Having previously highlighted some of the Westerns I saw as a child in the 1950s I figured it was time to revisit those halcyon days and take a look at some of the other cowboy movies from that era.
There’s a mixture here of both short and long reviews, the longer ones written fairly recently as I’m now retired, giving me the opportunity to write about some of my favourite Westerns in more detail than I used to.
Broken Arrow (1950)
Beautifully shot on location in Arizona, “Broken Arrow” is the first in a series of Westerns directed by Delmer Dave, who went on to helm a number of other well-known examples of the genre including “Drum Beat”, “Jubal” and “3:10 to Yuma”.
As with “Drum Beat”, “Broken Arrow” is based upon real life characters, in this case, army scout Tom Jeffords, played by James Stewart, and the famous Apache chief, Cochise, a part that Jeff Chandler appeared in a further two times in “The Battle of Apache Pass” and “Taza, Son of Cochise”.
The romance between Jeffords and the young Apache maid Sonseeahray, played by a then fifteen-year-old Debra Paget (gasp) is, however, pure Hollywood fiction.
Stewart provides a narrative voiceover throughout the proceedings in that distinctive down-home folksy voice of his, even when describing watching a man tortured to death by the Apaches for having been found with the scalps of three of their fellow tribesmen on him.
After helping to heal a young wounded Apache boy, Jeffords finds himself at odds with the local townsfolk, including Indian hater Ben Slade (Will Geer), who is all for wiping Cochise and his tribe out.
Convinced that he might be able to influence Cochise to make peace Jeffords quickly learns to speak Apache and, after ingratiating himself with the chief, and meeting his future wife Sonseeahray in the process, helps to broker the terms and conditions of a treaty between the Apaches and the military, represented by General Oliver Howard (Basil Ruysdael).
Inevitably, the whole thing nearly gets scuppered by the intervention of Slade and his cronies, Sonseeahray dying in a shootout between the warring factions.
“Broken Arrow” is generally considered to be one of the first major Hollywood Westerns to feature a more sympathetic attitude towards Native Americans, for which it has been rightly lauded.
However, the message is somewhat diluted by casting Jeff Chandler, an Israeli actor, as Cochise, as well as the very white American actress Debra Paget as the doomed Soneseeahray.
On the other hand Jay ‘Tonto’ Silverheels, a genuine descendant of a famous Mohawk Chieftain takes on the role of Geronimo, a part that he, just like Chandler, reprised again a couple of years later in “The Battle of Apache Pass”.
It was a double whammy for James Stewart and cowboy fans in general seeing as “Broken Arrow” and “Winchester 73” hit the screen almost at the same time back in 1950, the latter the first in the classic series of cowboy films the actor starred in for Anthony Mann.
Two Flags West (1950)
Directed by Robert Wise, someone not usually associated with the Western genre, “Two Flags West”, filmed in black and white, is one of a number of so-called ‘galvanised Yankee’ movies from the same era such as “Escape from Fort Bravo” and “Revolt at Fort Laramie” in which former Confederate soldiers swear allegiance to the flag and enlist side-by-side in the Union army.
In “Two Flags West” their job is to help maintain peace on the frontier as regards marauding Apache tribes, even though the North and South are still waging war against each other.
Leading the charge for the Confederacy is Lt. Clay Tucker (Joseph Cotton), with the likes of Lem (a pre-‘Wells Fargo’ Dale Robertson), Sgt Pickens (Arthur Hunnicutt), Sgt. Duffy (Jay C. Flippen) and Corporal Cy Davis (Noah Beery Jr. riding alongside of him. The Union is represented by Captain Mark Bradford (Cornel Wilde), Major Henry Kenniston (Jeff Chandler) and Sgt. Duffy (Jay C. Flippen).
Bradford is assigned the task of persuading Clay Tucker to enlist with the North or remain in prison with his men until the Civil War has ended.
When the incarcerated Confederate soldiers vote fifty / fifty on the subject Tucker is for riding with Bradford, declaring he wants to go home alive one day, and not in a pine box. Upon arriving at Fort Thorn Tucker and his Confederate men make the acquaintance of Major Kenniston, a dyed-in-the-wool martinet who has been relegated to command the fort after being wounded in battle against the South.
At a somewhat restrained dinner party, it is revealed that Tucker lead the charge against the Union in a battle which saw the death of Kenniston’s brother.
To make matters worse his dead brother’s wife Elena (Linda Darnell) is also dining with them. Tucker politely makes his excuses and leaves to see to the comfort of his men rather than argue further with his superiors.
Further tension arises when it becomes obvious Bradford shows a keen romantic interest in Elena, something Kenniston disapproves of, having feelings for his sister-in-law himself.
