Tag Archives: Native Americans (Indians)

Canyon Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2015

Canyon Passage—Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine (1946; Dir: Jacques Tourneur)

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Dana Andrews is remembered these days primarily for such modern roles as he played in Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).  But he was also in several good westerns, such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Three Hours to Kill (1954), Strange Lady in Town (1955)… and this one.

The movie opens in Portland, Oregon, in 1856.  Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is a freighter, running strings of pack mules from San Francisco to Portland.  While in Portland, he gets paid $7000 and arranges to take Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), fiancée of his friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), back to George in Jacksonville in southern Oregon.  He is also attacked by a robber, whom he thinks to be Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) and with whom he has unpleasant history.  The robbery is not successful, and the thief gets away.

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Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) and Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) head south for Jacksonville.

On the way south to Jacksonville, they stop at the ranch of Ben Dance (Andy Devine) and his family, where Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) is staying.  Stuart is attracted to Caroline, but he seems also to have a relationship with Lucy.  At a cabin raising, he asks Caroline to marry him and she accepts, although she wants to stay put and is troubled that Logan is so footloose, constantly concentrating on expanding his freighting business.

Arriving at Jacksonville, Stuart fights Bragg and wins.  Lucy has been putting off setting a date for her marriage to George, but plans to go through with it after she goes to San Francisco with Logan to get a wedding dress.  Meanwhile, George is acting as a banker for miners in Jacksonville.  He has also been gambling and losing, and has been covering his losses by stealing from the gold deposited with him.  We see that George is also a man of restless affections, not limited to Lucy.  Eventually George stands accused of murdering one of his depositors for his gold, and Logan helps him escape before he can be hung.

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George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) finally persuades Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) to set the date for their wedding.

[Spoilers follow.]  As Logan and Lucy head south, they are attacked by Bragg.  They are unhurt, but their horses are killed, and they have to walk back to Jacksonville.  By that time the Jacksonville miners, led by Johnny Steele (Lloyd Bridges), have found and killed George in their absence.  After ambushing Logan, Bragg has also attacked an Indian woman, and now the Indians are torching farms and ranches in retaliation, including Ben Dance’s and Logan’s way stations and general store.  Dance is killed and the Indians are after Caroline Marsh, with Logan and the militia also in pursuit.  The Indians catch Bragg and take care of him, which seems to satisfy them for the moment.  Caroline decides she can’t marry Logan because he won’t settle down in one spot.  So Logan heads to San Francisco again to buy more mules to rebuild his operations.  And Lucy joins him.  They’re better suited to each other than Logan and Caroline were, anyway.

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A suspicious Johnny Steele (Lloyd Bridges) speaks for a band of vengeful miners.

Logan Stuart:  “There was a lot of good in George.”
Johnny Steele:  “He sure panned out no color.”
Logan Stuart:  “There’s a thin margin, Johnny, between what could be and what is.”
Johnny Steele:  “Yeah.  It was thin for you last night.  We were of a mind to hang you.”
Logan Stuart:  “You see how thin the margin is.”

Based on a story by Ernest Haycox, this is stuffed full of complicated and not-too-predictable plot and romantic triangles, densely populated with a good cast.  Dana Andrews plays Logan Stuart with the same stoic independence he did Det. Mark MacPherson in Laura.  Susan Hayward, an excellent and often fiery actress, has kind of a generically-written part that doesn’t really allow her to show what she can do.  She’s better in Rawhide [1951] and Garden of Evil [1954], both with meatier roles for her when she had become a bigger star.

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Ben Dance (Andy Devine) offers Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) a little avuncular advice.

Brian Donlevy didn’t always play villains (see him in Billy the Kid [1941] and Cowboy [1958], for example), but at this stage of his career he’s so identified with bad guys (the corrupt saloon owner Kent in Destry Rides Again and the sadistic Sgt. Markov in Beau Geste, as just two examples from 1939) that we don’t trust him from the start.  The role of George Camrose calls out instead for somebody like Robert Preston, who specialized during the 1940s in friend-gone-bad roles, in which he established himself as charming first.  Ward Bond also has one of his occasional bad guy roles (e.g., The Oklahoma Kid), and he’s very effective.  This has one of Andy Devine’s better roles, too, where he is not used simply as a form of comic relief.  Hoagy Carmichael plays Hi Linnett, supposedly a small merchant, but mostly there to provide musical interludes, as in To Have and Have Not, and to comment on the action.  Carmichael’s song “Ole Buttermilk Sky” got the movie’s only Oscar nomination.  Several of the film’s significant events happen off-camera:  Bragg’s attack on the Indian maiden, the killing of George by the miners’ mob, the killing of Ben Dance by Indians, etc.

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Hoagy Carmichael as minstrel Hi Linnet provides musical interludes, occasional commentary and the film’s only Oscar nomination.

Jacques Tourneur was a good director of westerns, although he wasn’t best known for them in the 1940s.  Later on in the 1950s, he made a few of them (Stars in My Crown, Wichita, etc.) with Joel McCrea.  Ernest Pascal adapted the Haycox story into a screenplay, with some crisp, sometimes even philosophical, dialogue.  Music, except for that provided by Carmichael, is by Frank Skinner.  This was filmed on location in Oregon in color (a rarity for westerns in 1946) by Edward Cronjager, so it must have had a significant budget for its time.  92 minutes.

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Logan Stuart’s mule train wends its way past Oregon’s Crater Lake.

The title doesn’t seem to mean much; there are no obvious canyons involved.  For other “passage” westerns, see Northwest Passage (1940), California Passage (1950), Passage West (1951), Desert Passage (1952) Southwest Passage (1954), Oregon Passage (1957) and Night Passage (1957), which are otherwise unrelated to this one or to each other.

