvarez Kelly

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 21, 2013

Alvarez Kelly—William Holden, Richard Widmark, Janice Rule, Patrick O’Neal, Harry Carey, Jr., Victoria Shaw (1966; Dir:  Edward Dmytryk)

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Mexican national Alvarez Kelly (William Holden) has brought a large herd of cattle to Alabama in 1864 at the request of the Union army.  Now that they’ve arrived, Col. Stedman (Patrick O’Neal), a Massachusetts lawyer in civilian life, insists they go by train to a location outside of Richmond, Virginia.  Kelly grudgingly complies and is paid at the Warwick farm.  Mrs. Warwick (Victoria Shaw), a southern belle, has arranged for Virginia cavalry (the so-called Comanches, led by one-eyed Col. Tom Rossiter [Richard Widmark]), to steal both Kelly and his cattle, on the theory that the Confederates are a lot hungrier than the Yankees, in part because their money isn’t any good. 

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Rossiter (Richard Widmark) and Kelly (William Holden) negotiate.

The relentlessly non-affiliated Kelly is hard to persuade until Rossiter shoots off a finger and threatens to shoot off the others unless Kelly agrees to go along.  Meanwhile, in part for revenge because of his mutilated hand, Kelly arranges to help Rossiter’s fiancée Liz Pickering (Janice Rule) escape Richmond aboard a Scottish ship bound for New York.  There is a not-terribly-convincing sequence where Kelly demonstrates that regular cavalry men don’t possess the skills to drive catlle.  Rossiter instructs Kelly’s watchdog Hatcher to kill Kelly if anything happens to Rossiter. 

Stedman figures out where Rossiter is heading with the herd and positions his men and a few artillery pieces to stop them at a bridge.  Kelly stampedes the cattle over the bridge and into the Black Swamp and on to Richmond.  At the end there is a not-terribly-convincing rapprochement between Kelly and Rossiter, and Rossiter even shoots Hatcher to keep him from killing Kelly at the bridge.

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Rossiter and the Confederates aren’t so good at herding cattle.

The story is based on an actual event from the Civil War—Gen. Wade Hampton’s “Beefsteak” raid of September 1864.  Holden is good, but was said to be suffering through a particularly bad bout with his alcoholism.  Production was held up for six months when Holden contracted salmonella.  The stars, Holden and Widmark, as well as director Dmytryk, were said to have reservations about the film’s script, which isn’t all that strong.  It’s hard to rehabilitate a character like Rossiter after the shooting-off-the finger incident; usually somebody who’d do that is an irredeemable bad guy, as in The Man from Laramie.  Whether the movie works at all depends on the two leads playing off each other, and they’re both excellent actors.  Holden and Widmark remained lifelong friends after the filming.  In color, filmed near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Steve McQueen was filming parts of Nevada Smith at the same time.    

alvarezkellyPoster2 French poster.

Ukrainian/Canadian/Californian Edward Dmytryk, who had been directing movies since 1935 and became known for his films noirs by the end of the 1940s, was one of the “Hollywood Ten” in 1948 and was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress.  Consequently he was among those blacklisted in the 1950s, but he was making his way back by the middle of the decade.  He made only five westerns, the best of which was probably 1959’s Warlock, with Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark and Anthony Quinn.  Second would be Broken Lance (1954), with Spencer Tracy and Richard Widmark.  But this might be the third best from a good director.  It would make a good double feature with John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959), another Civil War movie, also with William Holden as one of the leads and also with good battle scenes.

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Escape from Fort Bravo

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 10, 2013

Escape from Fort Bravo—William Holden, Eleanor Parker, John Forsyth, Richard Anderson, William Demarest, Polly Bergen (1953; Dir:  John Sturges)

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One of the best of the early John Sturges westerns.  Filmed in Death Valley and New Mexico, Sturges is obviously playing visually with the stunning desert landscapes throughout the movie.  The movie makes good use of color, if you’re watching a clear print.  Apparently there are problems with some DVDs.  Cinematography is by Robert Surtees. 

Fort Bravo is supposedly located in Arizona Territory during the Civil War (1863), when the war is not yet decided.  Confederate soldiers are held there under loose conditions; they may even outnumber their captors.  The fort is surrounded by hostile Mescalero Apaches in league with Cochise’s Chiricauhuas.  The main character is the implacable Captain Roper, convincingly played by William Holden.  He’s the one who deals with Confederates who escape, chasing them down in hostile territory and bringing them back.  John Forsyth is the leader of the Confederates, including a small group that is planning an escape.  (Echoes of the future Sturges WWII movie The Great Escape, to be made a decade later.)

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The sullen Confederate captives are led by John Forsyth (center).

Eleanor Parker shows up as Carla Forester, an elegant Texas friend of the post commandant’s daughter (Polly Bergen) who’s getting married, and also the film’s principal romantic interest.  In fact, she’s there to set up the Confederate escape.  While doing so, she plays the hardened Roper, who falls in love with her.  She is more a Howard Hawksian female than a John Ford one—one who comes close to the edges of propriety in her relationship with Roper while she’s playing him.  The escape takes place, and Carla joins the escapees.  Roper is ordered to go after them, and the Apaches are after them all.  Roper does capture them, and they start to fight their way back to the fort.  The fight back is desperate; this is one of those cavalry movies (like, for example, Fort Apache) that depicts the Indians as good tacticians. 

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Sultry Confederate spy Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker) plays Lt. Roper (William Holden) as he falls for her.

Escape from Fort Bravo belongs to that small category of  cavalry westerns, along with Two Flags West and Major Dundee, that has Yankees and Rebs fighting side by side against the Indians.  The supporting cast is good, especially crusty William Demarest as the oldest Confederate.  Richard Anderson is decent as Lt. Beecher, a young Union junior officer.  John Forsyth is elusive as the Confederate commander, who has his own romantic interest in Carla. 

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Lt. Roper (William Holden) faces a hopeless situation, vastly outnumbered by Apaches while trapped in the desert.

The film is not without weaknesses:  Eleanor Parker seems way too glitzy in dress and makeup for (a) the 19th century and especially for (b) a frontier post.   She also doesn’t seem very Texan.  The ending is abrupt and not entirely convincing, with the Apaches taking care of some of the difficult decisions.  It would be good to see at least a little of how Roper and Carla work things out instead of just watching them ride into the sunset with Carla’s betrayal unresolved.  Maybe a little more backstory on Carla would be interesting.  But this is a good, watchable western.

William Holden is the center of the movie and his flinty personality and determination make it work.  The film came out the same year that Holden won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17.  He’s equally good here.  Eleanor Parker didn’t show up in westerns much.  If you’d care for another look at her, this time in a colonial-period western, she plays an aw-shucks-type backwoods female who is after mountain man Robert Taylor in Many Rivers to Cross (1955).

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