Whilst out on patrol the soldiers chance upon a dead family and their burnt out wagon resulting from an attack by a group of Kiowa warriors under the command of Chief Satank, a man described as ‘worse than the Apaches”.
Tucker and his men ride off in pursuit of the Kiowas, only to be recalled by Kennington who reprimands his new Confederate charges for nearly running into a trap.
As part of the agreement that the Confederates would ride alongside the Union soldiers a promise was made that no Southern recruit would be required to do harm to another Southerner. Kenniston knowingly breaks this agreement by ordering Tucker to execute a couple of Southern prisoners found guilty of running guns to the Kiowas.
Upon realising they have been duped Tucker and his men decide to make a break for it as soon as possible.
In what at first appears to be a conciliatory move on behalf of Kennington he agrees to let Tucker and the other Confederates escort a wagon train through hostile country whilst informing Bradford of his suspicion that the soldiers will try to escape.
Elena, under the impression she is going to be allowed to leave with the wagon train, is then informed by her brother-in-law that she cannot go, Kennington now telling her in so many words that he enjoys her company.
She disobeys him and hides in the back of one of the wagons where she is found by Bradford who decides to keep this from Kenniston. When his commander finds that Elena has indeed left with the wagon train and that Bradford knew she was going he confines the captain to quarters.
Into the midst of all this appears a Confederate agent by the name of Ephraim Strong (Harry von Zell) who tricks Kennington into thinking he is an undercover agent for the Union but he’s actually a Confederate agent.
Riding with the wagon train he persuades Tucker to go back to the fort with his men instead of deserting otherwise it might endanger a bold Confederate plan for the South to take over California.
Kenniston is naturally surprised but still suspicious that Tucker has returned after handing the wagon train over to another fort but he’s even more surprised that Elena has been brought back as well, his feelings for now in the open to the point where she declares that his obsession for her makes her ‘feel unclean’.
The following day Kennington dials up the beserkometer after Chief Satank arrives at the fort to demand the release of his recently-captured son. He informs the chief he can have his son back right away, neglecting to mention he is first going to have the son shot first. This naturally riles the chief somewhat.
Meanwhile, Tucker and Bradford have been sent out on patrol to track down a bunch of wagons leaving a mysterious trail out in the brush.
Tucker overpowers his Union friend and orders Pickens to take Bradford back to the fort. When Pickens returns with Bradford they inform Tucker that Fort Thorn is under siege from Satank and his warriors.
Being a man of honour, Tucker decides to go back to help Kennington and the occupants of the fort, his men bravely falling in behind him.
The Confederate soldiers make it through Satank’s forces to the fort and attempt to fight off the Kiowas, Bradford dying in the ensuing battle along with Confederate corporal Davis.
When Satank and his men retreat for the night Kennington realises they’ll be overwhelmed in the morning by the Kiowas and sacrifices himself in order to placate Satank for killing his son.
Kennington walks stoically out of the fort to his death, leaving Tucker in charge of the fort. After scraping his mutilated corpse up from the dust the following morning news arrives that the Civil War is nearly over which means the Confederate soldiers can now go home to Dixie.
The winning side rather tactlessly breaks into song with a chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, whilst the Rebs fight back with a spirited rendition of “Dixie Land”.
Walking through the remnants of the destroyed fort Elena informs Tucker that “It will all be better tomorrow” and if that isn’t s direct lift from the end of “Gone With the Wind” I’ll eat my boots and saddle.
A good film with an impressive performance from Jeff Chandler as a somewhat psychologically twisted individual.
Only the Valiant (1951)
“Only the Valiant” has a sterling collection of talent behind as well as in front of the camera. The film is directed by Gordon Douglas who oversaw many action films back in the 1950s and 60s including “Yellowstone Kelly” (1958) and “Rio Conchos” (1964).
The story is based upon a novel by Charles Marquis Warren who turned to directing, specialising mainly in Westerns such as “Springfield Rifle” (1952) and “Arrowhead”.
A battle rages between the Apache and the military inhabitants of Fort Invincible, the marauding tribe having slaughtered most of the soldiers before they are interrupted by the arrival of a troop of soldiers led by Captain Richard Lance (Gregory Peck).
By sheer luck, they manage to apprehend the Apache chief Tucsos (Michael Ansara) who scout Joe Harmony (Jeff Corey) advises needs to be executed there and then. The strict by-the-book Captain Lance demurs, ordering Tucsos to be imprisoned at nearby Fort Winston instead.
Once back at Fort Winston Corporal Timothy Gilchrist (Ward Bond) expresses his doubts about Lance’s style of command whilst an ailing Colonel Drumm (Herbert Hayes) informs Lance that he almost wished Tucsos had been shot instead of being brought back alive.