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Buck and the Preacher

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 5, 2015

Buck and the Preacher—Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Cameron Mitchell (1972; Dir: Sidney Poitier)

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The Buck of the title is Sidney Poitier in his second western, playing a former slave and former buffalo soldier who is now a wagon master helping free blacks move west in the face of night riders who are paid to drive them back to their southern homes to pick cotton.  The Preacher is Harry Belafonte, also a former slave, now a con man who uses a religious background for cover.  As you might guess from those two main characters, this western focuses primarily on black characters, a novelty for its time.

After the Civil War, newly free blacks seeking greater freedom than they can find in their Mississippi delta homeland.  The Pecos River is mentioned several times, so they seem to be in Texas.  At the same time, Deshay (Cameron Mitchell, wearing the remnants of a Union uniform of sorts) and his night riders are paid to terrorize them and drive them back to Louisiana, so they will once again be a source of cheap labor.  Deshay is also consumed with finding and killing Buck, for whom he offers a reward of $500.  Buck, trail-wise and good with guns (he has a special pair of cut-down shotguns in holsters, in addition to his regular pistol) is not so easy to find or kill.

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Black families heading west for more freedom.

When Deshay not only hits a wagon train that Buck has led but lays an ambush for Buck at his woman’s cabin, Buck barely escapes.  In his need to keep moving, he switches horses with the Preacher, whom he catches bathing in a stream.  (The Preacher says he is Willis Oakes Rutherford of the High and Low Orders of the Holiness Persuasion Church, but that sounds much too grandiose for the footloose ruffian he appears to be.)  The wagon train Buck is currently leading is hit by Deshay and his men, and Buck heads for Copper Springs, where Deshay is based; the Preacher tags along.  The two of them attack Deshay and his men while they are sporting at Miss Esther’s, killing eight, including Deshay.

Making their escape, they find that Deshay had spent almost all of the $1400 he had stolen from Buck’s people.  To recover it, they decide to rob both the express office and the bank in Copper Springs while the posse is chasing them.  It’s not without incident, but they are successful, and the robbery nets them $1800 each.  The Preacher plans to return to Illinois, but finds his way blocked by the posse on their heels.  As they run for Buck’s wagon train, the pursuers are blocked by Indians (of an unspecified tribe), who say they will allow the blacks passage through their land but will not fight for them.

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The Preacher (Harry Belafonte) and Buck (Sidney Poitier) prepare an assault.

[Spoilers follow.]  Deshay’s nephew kills the Copper Springs sheriff (who appears not to have anything against blacks) and continues the pursuit with the remnants of the posse.  Buck and the Preacher draw them off but are trapped in some rocks, killing several posse members but are also wounded themselves.  As things look hopeless, their Indian guides begin picking off posse members.  In the final scene, the patched-up Buck, the Preacher and Buck’s woman (Ruby Dee) are headed on their way with the wagon train (and presumably the proceeds of the robberies).

This is watchable, but not as good as Poitier’s first western (Duel at Diablo, 1966).  Poitier was the pre-eminent black actor of his time, and, although he is not a natural in westerns, he brings his considerable acting ability and strong sense of dignity and authority to the role.  Belafonte does well as the skeevy Preacher, playing off that dignity.  Ruby Dee is excellent as Buck’s woman, who wants to be freer than Texas allows and maybe move to Canada, but her role, as that of many women in westerns, is mostly extraneous.

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Poitier was here making his first foray into directing (he has nine directing credits), and the direction here is mostly unexceptional.  For what turns out to be mostly an action movie, there are several slow-moving sections, particularly in the first half of the film.  But Poitier and Belafonte get points for putting together and executing something that had largely not been done before.  They also get some credit for not making all the whites unrelievedly nasty (e.g., the decent sheriff of Copper Springs, who does not survive the movie).  In keeping with the spirit of the times, the Indians are all noble and oppressed, too.  Shot in color in Durango, Mexico, at 103 minutes.  Rated R for brief nudity (principally Belafonte’s derriere) and mostly for all the violence.

For other westerns featuring black people, see our post on Blacks in a White and Hispanic West.  For a good western featuring con men (one of whom is black) from about the same time, see Skin Game (1971), with James Garner and Louis Gossett, Jr.  For another black con man in Texas before the Civil War, see Ossie Davis (Ruby Dee’s husband) in The Scalphunters, with Burt Lancaster (1968).

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A Ticket to Tomahawk

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 30, 2015

A Ticket to Tomahawk—Dan Dailey, Anne Baxter, Rory Calhoun, Walter Brennan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Chief Yowlatchie, Will Wright, Connie Gilchrist, Jack Elam, Charles Stevens, Marilyn Monroe (1950; Dir: Richard Sale)

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One more musical number, and this western comedy would have been a full-fledged western musical.  The fictional Tomahawk & Western Railroad needs to get a train to Tomahawk, Colorado, in early September 1876 to fulfill its charter, or it will lose its right to operate there.  But it has enemies, primarily Col. Dawson, who runs the stage line in the area and doesn’t want the competition, and his henchmen; and the disgruntled Arapahoes led by Crooked Knife.  And a few minor problems, such as the fact that of the final sixty miles of the line from Epitaph to Tomahawk, forty of those miles have no track.  (Apparently fabricated in England, the rails were lost in transit off Cape Horn).

A paying passenger has bought the ticket of the title; he is Johnny Behind-the-Deuce (Dan Dailey), a footloose, well-traveled card shark and drummer selling mustache cups.  He arrives in Epitaph in company with Dawson henchmen, who wound Marshal Kit Dodge (veteran character actor Will Wright) so that his straight-shooting granddaughter Kit Dodge Jr. (Anne Baxter) has to take over the effort to get the train the last sixty miles.  And they are joined by Dakota (Rory Calhoun), secretly another of Dawson’s henchmen; Madame Adelaide (Connie Gilchrist) and her troupe of theatrical “ladies”; a Chinese laundryman; and Kit’s stoic Indian watchdog Pawnee (Chief Yowlatchie, best remembered now for his role in the classic Red River).

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Miss Adelaide (Connie Gilchrist), young Kit Dodge (Anne Baxter) and Johnny (Dan Dailey) survey the damaged trestle, backed by Dakota (Rory Calhoun) and Pawnee (Chief Yowlatchie).