There is a real danger of being overwhelmed should the Apache attempt to rescue their chief before a relief command arrives in ten days. Drumm, therefore, orders Lance to arrange a detail to take Tucsos to Fort Grant the following day, which Lance decides to command himself.
Lance and Lieutenant William Holloway (Gig Young) are both courting Cathy Eversham (Barbara Payton) although it’s obvious she is more enamoured of the captain.
Sergeant Ben Murdock (Neville Brand) is not happy about being ordered to accompany the captain when they leave for Fort Grant, telling Gilchrist it would be easier if the troop all committed suicide instead.
Gilchrist says he feels the same way but despite “hating Lance’s black heart” Gilchrist is of the opinion that his martinet commander is ”still the best officer I’ve ever served under”. Murdock then turns his ire on Trooper Onstot (Steve Brodie), a ‘dirty Reb’ who it seems has deserted at some point but has yet to be sentenced by Lance for going AWOL.
Drumm finds out Lance has assigned himself to take Tucsos to Fort Grant and tells him angrily that he’s the only officer he can depend on and that he needs to assign Holloway to command the escort Tucsos instead.
Cathy then gets hold of the wrong end of the stick and calls Lance cruel for ordering Holloway to take over from him instead. The emotionally stifled ‘never complain and never explain’ attitude of Lance means that she doesn’t find out he was only following orders from the Colonel.
The inevitable happens and the remnants of the troop return three days later with the body of Holloway, one of the survivors, Trooper Kebussyan (Lon Chaney), attempting to strangle Lance and ending up in the guardhouse.
Harmony reports that in his opinion Tucsos will attack Fort Winston in the next couple of days. Lance suggests he takes a small group of handpicked men to try and keep Tucsos and his warriors cooped up behind the pass near Fort Invincible and hold the Apache there until the relief column arrives.
The ‘volunteers’ number Murdock, Gilchrist, Kebussyan, Onstot, Trooper Rutledge (Warner Anderson), Trumpeter Saxton (Terry Kilburn), Lieutenant Jerry Winters (Dan Riss) and Joe Harmony.
Once they reach Fort Invincible the undercurrents of hatred directed at Lance come to the surface.
Kebussyan is intent on murdering the captain, holding him responsible for the death of Holloway. Murdock resents him for having been passed over for promotion three times whilst Gilchrist isn’t happy that Lance has taken possession of the extra water canisters which Gilchrist had filled with whisky before setting out from Fort Winston.
Lance has brought along a cache of dynamite to use in the event they are overrun by the Apache, Rutledge reporting that the explosives have been placed near the exit to the pass through which the enemy will appear at any given moment.
The last forty minutes or so of the film take on overtones of a murder mystery as first of all Kebussyan attempts to kill Lance by toppling a huge rock on to him, unseen characters fire at Lance while’s he’s asleep and Harmony returns from a scouting trip during which he has been caught and tortured by the Apache.
The shots fired at Lance pierce the extra water canteens, revealing to him that they are filled with whiskey, something which now causes him great concern as he has kept from the men the fact that the water stream below the fort is all played out.
A badly wounded Harmony tells Lance that Tucsos knows the relief column due from Fort Grant consists only of thirty-one men after which he then promptly dies.
Once the scout is buried, Lance informs each member of the company the reasons why they were chosen specifically to help defend Fort Invincible, mainly down to the fact that they are a rabble of cowards, deserters, drunkards, bullies, liars and killers who would not be missed back at Fort Grant.
Onstot and Murdoch are kidnapped in the night by the Apache after which Tucsos’s men attempt to break out of the pass but are driven back by the soldiers in the fort.
Lance orders Lieutenant Winters to intercept the relief column and get them to ride to their aid instead of going to Fort Winston. As he rides off Winters is shot by a wounded Apache but still manages to stay on his horse.
In an attempt to get Tucsos and his warriors to surrender, Lance intends to have one of the explosive charges set off to scare the Apache but Rutledge turns out to be a traitor, having stripped the dynamite of their firing caps. Lance promises he will have him hung once they return to Fort Winston.
A sudden attack by the Apache at night takes out one of the men and leaves Kebussyan with an arrow in his shoulder which Lance removes for him.
A grateful Kebussyan volunteers to keep guard as Lance goes off to reset the dynamite located at the entrance to the pass. Kebussyan sacrifices his life so that Lance can get the chance to blow up the entrance to the pass to stop the attacking Apaches.
Whilst all of this is happening Onstot and Murdoch punch it out just before being put to death by their captors.
The three remaining men comprising Lance, Gilchrist and Trumpeter Saxton attempt to take on the Apache once more but luckily the relief column arrives just in the nick of time and hand out a healthy dose of Manifest Destiny via the business end of a Gatling gun.