Figuring that determination will overcome all obstacles, strings of mules are hitched up to the locomotive to tow it where the tracks don’t go.  Initially that works, until they arrive at Massacre Creek to discover the railroad trestle has been blown up by Dawson’s men. It turns out that Johnny knew Crooked Knife from their time together in a wild west show, and Johnny persuades the Arapahoes to help disassemble the locomotive and get the train up over an alternative route via Funeral Pass.  As the deadline approaches, the train is still just outside of Tomahawk until Johnny convinces the Tomahawk town fathers to extend the city limits to where the locomotive is.  He plans to be on his way, but young Kit has other ideas.  “Maybe you wouldn’t be so loose-footed if I gave you a permanent limp!”

[Spoilers follow.]  In the last scene, Johnny is about to board yet another train.  But finally he puts on the conductor’s hat and bids a temporary farewell to young Kit and their five daughters, who seem to bear the same names as Miss Adelaide’s girls.

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Miss Adelaide (Connie Gilchrist) and her girls. The one in yellow might look familiar.

Of course, none of this is very serious and the sensibility is very much like Annie Get Your Gun, from about the same time.  The gender roles and romantic expectations are very much of the 1950s, too, although Anne Baxter’s role as the younger Kit Dodge is a reversal of sorts.  Dan Dailey showed up in musicals of the time (There’s No Business Like Show Business, Give My Regards to Broadway) but this may have been his only western.  Anne Baxter was an excellent actress, but this isn’t among her most memorable outings generally (All About Eve, The Ten Commandments) or in westerns (Yellow Sky, Three Violent People, Cimarron).

There’s a superb supporting cast, many of whom are underused.  Walter Brennan does his shtick as the engineer of the Emma Sweeney (the locomotive involved).  Rory Calhoun, in the early part of his movie career, keeps to his pattern of playing bad guys in big-budget productions like this (River of No Return, The Spoilers) and good guys in more modest efforts (Dawn at Socorro, Apache Territory).  Arthur Hunnicutt was in his most productive period as a character actor (Two Flags West, Broken Arrow, The Big Sky) but has nothing here as Sad Eyes, the locomotive tender.  If you have quick eyes, you might recognize Marilyn Monroe in an early role as one of Miss Adelaide’s girls; so you would be wrong if you thought her only western was River of No Return (1954), with Robert Mitchum and Rory Calhoun.  Will Wright is perfectly cast as the elder Kit Dodge, and veteran villain (and former studio accountant) Jack Elam shows up without many lines as one of Col. Dawson’s henchmen.

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This is watchable, but not terribly memorable.  Director Richard Sale was known more as a writer (he provided the improbable story and the screenplay for this) than a director, and his directing career (twelve films, of which this was the third) was not particularly notable.  Shot in color, in and around Durango, Colorado, using the Denver & Rio Grande track.  90 minutes.

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The Revengers

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 13, 2015

The Revengers—William Holden, Susan Hayward, Ernest Borgnine, Woody Strode, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jorge Luke, Warren Vanders (1972; Dir: Daniel Mann)

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It is doubtful that “revengers” is even a real word, but you get the idea.  Somebody’s after vengeance in this Dirty-Dozen-style flick.  That would be John Benedict (a visibly aging William Holden at 54, after years of hard living).  He’s a Colorado rancher whose family is slaughtered by Comancheros and their Comanche allies during a horse-stealing raid.  He tracks them down to the borders of the U.S. and Mexico, and figures he needs help.  Spotting a Mexican prison that rents out convict labor, he hires six of their worst inmates.  Leaving the guards behind, he gets the six decent clothes and weapons, but has some difficulty getting their active allegiance (a staple of this kind of film).

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John Benedict (William Holden, upper left) and his newly-recruited gang, including Ernest Borgnine (tall hat) and Woody Strode (front right).

He leads them in an attack on the Comanchero stronghold, getting most of them, but the leader Tarp (Warren Vanders) escapes although wounded.  Depressed at this failure, Benedict drinks heavily and has a falling-out with one of the six, a Mexican gunslinger who fancies that he may be Benedict’s son.  The six scatter, and Benedict, grievously wounded, is tended by the local healer, an Irish nurse of a certain age named Elizabeth Reilly (Susan Hayward).  There is some attraction between them during the time it takes Benedict to heal, but he rides off in search of closure with Tarp. However, he is arrested and thrown in the Mexican prison from which he had helped the six escape.

Two of the six, Hoop (Ernest Borgnine) and Chamaco (Jorge Luke), the Mexican gunslinger, reassemble the six.  They spring Benedict from the Mexican prison and resume the search for Tarp, whom they find held by a small U.S. cavalry unit besieged by Comanches and Comancheros.  They want him back.  Benedict proposes to kill Tarp and send him back to the Comanches that way, but doesn’t proceed with that out of respect for the badly wounded lieutenant in charge.  Benedict and the six join the outnumbered cavalry and use dynamite and a little artillery to make a last stand.  The cavalry wins, but not without casualties.  The lieutenant and the Mexican gunslinger Chamaco are among them.  And Benedict rides away without killing Tarp, having belatedly decided that revenge is an empty motivation.

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The wounded Benedict (William Holden) and Irish nurse Reilly (Susan Hayward) get to know each other.

There are a couple of things about the movie that don’t work very well.  One is the interlude with the Irish nurse (Susan Hayward) that doesn’t really go anywhere. Her accent isn’t good; it clanks as badly as Barbara Stanwyck’s faux-Irish in Union Pacific (1939).  When Hayward makes a reference to the possibility of having children, we notice that she seems to be in her fifties (at 55, she was a year older than Holden and three years away from her death of cancer) and children are improbable.  Benedict is supposed to be good with a gun, but he looks his age, his shoulders are rounded by now, and he’s not all that persuasive as a gunslinger.  And the ending, with Benedict just walking away from the revenge that has been the point of the movie, is similarly unpersuasive.  At the least, you’d expect that one of the remaining five would get Tarp, since they’ve all demonstrated that they’re not good at impulse control.  Most of the six are not well fleshed-out characters, but the film does keep moving.

Daniel Mann (The Rose Tattoo [1955], The Teahouse of the August Moon [1956], Butterfield 8 [1960], Our Man Flint [1966] et al.) didn’t do many westerns; this may be the only one.  Holden and Borgnine (a replacement for Van Heflin after Heflin’s unexpected death) were reunited from The Wild Bunch (1969) for more adventures in Mexico, but this doesn’t remotely approach that classic in quality.  This is Holden’s last western.  Hayward, in her extraneous role, was coming to the end of her career and wasn’t making many movies.  This was written by Wendell Mayes, who had been nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Anatomy of a Murder.(1956), and who went on to write the blockbuster Death Wish and Towering Inferno.  The music occasionally reminds one of 1970s television.  In color, shot in Sonora, Mexico, at 106 minutes.  It was made available on DVD in May 2014, with a blu-ray to come in August 2015.

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Benedict (William Holden) prepares to hold off the Comancheros and their Indian allies.

Although it was released in the heyday of the revisionist westerns of the 1970s, this is more traditional in its approach and sensibility.  For better Holden and Borgnine at this late stage of their careers, see, obviously, The Wild Bunch.  For good Susan Hayward in a western, you have to go back twenty years to Rawhide (1951) and Garden of Evil (1954).

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Red Mountain

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 9, 2015

Red Mountain—Alan Ladd, Lizabeth Scott, Arthur Kennedy, John Ireland, Jay Silverheels, Jeff Corey, Neville Brand (1951; Dir: William Dieterle, John Farrow [uncredited])

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This is one of Alan Ladd’s more elusive, seldom-seen westerns, a Civil War story with an excellent cast.  Ladd plays Brett Sherwood, a captain from Georgia who has gone west in April 1865 to Colorado Territory to meet up with “Gen.” William Quantrell.  (Reality note: Usually spelled “Quantrill,” he was a colonel at best, and he was long dead by this time, having been killed in Missouri.)  The opening scene shows the legs of a person in the town of Broken Branch dismounting and killing an assayer, hiding his identity.  Since a rare form of Confederate ammunition was used, the locals figure that former Confederate soldier Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), paroled after he was captured at Vicksburg, is responsible.

A lynch mob captures Waldron and is about to hang him when Sherwood shoots the rope (a la Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and helps him escape. When Waldron discovers his rescuer is also a Confederate, he figures Sherwood killed the assayer, and, with the help of his fiancée Chris (Lizabeth Scott), he ungratefully captures Sherwood to turn him in and exonerate himself.  Waldron has found a significant gold strike and wants to stay in the area to work it.

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Sherwood (Alan Ladd) meets Gen. William Quantrell (John Ireland) in Colorado.

The upper hand shifts back and forth a couple of times until Waldron’s leg is broken in a scuffle. Sherwood flags down a passing Union patrol, which turns out to be a group of Confederates and their Ute sympathizers led by Gen. Quantrell (John ireland).  Chris, a Union sympathizer who had lived in Lawrence, Kansas, when Quantrell raided there, is horrified.  Sherwood works to keep the two prisoners alive, while Quantrell is pleased to have another military officer and kindred spirit.  Gradually Quantrell reveals plans to foment a larger Indian rebellion (involving Comanches, Cheyennes, Utes and others) in the wake of the Civil War.

Chris is allowed to retrieve a doctor for Waldron, who is in bad shape, but the doctor is killed when Sherwood helps him escape.  Against her better judgment, Chris is falling for Sherwood rather than Waldron, and Quantrell also becomes suspicious.  As Sherwood helps Waldron and Chris defend themselves against the Utes, a real Union patrol attacks Quantrell.  As Quantrell flees, Sherwood takes after him, and gets him in a final shootout.  Waldron is dead of wounds by this time, and, as Sherwood recovers from his own wound, he confesses to the marshal that he killed the assayer.  Sherwood had found a claim in Colorado Territory before the war, and the assayer had stolen it.   Apparently Sherwood and Chris end up together.  (We knew any character played by Arthur Kennedy was unlikely to get the girl.)  Chris knows where Waldron’s gold strike was.  And word reaches them that the Civil War has ended two days earlier.

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Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), Sherwood (Alan Ladd) and Chris (Lizabeth Scott) make their last stand.

Lizabeth Scott, best known for her work in films noirs, is fine here in one of her two westerns (with Silver Lode [1954]).  Alan Ladd makes a sympathetic leading man, as usual, and is obviously becoming more comfortable in westerns than he was in Whispering Smith.  If you haven’t seen him in a western, you should start with Shane and maybe Branded, both from around the same time as this film; but this one isn’t bad aside from the obvious historical impossibilities.  Character actors Jeff Corey and Neville Brand show up in small parts as a couple of Quantrell’s troopers.  Jay Silverheels is Ute chief Little Crow.

William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame [the Charles Laughton version, 1939], Kismet [1944], Portrait of Jennie [1948]) was a mainstream director, not particularly known for westerns.  The uncredited John Farrow directed a few scenes when Dieterle was unavailable during filming.  Music is by Franz Waxman.  Shot in color by Charles Lang around Gallup, New Mexico, at 84 minutes.

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For another western that has Quantrell surviving the war and heading out west to continue his depredations, see Arizona Raiders (1965), with Audie Murphy.

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The Unforgiven

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 18, 2015

The Unforgiven—Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, Charles Bickford, Lilian Gish, John Saxon, Joseph Wiseman, Albert Salmi, Doug McClure (1960;  Dir:  John Huston)

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Audrey Hepburn was an elegant and accomplished actress, but seemingly not a natural in westerns—more a creature of the modern world, with a very slight and vaguely European accent.   This was her only western, and she has kind of a peripheral role, although a controversy about her is the central conflict of the movie.  In fact, she is not well cast here for what her character is supposed to be.  In addition to Hepburn, there is a lot of top talent involved here:  director John Huston, writer Alan LeMay (known for The Searchers), big star Burt Lancaster, and western star Audie Murphy.