An angry Tucsos attempts to kill Lance in hand-to-hand combat and ends up being sent to the happy hunting grounds instead.
Returning to Fort Winston Lance is informed he’s now in charge as Colonel Drumm has been retired due to ill health. Not only that but Cathy has seen the error of her ways and realises she was wrong about the whole Lance / Holloway thing.
“Only the Valiant” has Gregory Peck at his stoic best and this is a very entertaining cavalry vs Indians oater, with plenty of action to engage even those who might not be fans of the genre.
The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
Based upon the novel by Stephen Crane, “The Red Badge of Courage” was intended as a prestige MGM attraction but fell victim to studio politics during production. The end result was a much curtailed version that was cut from a running time of two hours to just sixty-nine minutes.
The remaining footage, however, still retains the power to engage the audience, leaving you to wonder how good the original version might have been.
Directed by John Huston in a style reminiscent of the film noir movies of the 1940s, the black and white photography, use of deep focus and filming the characters close to the camera serve to convey the stress and terror of combat, the Union soldiers trapped by their own need to demonstrate courage under fire.
The most impressive performance comes from an unlikely source with genuine WWII hero Audie Murphy playing Henry “The Youth” Fleming, a ‘mental outcast’ who feels alone with his own fear.
Once called upon to fight, Henry flees from the action but eventually gets a shot at redemption when he is knocked out and then returned to his regiment by the “Cheery Soldier”, played by Andy Devine in a two-minute cameo.
With renewed courage Henry and his comrade Tom “The Loud Soldier” Wilson, played by Bill Mauldin, take the Confederate flag and are celebrated as genuine heroes.
Once the battle is won Henry confesses his lack of courage from the day before, only to find out that Wilson and a lot of other soldiers also tried to take a powder but were caught and forced to stay in the front line.
The cast includes a number of familiar faces including Arthur Hunnicutt as the no-nonsense Bill Porter, John Dierkes as the Tall Soldier and Royal Dano as the Tattered Man.
A voice-over narration quotes passages verbatim from the novel, a device incorporated by the studio to compensate for the nearly one hour of excluded footage. That and the semi-documentary approach adopted by Huston didn’t help either, the film ultimately losing half a million dollars at the box office.
Lillian Ross, a journalist for “The New Yorker”, wrote a highly acclaimed book in 1952 on the debacle surrounding the production of the film entitled “Picture”.
Considered to be a classic exercise in film journalism, the book is well worth a read for those interested in the making of this memorable yet flawed movie.
Distant Drums (1954)
Directed by Raoul Walsh, “Distant Drums” is not so much a Western, more of a historical drama set in the Florida Everglades of the 1840s.
It’s also a virtual remake of an earlier Walsh movie, “Objective Burma!” but instead of Errol Flynn, we get Gary Cooper as Captain Quincy Wyatt, tasked by his superiors to destroy a fort in the middle of the jungle which is being used by Spanish gun runners to supply the local Seminole tribe with weapons.
Things don’t go quite according to plan with Wyatt and his men, now accompanied by a group of prisoners they have rescued from the fort, forced to march into the swamps in order to evade capture from the by now very angry Seminole tribe.
Present and correct in the ranks are a small handful of cowboy character actors including Arthur Hunnicutt, Ray Teal and Sheb Wooley. The love interest is supplied by Mari Aldon as one of the hostages rescued by Wyatt’s men, the lady turning out not to be the socialite she wants everyone to think she is but sporting a very pretty pair of legs all the same.
Luckily for her, those legs don’t end up inside one of the many gators roaming the swamps for human meat although one unlucky trooper still gets served up for lunch anyway.
The one scene that definitely echoes “Objective Burma!” is when some of Wyatt’s men are captured by the Seminoles and, instead of being tortured to death as in the earlier film, are thrown into a pit full of hungry reptiles.
“Distant Drums” comes across at times as a cross between an adventure film and a travelogue, with plenty of stock footage sequences of the Everglades.
On the other hand, Gary Cooper is at his staunch granite-jawed best and the cinemaphotography shows the Florida landscape at its best.
Part 4 Of Our Look At The Best Western Movies Of The 1950s
High Noon (1952)
“High Noon” has the unenviable reputation of being dismissed by both John Wayne and Howards Hawks as respectively “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life” and “[the sheriff] runs around like a wet chicken trying to get people to help and eventually his Quaker wife saves his guts. I said that’s ridiculous.
The man wasn’t a professional.” JW and Hawks would produce their own riposte to “High Noon” seven years later with “Rio Bravo”, in which sheriff John T. Chance makes a point of turning down any offer of assistance.