The movie opens with an interesting shot of cattle grazing on the sod roof of the Zacharys’ ranch house in the Texas panhandle in the years immediately after the Civil War.  The family patriarch, Will Zachary, had been killed by Kiowas several years previously, and because of the long conflict with the Kiowas many whites, including middle brother Cash Zachary (Audie Murphy), hate Indians.  The Zacharys are partners of a sort in a ranching venture with the Rawlins family headed by Zeb Rawlins (crusty Charles Bickford), left crippled by Kiowa torture some years previously.

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Sister Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) and brother Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster) riding together.

The head of the Zachary family now is oldest brother Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster), first seen returning from Wichita with newly-hired hands to make the long drive back to Wichita with the combined Zachary-Rawlins herd.  The proceeds should make both families financially secure for the first time.  Brother Cash Zachary is good with a gun but hot-headed; youngest brother Andy Zachary is just inexperienced; and sister Rachel Zachary (Audrey Hepburn in dark makeup) is a foundling adopted by the family a couple of decades earlier.

Early in the movie, Rachel encounters a mysterious older figure dressed what appear to be parts of a Confederate uniform, carrying a saber.  He is Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman), who makes cryptic quasi-Biblical pronouncements and may be crazy.  Ma Zachary (Lilian Gish in her second Texas matriarch role, after Duel in the Sun more than ten years earlier) clearly feels threatened by him.  Ben and Cash give chase, and, although they do not catch Kelsey, they kill his horse.

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Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman), who may be crazy, stirs up old wounds.

Rachel Zachary:  “Ben, what did those Indians want?”
Ben Zachary:  “They offered to buy you for those five horses.”
Rachel Zachary:  “Well, did you sell me?”
Ben Zachary, grinning:  “Nope; held out for more horses.”  (In fact, he has just told the Kiowas that there are not enough horses to buy her.)

Meanwhile, young Charlie Rawlins (Albert Salmi, who tended to play thugs or clods—here he’s a clod) is interested in Rachel, although Ben doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about Charlie’s romantic attentions to his (non-genetic) sister.  Kiowas show up, claiming that Abe Kelsey has told them that Rachel is an abducted Kiowa and sister to the Kiowa leader.  As Ben rejects the Kiowa overtures, they respond by killing Charlie Rawlins.  A clearly distraught Ma Rawlins reacts by claiming to believe the Kiowa story, and the Rawlinses threaten to pull out of their partnership with the Zacharys if the story is true.  A combined force of Zachary and Rawlins men hunts down Abe Kelsey when he steals Rachel’s horse.  Under interrogation at the Rawlins ranch, he says that when his own son was captured by the Kiowas years before, he had wanted to trade young Rachel for his son and the Zacharys had refused.  As Kelsey sits on a horse with a noose around his neck, Ma Zachary kicks his horse and he hangs.

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Oldest brother Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster) negotiates with the Kiowas.

[Spoilers follow.]  Back at the Zachary ranch, Ma Zachary admits that when Will Zachary returned from a settler raid on a Kiowa village a couple of decades earlier, the only survivor was an infant girl, who was then adopted by the Zacharys in the place of their recently–deceased baby girl.  That was Rachel.  Cash is having none of it and leaves in a rage.  The Zacharys find themselves besieged by Kiowas and hold out for a day under the leadership of Ben.  Ma is shot and dies because she doesn’t tell anybody about her wound.  The next day, the Kiowas drive the Zachary cattle onto the top of their house, causing the roof to collapse.  Cash returns with ammunition just in time and kills several Kiowas but is wounded a couple of times himself.  Rachel, with only a few rounds in a pistol, is confronted by her Kiowa brother and has to choose between the only family she has known or her Indian heritage.  She shoots the Kiowa brother.  At the end, with their ranch in ruins, the latent romance between Ben and Rachel comes out, and they decide to get married.

This is a typical sort of John Huston movie, with dark secrets from the past influencing or controlling the present.   Burt Lancaster is a strong lead, seldom wearing a hat during the entire movie so his vigorous growth of hair is always on display.  Audie Murphy is perfectly adequate in one of his few A westerns (along with Night Passage).  Lilian Gish is good at being a frontier matriarch haunted by the dark past.  Audrey Hepburn doesn’t look much like an Indian despite her dark makeup, and she has an unusually refined persona for any kind of frontier woman.

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Preparing to receive the Kiowas: Rachel (Audrey Hepburn, in her dark makeup) with her frontier skills.

Huston saw this as a story about racial relations and bigotry; the studio wanted to make sure that it was primarily commercial, and the two concepts do not always make for a comfortable mix.  Some of the dialogue and references to Indians (they are continually referred to as “red-hide Indians” and worse) seems a bit virulent for modern tastes.  It has some themes in common with John Ford’s The Searchers, although in this case it’s an Indian child abducted by whites and not the other way around. Big budget or not, this is watchable but seems somewhat overheated. Music is by Dimitri Tiomkin and cinematography by Franz Planer.  Filmed in color in Durango, Mexico, at 125 minutes. Not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven.

Lancaster’s production company was behind the film, and he initially saw Kirk Douglas in the role of his brother Cash.  That idea was shot down because it was thought that Douglas would alter the balances between the brothers as written in the story.  When it was decided not to use Douglas, Tony Curtis and then Richard Burton were considered for the role before Audie Murphy was ultimately chosen.  Bette Davis turned down the Lilian Gish role because she didn’t want to play Burt Lancaster’s mother.

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The surviving Zacharys: Andy (Doug McClure), Ben (Burt Lancaster), Cash (Audie Murphy) and Rachel (Audrey Hepburn).

Before filming began, director Huston and Lancaster took Lillian Gish out to the desert to teach her how to shoot, which she would have to do in the film.  However, Huston was surprised to discover that Gish could shoot faster and more accurately than either he or Lancaster, who both thought themselves expert marksmen.  It turned out that early in her career during the silent movie era, Gish was taught how to shoot by Oklahoma outlaw Al Jennings, who had become an actor after his release from a long prison sentence for train robbery and was cast in one of her films.  She found that she liked shooting and over the years had developed into an expert shot.

Audrey Hepburn was seriously injured during production when she was thrown by a horse between scenes.  Hepburn, who was pregnant, spent six weeks in the hospital healing from a broken back and, when she returned to the set, was able to complete her role wearing a back brace, which her wardrobe had to be redesigned to hide.  Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage a few months later, which some blamed on her injury from this movie.  Indeed, John Huston blamed himself for the mishap, although Hepburn harbored no ill feelings toward the director.  While Hepburn was in the hospital, Huston filmed scenes using a double.  Of course, it didn’t help Hepburn’s health that her weight fell to 98 pounds during filming, and that she increased her smoking to three packs a day.

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In his autobiography, John Huston describes this film as the only one he ever made that he entirely disliked.  Film critic David Thomson, not usually a Huston admirer, called it his best film.  It pretty clearly is not:  The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen and The Man Who Would Be King all have stronger claims to that honor.

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Canadian Pacific

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 11, 2015

Canadian Pacific—Randolph Scott, Victor Jory, J. Carroll Naish, Nancy Olson, Jane Wyatt, Robert Barrat (1949; Dir: Edwin L. Marin)

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Randolph Scott seemed to have bad luck in romantic triangles in western movies.  In the earlier stages of his career, in Virginia City, Western Union and Jesse James, he was an ethical guy with a shady past or even a good guy in an insipid role, doomed to lose the girl to Errol Flynn, Robert Young and Tyrone Power.  Later in his career, plots of his movies sometimes found him interested in two women, one of whom insists that he give up his guns (Angela Lansbury in A Lawless Street, Jacqueline White in Return of the Bad Men and Jane Wyatt in Canadian Pacific).  In two of those movies he actually ends up with the woman who wants him to change, but in this case Jane Wyatt loses out.

Tom Andrews (Randolph Scott) is a surveyor and troubleshooter for the Canadian Pacific Railway, now trying to find a path over the Rocky Mountains.  The railroad is meeting resistance from the local metis (a group of mixed French-Canadian and Indian ancestry) led by fur trader Dirk Rourke (Victor Jory).  The animosity between Rourke and Andrews is complicated by the fact that they both fancy the same girl—Cecille Gautier (Nancy Olson, in her first significant screen role), daughter of a metis leader.  Andrews finds a pass for the railroad and is not scared off when Rourke takes a shot at him.  He is unsuccessful at dissuading a metis meeting from supporting Rourke, and returns to the railroad.

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Publicity stills of Andrews and his romantic interests:  Cecille Gautier (Nancy Olson) and Tom Andrews (Randolph Scott) in the Canadian Rockies; and Tom Andrews successfully romances the lady doctor (Jane Wyatt).

The railroad extension effort is led by Cornelius Van Horne (Robert Barrat), who persuades Andrews to come back to the railroad instead of marrying Cecille.  Andrews encounters railroad lady doctor Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt), a beautiful and intelligent but priggish easterner with her own hospital railroad car who views him as a gun-wielding barbarian.  Nevertheless, she patches him up from the occasional bullet wound, and presides over his lengthy recovery when he is grievously injured by a dynamite blast triggered by a shot from Rourke.  Meanwhile, Rourke persuades the Blackfoot Indians to attack the railroad, and Cecille rides to warn Andrews.

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Dynamite Dawson (J. Carroll Naish) lives up to his name, smoking a little dynamite with the Blackfeet.

Just recovering after several months and having found an attraction to Dr. Cabot, Andrews leads the defense, while his friend Dynamite Dawson (J. Carroll Naish) rides for help.  During the battle, while Rourke and Andrews are shooting it out, Andrews sees Rourke killed by a convenient falling tree, but not before Rourke has successfully given the signal for the Indians to attack.  At the end, Dr. Cabot can’t forgive Andrews his return to violence, and he ends up with the (much younger) Cecille.  And the railroad goes through.

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Andrews (Randolph Scott) and the railroad men desperately fight off a massive Indian attack from behind a makeshift barricade.

This was an attempt in a way to remake Cecil B. Demille’s Union Pacific story from ten years earlier.  However, the writing isn’t as good and the story doesn’t hang together convincingly.  It was filmed on location in the beautiful Canadian Rockies around Banff National Park.  It was shot in color, but the print hasn’t aged well. 95 minutes long.

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For Randolph Scott enthusiasts, note that this is one of the few instances when he wears (and uses) two guns.  He was more persuasive with one.  And this is one of the earliest appearances of Scott’s famous leather jacket, which would show up periodically in progressively more worn condition for the rest of his career (Hangman’s Knot, Ride the High Country, etc.).  Director Edwin L. Marin was at the helm for several of Scott’s westerns in this era (Abillene Town, Fighting Man of the Plains, The Cariboo Trail, Fort Worth), but his work is generally unremarkable.  For another adventure involving Randolph Scott north of the border, this time with a herd of cattle, see The Cariboo Trail the next year (1950).

This was Nancy Olson’s first significant screen role, and the usually-blond Olson doesn’t seem very persuasive as a dark-haired metis girl.  At 21, she was thirty years younger than Scott.  Next, she went on to one of her biggest screen roles, as screenwriter William Holden’s girlfriend in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.  Other than that, she may be most familiar now for her wholesome work as the frequent girlfriend/wife in Disney comedies of the early 1960s, like The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963).