Told in real-time from the minute the clock strikes noon, the film concerns the return to town of outlaw Frank Miller on the very day that the man who put him in jail, Will Kane, played by Cooper, marries Quaker girl Ann Fowler, played by Grace Kelly who was at the time nearly thirty years younger than Cooper.
Miller, played by Ian MacDonald, along with his three cronies Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), Jim Pierce (a particularly evil-looking Robert J. Wilke and Jack Colby (a silent Lee van Cleef making his screen debut) go looking for Kane, who by this time has fallen out with his new wife due to her non-violent religious beliefs.
Despite this, she ends up shooting one of the killers in the back then literally offers up Miller to Kane by scratching at his face and lowering his guard so that Kane can deliver the coup de grace.
Along with a great supporting cast including Katie Jurado, Lloyd Bridges and Lon Chaney, the film also contains one of the most famous movie themes of all time, “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin”, which was a regular earworm for every Western fan back in the 1950s and sung on the soundtrack by Tex Ritter.
Gary Cooper won his second Best Actor Oscar for “High Noon” and, unable to be present at the ceremony himself, nominated his good friend, Mr. John Wayne, to pick up the Oscar on his behalf.
Trivia note: Cameraman Floy Crosby, father of the recently deceased folk-singer David Crosby, placed the camera between the rails in a small pit to catch an overhead shot of the locomotive chugging into town. The train driver didn’t stop in time and demolished the camera, although the footage was saved intact and used in the film.
Last of the Comanches (1953)
Directed by Andre De Toth, “Last of the Comanches” is apparently based upon the WWII Humphrey Bogart movie “Sahara”, which was released ten years before in 1943.
The film intriguingly starts with a cavalry platoon under siege in the town of Dry Buttes by Comanche chief Black Cloud and his warriors. Broderick Crawford in typical Dan ‘Highway Patrol’ Mathews mode as cavalry Sgt. Major Matt Trainor assumes command of his men after the death of his superior officer, Lt Floyd (Steve Forrest).
The Comanche surround the town drive a large herd of wild horses through it and then attack, massacring everyone but six lone souls headed up by Trainor, a wounded Corporal Floyd (Jack Woody), Private Martinez (Ric Roman), Private Rusty Potter (Mickey Shaughnessy), Private Billy Creel (Martin Milner) and Private Jim Starbuck (Lloyd Bridges).
Forced to flee into the desert with little water left to sustain the six of them, they start to make their way towards Fort Macklin which is at least a hundred miles away.
Suddenly they encounter a stagecoach headed towards the town of Dry Buttes, the driver and passengers unaware the town has been wiped out. Trainor suggests they all try to get to the fort, now accompanied by the passengers including elegant Julia Lanning (Barbara Hale), Henry Ruppert (Chubby Johnson), Satterlee the Prophet ((Milton Parsons) and stagecoach driver Romany O’Rattigan (George Matthews).
Rattigan informs his new companions that he has a spare cargo of water on the coach. The bad news is that the minute they start their journey the group comes under attack from some of Black Clouds’ men.
Trainor turns the tables on the Comanche warriors, ordering Rattigan to turn the coach around and attack their pursuers instead, which is an interesting twist on the usual stagecoach chase.
Unfortunately, the water barrel at the back of the coach ends up full of bullet holes, putting the group back to square one.
Trainor’s autocratic manner starts to irritate both Ruppert and Julia who informs the gruff sergeant she is the sister of Major Lanning, Trainor’s superior officer, back at Fort Macklin.
Making their way to an old adobe dwelling where they think there might be some water the travellers chance upon a man called Vogler (Hugh Sanders) out in the open desert cooking food.
Starbuck realises he has seen Vogler before but knew him instead as Denver Kinnaird, a gambler who killed one of Starbuck’s fellow soldiers in a card game. Trainor puts Kinnaird under arrest to be put on trial back at the fort.
While searching for water at the adobe ruins they chance upon a buried cache of brand new rifles instead, the kind wielded by Black Clouds men in the attack on Dry Buttes.
Loading up the stagecoach with the extra rifles and ammunition Trainor comes clean with everyone about the lack of water, limiting everyone to just one swallow and keeping one canteen for the passengers and the remaining water for the horses.
Rusty and Billy keep watch at night, Billy turning out to be the archetypal doom-laden soldier who just knows he’s not going to make it back in one piece.
Showing more of a softer side to his character Trainor offers water to a young Kiowa warrior by the name of Little Knife (Johnny Stewart) who they find stranded in the desert after he escaped capture from Black Cloud.