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Fort Vengeance

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 30, 2015

Fort Vengeance—James Craig, Keith Larson, Rita Moreno, Reginald Denny (1953; Dir: Lesley Selander)

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This low-budget effort from journeyman director Lesley Selander is a northern western.  It takes place in Canada, during Sitting Bull’s sojourn there after fleeing the U.S. in the wake of the Battle of Little Bighorn.  (See Saskatchewan [1954], with Alan Ladd, for another story of Mounties and Sitting Bull in Canada.)

The Ross brothers, Dick (James Craig) and Carey (Keith Larsen), head north from Montana into Canada, pursued by a posse that pulls up at the international border.  Riding into Fort Vengeance, said to the western headquarters of the Mounties (that would actually have been Fort Macleod in southwestern Alberta), Dick applies for a position as a Mountie, although Carey has reservations.  Inspector Trevett (Reginald Denny) leads the Mounties out to the camp of Blackfoot chief Crowfoot, whom Sitting Bull has been trying to convince to join him in an uprising.

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The Ross brothers, Dick (James Craig) and Carey (Keith Larsen), join the Mounties.

Out scouting one day, Carey sees trapper Luboc stealing a cache of Blackfoot furs and convinces him to share the stolen proceeds.  However, Crowfoot’s son Eagle Heart is the owner of the furs and complains to the authorities.  Trader Fitzgibbon has bought the furs, but Eagle Heart can identify them.  Fitzgibbon fingers Luboc as the seller and probable thief.  But Carey gets to the trapper’s cabin first, kills Luboc and then disappears.  Dick goes after and finds him; while Dick is making the arrest Carey is shot by a Sioux warrior.

Meanwhile, Eagle Heart has been blamed for Luboc’s killing, but Dick showing up with Carey’s body and telling the real story vindicates him.  Having seen the Queen’s justice to work in fairness to the Blackfeet, Crowfoot declines to join Sitting Bull.

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Blackfoot chief Crowfoot finds that the Queen’s justice is good.

On the whole, this is lacking in star power and is not one of Selander’s most memorable works.  Rita Moreno plays the half-Indian daughter of Fitzgibbon; Selander often used her as an Indian or Mexican maiden at this early stage of her film career (see Yellow Tomahawk, for example), which she performed without much subtlety.  All the Indians look like white actors, and Sitting Bull is much too young.  If it doesn’t look much like Canada, it was shot at the Ray Corrigan ranch in Simi Valley in southern California.  The red coats and fur hats must have been uncomfortable.

Crowfoot was an actual Blackfoot chief in Canada.  Victor McLaglen’s son Andrew is listed as an assistant director on this, learning his trade before going on to direct Gun the Man Down, McLintock! and The Way West.  In dingy color, at 75 minutes.

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A Distant Trumpet

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 23, 2015

A Distant Trumpet—Troy Donahue, Suzanne Pleshette, James Gregory, Diane McBain, Claude Akins, William Reynolds (1964; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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This ambitious film is a highly fictionalized retelling of the surrender of Geronimo (here called War Eagle) and the supposed role of young Lt. Gatewood (here called Matt Hazard) and Gen. George Crook (here named Alexander Upton Quait).  It’s all based on a novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Paul Horgan, and it’s famed director Raoul Walsh’s last western, and his last movie of any kind.

Fresh from West Point, young 2nd Lt. Matt Hazard (Troy Donahue) is sent to dusty Fort Delivery in southern Arizona Territory, where boredom seems as much an adversary as War Eagle’s Apaches, lurking over the border in Mexico’s Sierra Madres.  Bringing with him White Cloud as an Apache scout, he finds the men at Fort Delivery lax and undisciplined.  The temporary commander of the fort is Lt. Mainwaring (William Reynolds), whose wife Kitty (Suzanne Pleshette) is the only woman at the post.  Mainwaring leads a detail off to retrieve long-requisitioned replacement mounts, while Kitty is supposed to head back to Washington, D.C.  While out collecting lumber, Hazard and his detail are attacked.  The men react badly and flee; Hazard fights and is separated from them.  He rescues Kitty Mainwaring, who was also attacked by Indians, and they spend the night in a cave together before returning to the fort.  Hazard’s attentions are now consumed more by Kitty than they are by his own distant fiancée Laura Frelief (a very blonde Diane McBain), niece to bachelor Gen. Alexander Upton Quait (James Gregory), a famous Apache fighter.

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Lt. Hazard (Troy Donahue) rescues Kitty Mainwaring (Suzanne Pleshette).

Mrs. Kitty Mainwaring:  “You’re a hard man, a duty man.  It’s your only love, really.”
2nd Lt. Matt Hazard:  “Is there a better kind?”
Mrs. Kitty Mainwaring:  “Well, speaking as a normal woman, yes; as an Army woman, no.”

Hazard works at shaping up the men, including the uncooperative Sgt. Kroger.  He also resists the corrupting influence of Seely Jones (Claude Akins) and his troop of prostitutes.  While on patrol, Hazard finds Mainwaring and his men all killed, and uses the opportunity to steal back the remounts and other horses from the Apaches.  Upon returning to the fort, he finds Laura there, along with a new commanding officer, Maj. Hiram Prescott.  Hazard seems more attracted to the newly-widowed Kitty Mainwaring than to Laura, and Laura senses that while making plans for them to be married as quickly as possible.

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Kitty Mainwaring (Suzanne Pleshette) and Laura the fiancee (Diane McBain) engage in a little verbal sparring.

An inquiry led by Gen. Quait seems to take Hazard and Prescott to task, but it’s a sham.  Quait is impressed by Hazard as he leads his men into a battle which is technically a victory but results in War Eagle retreating into Mexico again.  Hazard is sent with White Cloud to persuade War Eagle to surrender on generous terms from Quait.  When Hazard returns successfully, he finds that Quait is no longer in charge, that the terms have been changed, and that all the Indians, including the faithful White Cloud, are to be sent to Florida.

Hazard is summoned to Washington, where he is awarded the Medal of Honor for his feat and promoted to captain long before he otherwise would have been.  Feeling betrayed, however, he and Quait both resign in an attempt to get Pres. Chester Arthur to reverse some of the decisions made.  In the end, Capt. Hazard is shown commanding Fort Delivery and married to Kitty Mainwaring.