Shortly after Floyd expires from his wounds and lack of water Little Knife reveals he knows where to find more water. When the plucky travellers arrive at yet another adobe ruined dwelling in the middle of nowhere Little Knife locates the well and is instrumental in saving the lives of his newfound friends.
Intent on making for the fort as soon as possible, Trainor estimates it will take about eleven hours to get enough water from the slowly trickling underground stream before they can resume their journey.
Whilst the water supply is being built up Romany reveals he was transporting dynamite to the town of Dry Buttes, something Trainor dismisses for the moment.
Two of Black Clouds’ scouts approach the ruins looking for water. Captured by Trainor and his men they disclose that the Comanche war party will be arriving soon, desperate for the water.
Trainor sends the scouts back to Black Cloud, intending to try and take on and hold the Comanche long enough to get word to the fort of their whereabouts, thus hopefully defeating Black Cloud and his warriors in the process.
Little Knife is chosen to try and get to Fort Macklin and inform Major Lanning of the situation and come to the rescue as soon as possible.
After the perimeter of the adobe ruins is boobytrapped with dynamite Trainor tells everyone to get to their positions and wait for the arrival of Black Cloud and his men.
When the Comanche finally arrive they are lured to the perimeter where a large contingent of Black Cloud’s warriors is sent to the happy hunting ground courtesy of the dynamite.
It’s at this point that Martinez is discovered dead at his post, the first casualty of the skirmish.
The Comanche call a truce, telling Trainor they will let him and the group go if they give up their weapons. Trainor counter offers with a demand that Black Cloud and his warriors give up his weapons in exchange for water instead.
With both sides now at an impasse the Comanche defy Hollywood Western film convention and launch a fresh attack at night, spiriting away the horses of the defenders and killing Henry Ruppert who dies a hero.
After another powwow which ends with Romany, standing in for Trainor, getting shot in the back, Starbuck discovers Kinnaid has a concealed bill of sale for carbines on his person, revealing Kinnaid to be a gun runner for Black Cloud. Rushing to inform the Comanches that Trainor and everyone else is running out of water, Kinnaid is taken down by Starbuck who then takes two arrows in return from Black Clouds’ men.
Rusty is the next one to buy it, skewered on an arrow whilst reminiscing about a dance hall girl, so at least he died happy.
By now the defenders are out of water and nearly out of ammunition, Trainor lovingly gives Julia a loaded pistol with which she can blow her brains out in case the Comanche overrun them and subject her to a fate worse than death.
Just when it looks as though it’s game over for the good guys and gals the cavalry arrive just in the nick of time, Little Knife having managed to reach the fort and raise the alarm.
Billy, Satterlee, Romany and Little Knife line up alongside Trainor, they and Trainor giving the salute to their rescuer, Major Lanning. Trainor counts off those who died, knowing that they would have hoped they had ‘died for something that was worthwhile.’
This is a great addition to the many cavalry vs Indian movies released in the 1950s, although there are some anachronisms in the screenplay that obviously eluded the script supervisor.
Most if not all of them are down to Broderick Crawford’s dialogue in which he asks someone if they’re “on the level”, randomly commenting “that figures” at some point in the proceedings and, my personal favourite, suggesting it’s time to “get down to cases”.
These utterances indicate Crawford was playing Dan Mathews a good two years before he took on the role in 1955. Ten-four and out.
The Indian Fighter (1956)
Another little gem of a Western from director Andre De Toth, “The Indian Fighter”, released in December 1955 is a colourful mid-1950s Cinemascope Western starring Kirk Douglas in his prime in the title role of Indian fighter Johnny Hawks.
The script, co-written by Ben Hecht of “Scarface” and “Gunga Din” fame, is quite snappy and knowing at times. At the beginning of the film in which Hawks is beguiled by the sight of naked maiden Onahti, played by Elsa Martinelli, swimming in a nearby river in a rather risqué scene for its time, Red Cloud telling Johnny he’s heard about the Civil War and was hoping “you were going to kill each off”.
“It didn’t last that long”, Johnny asserts.
“Too bad” Red Cloud replies.
Johnny is in a bit of a hurry to get to the nearest fort from where he is then required to escort a wagon train through Red Cloud’s land.
He decides to hang around a spell in order to get more of an eyeful of Onahti, suggesting the film might have been better titled “The Indian Womaniser”.
Red Cloud warns him not to get too excited over the discovery of gold on Sioux land, pointing to a couple of corpses hanging from a tree. Johnny then strips to his waist and invades the personal space of Onahti with an unwanted kiss whilst Red Cloud’s brother Gray Wolf looks on in anger.
The following morning a couple of nasty white men, Wes Todd and a man known only as Chivington played respectively by a pre-fame and quite nasty Walter Matthau and horror movie legend Lon Chaney Jr., try and exchange whisky for gold with a couple of Sioux tribesmen, Todd shooting one of them dead and ending up tied to a tree to be burnt without ceremony.
Johnny Hawks suggests he takes Todd back to the fort as a witness, seeing as Todd swears Chivington did the killing but first of all he has to engage in trial by combat with Grey Fox, who is all for sending Todd up in smoke.
This being Kirk Douglas he naturally wins the fight, Todd remarking he’d never been so nervous in his life. Hawks smacks him in the mouth with the remark “that ought to settle your nerves”.
During the ride to the fort where Hawks has promised Red Cloud that Todd will be punished by “white man’s justice” he appears to show his true colours by striking a deal with Todd to find more of the gold, making Todd think that’s why Johnny saved his life in the first place.
When they reach the fort Chivington is in full flow in the saloon spinning a tale about murderous Indians scalping his friend who has now inconveniently turned up alive sporting a full head of hair.
Hawks then turns the tables on Todd and gets the commander of the fort to throw both him and Chivington in the guard house. The plan is then to meet with Red Cloud who is arriving at the fort in the morning to discuss keeping the peace so that the wagon train can travel through Sioux land without being relieved of their scalps.
The morning after the signing of the peace treaty Johnny and the wagon train set off, Todd and Chivington going along for the ride on account of having pleaded self-defence in the killing of the Sioux warrior back at Red Cloud’s camp.
Wandering off on his own Johnny stumbles across Onahti in the forest and does what any red-hot blooded male would do in that situation.
He chases and grabs her by the hair, pulls her into the nearest river where they indulge in a cowboy version of Burt Lancaster / Deborah Kerr shenanigans a la tousling in the waves in “From Here To Eternity” after which they are permanently joined at the lips.
In a scene that invites the eternal question “what could possibly go wrong?”, the Sioux turn up at the wagon train to trade during Johnny’s absence. Todd and Chivington, with the help of Trader Joe (Prashant Mishra), lure Crazy Bear away with the promise of whisky in exchange for gold.
Gray Wolf turns up uninvited and stumbles upon Crazy Bear letting on where the ‘yellow gold’ is. Todd stabs him to death after which Crazy Bear gets sent to the happy hunting grounds after killing Trader Joe.
The two remaining villains then raise the alarm, informing the trigger-happy settlers that one of their own has been killed by the Sioux.
The wagon train skedaddles back to the fort whilst Hawks, having prised himself away from the lovely Onahti, kills two of Red Clouds’ warriors after they attempt to exact revenge for the death of Gray Wolf.
Johnny makes it back to the fort only to be nearly lynched by the settlers for abandoning them for a tryst with Onahti. His skin is saved by the commander of the fort and then the timely arrival of Red Cloud and his warriors who attack the fort and try to burn it down.
Johnny requests permission to leave the fort and hunt down Todd and Chivington in order to hand them over to Red Cloud for killing his brother. The fort commander accuses him instead of deserting his post in order to frolic with Onahti so Johnny has no option but to disobey his superiors and go find the villainous duo anyway.
He sneaks into Onahti’s wigwam in order to find out where the gold is located, figuring correctly that’s where he’ll find the two desperadoes.
Johnny gets the drop on Todd and Chivington who are in the process of setting off some dynamite in their hunt for the gold.
Chivington is killed when the explosives go off and Todd is then handed over to Red Cloud to be burnt alive. He makes a run for it but is felled by a flaming arrow in the back which in turn brings on a case of Hollywood Instant Death Syndrome, Todd dying immediately instead of rolling around and screaming in agony which is what would happen to anyone else with a flaming arrow in their back.
The film ends with Red Cloud deciding not to wipe out the fort, the wagon train returning to the trail and Johnny swimming naked with Onahti.
There’s a smattering of familiar faces running through the film including Alan Hale Jr., Elisha Cooke Jr., Ray Teal and Hank Worden, Worden getting two paydays for playing both a jailhouse guard and the whisky-loving Crazy Bear.
“The Indian Fighter” is a typical mid-1950s cavalry and Indian shoot-em-up with the by then obligatory sympathy for the Native Americans thrown in to indicate how much Hollywood had changed their tune towards them.
Also, unusually for him, Cooke Jr. actually makes it to the end of the flick in one piece. What’s even more unusual though is that Ms. Martinelli steadfastly sticks to her German accent.
The Bravados (1958)
Released in June 1958, “The Bravados” starts out as a typical revenge story but there’s an interesting twist at the end.
Gregory Peck, here working with director Henry King in the fifth of the six films they made together, plays rancher Jim Douglass who is tracking a quartet of men responsible for killing his wife.