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At the big battle.

Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette had enjoyed success with 1962’s Rome Adventure, and Warner Bros. apparently thought their casting in this cavalry tale would appeal to younger audiences.  The year this film was released, Donahue (real name: Merle Johnson) and and Pleshette were married in January and divorced in September.  (Donahue was married four times, and none of the marriages lasted longer than a couple of years.)  Donahue was very attractive in a blonde, hunky sort of way, but as an actor he was limited, and his film career was entering its downhill side as his limitations became more apparent.  The romantic triangle in this film looks doomed from the start, with the fiancée (Diane McBain) played rather unattractively.  Neither 77-year-old director Walsh nor star Donahue would ever make another western; Suzanne Pleshette would show up again in a few years in the comedy Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), with James Garner and Jack Elam.

Obviously intended as a large-budget epic, the movie feels more lightweight than that.  It is visually impressive, with excellent cinematography by William Clothier, and music by Max Steiner.  Shot in color on location in northern Arizona and around Gallup, New Mexico, at 117 minutes.

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Lt. Hazard and White Cloud on their big mission.

A better version of the Geronimo-Gatewood story, using the real names, is Walter Hill’s Geronimo:  An American Legend (1993), with Jason Patric, Matt Damon, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman.  In fact, after Gen. George Crook had done the hard work of getting Geronimo to surrender (a second time), he was supplanted by Nelson Miles, who took the credit and shipped both Geronimo and the Apache scouts who had supported the cavalry off to Florida.  Geronimo died in 1911 at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, having never seen his homeland in Arizona again.  The real disillusioned Lt. Gatewood did not receive the Medal of Honor.

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Arrow in the Dust

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 20, 2015

Arrow In The Dust—Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Tom Tully, Keith Larsen, Tudor Owen, Lee Van Cleef (1954; Dir: Lesley Selander)

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Prolific director Lesley Selander seldom had a lot to work with, either in terms of budget or with casting.  This is one of his better casts.  Sterling Hayden was in a number of westerns and other movies in the mid-1950s, most notably Johnny Guitar (also from 1954).  Coleen Gray is now remembered principally as the girl on the wagon train John Wayne leaves behind in Red River (1948), only to see the Comanches slaughter the rest of the train—and for a smattering of films noir (Kiss of Death, Copper Sky).  Both Hayden and Gray appear together again in Stanley Kubrick’s film noir The Killing (1956).  This is both a wagon train and a cavalry story–as the poster proclaims, a “Flaming Saga of the Savage West.”

Here army deserter Bart Laish (Sterling Hayden) is on the run, somewhere east of Fort Laramie in western Nebraska-eastern Wyoming.  In Indian country, he’s trying to link up with a wagon train for safety as he makes his way west.  This is generally Sioux country, but the Pawnees seem to be on the warpath as well.  He hears of a Major Andy Peppers heading to take command of Camp Taylor, and finds the remnants of a small burnt-out wagon train, with Peppers dying in one of the wagons.  Peppers, it turns out, is his cousin, and they had started at West Point together before Laish had dropped out to become a gambler and gunfighter.  The dying major tries to persuade Laish to find a way to rescue the wagon train ahead.

Maj. Andy Peppers:  “It doesn’t matter what you’ve been or what you’ve done.  There must still be some good left in you.  Or have you changed so much, Bart?”

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Stars Coleen Gray and Sterling Hayden in a publicity still.  And feisty doctor’s daughter Christella Burke (Coleen Gray) fights the attacking Pawnees with the best of them.

Camp Taylor, too, is burned out, and Laish dons Peppers’ uniform and insignia of rank.  He comes upon the wagon train, and he claims to be Peppers.  The few remaining troopers, led by Lt. Steve King (Keith Larsen), take him at face value; the experienced scout, Crowshaw (Tom Tully), has reservations but goes along.  The train itself includes attractive young Christella Burke (Coleen Gray), in whom King is interested, and freighting businessman Tillotson (Tudor Owen) with several wagons.  Laish-Peppers does well enough as the train is under almost continual attack, but Crowshaw knows he’s not Peppers.  They lose people and wagons fighting Pawnees and allied Apaches (?), but get ever nearer to Fort Laramie.  Finally, they discover Tillotson is hauling new Henry repeating rifles, and that’s really what the Indians want.  Tillotson is killed trying to attack Crowshaw, and they destroy his wagon, while Laish-Peppers is wounded fighting a rear guard action while the train moves out.

Laish had intended to leave the train before Fort Laramie to head south for Santa Fe.  But now Christella, who knows his story, Crowshaw and Lt. King will all speak up for him based on how he got the wagon train through, and he decides to go into Fort Laramie with the train.  In 1954, Laish and Christella weren’t allowed to just take off together for California, as they probably would have in real life.  Laish has to face the music, even though it will happen after the end of the movie.  For similar endings, where somebody who’s committed a crime has to give himself up instead of just moving on, see Four Faces West [Joel McCrea], Face of a Fugitive [Fred MacMurray] and The Moonlighter [MacMurray again].  The alternative seemed to be expiating one’s sins by taking a bullet (fatally) while doing something honorable, as Randolph Scott did in Western Union, and not getting the girl.

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Lt. King (Keith Larson) introduces the faux major (Sterling Hayden) to the redoubtable Christella Burke (Coleen Gray).

This is a fairly good story, but it is marred by Selander’s pedestrian direction and by Hayden’s stiff, unnatural demeanor as the false Peppers.  Nevertheless, it’s one of Selander’s better films.  Coleen Gray is very good, and so are Tom Tully and some of the other supporting players.  Lee Van Cleef is one of Tillotson’s henchmen; he does not survive the movie, like his boss.

The writing, by Don Martin. is not dazzling.  In color, at 79 minutes.  Many of the prints of Selander’s low-budget movies from this period were not of good quality originally or have become dingy through poor preservation.

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