His vengeful quest takes him to the town of Rio Arriba where the sheriff and local townsfolk have arranged a mass hanging for four miscreants who are due to be executed the following morning for murder, and a right motley crew they are.
Stephen Boyd is Bill Zachary, leader of the doomed quartet comprising Ed Taylor (Albert Salmi), Alfonso Parral (Lee Van Cleef) and Lujan (Henry Silver).
Douglass is in town on the off-chance the four men killed his wife. He also meets up with old flame Josefa played by Joan Collins, who is unaware of why Douglass has come to watch the hanging.
Things take a surprising turn when the hangman arrives, only for it to transpire he’s killed the real executioner and helps the four men break out of jail, although not before the sheriff shoots the bogus executioner dead.
Having discovered that Zachary and the others have kidnapped a local girl as hostage, Douglass heads up a posse and takes off in pursuit.
“The Bravados” is quite a vicious film for its time, what with Zachary raping the young girl before heading for the hills. Peck is typically stoic and stern-faced with a large helping of cold-blooded ice running through his veins as he catches, then literally murders, the desperadoes one by one.
Parral is dispatched as he pleads for his life whilst Taylor is roped, dragged along the ground then hung upside down from the nearest tree. Zachary is eventually cornered in a cantina and shot to death when he goes for his gun.
During the chase, Zachary murders a prospector who lives not far from the ranch owned by Douglass. Lujan hides the money from Zachary that he finds on the dead man and when he finally catches up with him Douglass realises he’s been pursuing and killing the wrong men.
It was the prospector who killed his wife, not the four desperadoes he has hunted down for revenge. Realising his mistake he asks God for forgiveness then walks away from the church arm-in-arm with Josefa and everyone lives happily ever after.
The film was shot mainly on location in Mexico, the landscape captured in all its glory in wide-screen Cinemascope, and Gregory Peck is always worth watching once he climbs onto a horse. Speaking of which…
The Big Country (1958)
When it comes to high, wide and handsome Westerns they don’t come much more higher, more wider and more handsome than “The Big Country”, released in 1958, just a couple of months after “The Bravados”.
Blessed with a theme tune by Jerome Moross that vies with “The Magnificent 7” for most famous cowboy movie soundtrack ever, it’s also quite long, clocking in just fourteen minutes short of three hours.
Despite having cut his teeth on over thirty silent Westerns, director William Wyler is not someone you usually associate with the genre, having only helmed three oaters after 1928, “Hell’s Heroes”, yet another remake of “3 Godfathers”, “The Westerner” and “The Big Country”.
Wyler’s penchant for melodrama serves him well in the last of these, the film replete with conflict betwixt lovers, family and deadly enemies taking centre stage and set against the magnificent scenery of the Mojave desert and the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The plot is essentially a fish-out-of-water story concerning the romance between sea captain James McKay (Gregory Peck) and rancher’s daughter Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker).
McKay walks right into the middle of a range war between Patricia’s father Major Terrill (Charles Bickford) and the Hannassey family, headed up by patriarch Rufus (Burl Ives).
Matters are complicated when it becomes obvious that ranch foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) hankers after Patricia, resulting in a prolonged fistfight after McKay rides off on his own and is accused of getting lost.
McKay knew exactly where he was all the time having navigated by the stars at sea but obviously no one at the ranch had ever heard of a sextant before.
In an attempt to play intermediary between the Terrills and the Hannassey, McKay convinces Patricia’s friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) to sell her watering rights to him, the main source of contention between the warring factions.
When Patricia finds out McKay wants to give access to both her father and the Hannassey, McKay’s good intentions count for nothing and the inevitable confrontation between the Major and Rufus arrives in due course.
Burl Ives walked away with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Rufus but Chuck Connors also makes the most of his role as loose cannon Buck Hannassey, forced by his father to partake in a duel with McKay.
Buck cheats and ends up being shot by his own dad, which I thought was a bit harsh but parents were obviously a lot tougher back then. Charlton Heston plays a supporting part here, although he took on the biggest role of his career in Wyler’s next film in the title role of “Ben-Hur”.
Trivia note: Saul Bass and his wife were tasked with shooting the opening credit sequence which features a stagecoach arriving in town. They only had the hire of the coach for one day so were disappointed on the morning of the shoot to discover it had rained the night before which meant the coach wasn’t going to be throwing any dust in its wake.
To get around this both Bass and his wife concealed themselves out of sight of the camera at the back of the stagecoach and simulated the dust by throwing handfuls of flour behind the vehicle. Now that’s what I call dedication to the cause.
Seeing as we’ve only just touched the surface regarding the literally hundreds of Westerns Hollywood churned out in the 1950s there’s definitely a lot more to come on the subject later on down the line.