One of the very first, if not the first, article I wrote for Mostly Westerns concerned the John Wayne films I remembered seeing as a kid.
Having written more movie reviews than I can count over the last few years on all things JW I thought I’d return to the same theme of childhood but this time rate my top twenty non-JW Westerns in ascending order that I also saw as a kid. Feel free to comment/disagree/agree as I take a walk down memory lane once more in the name of the genre I love the most. Hope you enjoy it.
PS I think it’s safe to say my childhood was over by the time I hit sixteen which means that these reviews only feature films up to and including 1968. After that I ran away from home, roamed the range for a spell, then shot a man in Reno just to watch him die before settling down to raise a wife, eight kids and a herd of cattle.
Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)
Seeing as I was a one year-old when this film was released then it’s a pretty sure bet I caught it on re-release later on. In this relatively little-known John Sturges opus, William Holden plays Union martinet Captain Roper, tasked with overseeing a prison camp which serves as host to rebel soldiers anxious to escape and get back to fighting on behalf of the South.
The Confederate captain, John Marsh, played by John Forsythe, engineers an escape but is captured by Roper who intends bringing him back to the fort and punished accordingly. This is where the fun really starts because as they make their way towards the fort the group is set upon by a bunch of Apache warriors who don’t give a damn which side is Union or Confederate. They just want to kill everyone.
The main set-piece of the film has Roper, his fellow soldiers and prisoners boxed in behind a ridge from which neither they nor the Apaches can see each other. The Apaches decide the only way to flush their victims out is to estimate where the group are, then shoot their arrows into the air, picking off the least-known members of the cast first before hitting pay-dirt with Forsythe.
Naturally, the cavalry comes to the rescue just in the nick of time to save the good guys which is par for the course in this kind of film. I used to get really excited as a kid when a cowboy film had cavalry and Indians in it and this was definitely one of the best. If you haven’t seen it then I thoroughly recommend it, even though it’s nearly as old as I am.
Drum Beat (1954)
I saw “Drum Beat”, directed by Delmer Daves, in a tiny cinema on the Mediterranean island of Malta. I vaguely recall the hero of the film, Alan Ladd, facing down Charles Bronson, as the villain of the piece, with Ladd presumably standing on the ever-present orange box in order to give him more stature than his supposed height of 5 foot 7 inches would allow.
By a strange coincidence that happens to be my height too. Apart from that I don’t really remember anything else, what with me being only about three years old at the time. However, I’m pretty sure I knew enough to know it was a Western, with lots of accompanying cowboy / Indian action, so it obviously stayed in the memory.
Catching it later again on TV, I was surprised to find it was (loosely) based on real events. Bronson’s character, Modoc renegade chief Captain Jack, did actually murder a cavalry general during peace negotiations, for which he was hanged alongside three of his compatriots. It’s not very often you see a film later in life that turns out to be as good as you think you remembered it to be, but this is an exception to that rule.
On the face of it this is just another in a long line of shoot-em-ups barely distinguishable from the literally hundreds of cowboy films Hollywood turned out in the 1950s.
What makes “Wichita” memorable to me, though, is the scene in which a young boy, watching a shoot-out in the street below from an open window, suddenly catches a stray bullet and is thrown backward by the force of the shot.
I can clearly recall feeling very frightened for the poor kid, this still being that period in my life when I had yet to appreciate the concept of film and how it actually worked. To my young and impressionable mind, I saw a little boy being killed, and I didn’t like it one bit.
“Wichita” is yet another retelling of the story of Wyatt Earp, as played by Joel McCrea. It stands up very well to other Westerns of the same period and, like a lot of 1950s cowboy films, there’s quite a nice little supporting cast to luxuriate in, including Jack Elam, Robert J. Wilke and a certain Sam Peckinpah as a bank teller. I wonder whatever happened to him?
The Law and Jake Wade (1958)
Directed by John Sturges, “The Law and Jake Wade” features Robert Taylor as Jake and Richard Widmark playing bad guy Clint Hollister with shades of Tommy Udo from “Kiss of Death”. In the first half hour or so the film establishes the back story to the main characters with Jake as a reformed outlaw turned marshal and Hollister an unapologetic outlaw and killer with hardly any redeeming qualities whatsoever.
The action then moves to a ghost town in the middle of nowhere in which Jake has buried the twenty-thousand dollars he and Hollister had stolen a while back, Jake confessing he’d buried the money then left it where it was in an effort to try and leave the bad times behind and turn over a new leaf.
Unfortunately for all concerned the local Comanche contingency have declared war yet again on all white people resulting in Jake and his trigger happy captors including Henry Silva and Deforest Kelley finding themselves in a whole bunch of trouble.
Clint rides off in pursuit of two Comanche scouts before they can reach their fellow braves and tell them the boys are back in town. Upon his return he discovers that his faithful companions aren’t exactly that faithful anymore, especially when one of them succumbs to death by arrow as the Comanche’s infiltrate the town at night.
Bad guys Wexler and Rennie, played respectively by Kelley and Silva, are also eventually dispatched to the happy hunting grounds. Wexler goes down with one arrow in him whilst Rennie, in the scene that stuck with me from all those years ago when I first saw the film, takes two in the chest in quick succession.
Once the Comanches leave it’s all down to the inevitable face-off between Jake and Hollister and seeing as Robert Taylor has top billing he gets to gun down Widmark like the dirty dog that he is.
The Last Wagon (1956)
Handsomely filmed in Cinemascope, this is another Delmer Daves Western, starring Richard Widmark in the lead role as Comanche Todd, a white man who has thrown his lot in with the local Native Indians.
Todd is the captive of a seriously deranged sheriff by the name of Bull Harper, played in a short-lived cameo by George Matthews. Short-lived on account of Todd burying an axe in him as he attempts to escape after having been chained to a wagon belonging to a group of settlers Harper comes across.
I caught the film on re-release back in 1959 and watching it again after almost sixty years I was reminded of how violent it actually is, which is probably why it made such an impression on me when I was about 7 or 8-years-old.
Mind you, Bull Harper dies the instant the axe gets him, and Widmark dispatches Bull’s brother, played by Timothy Carey, in equally instantaneous fashion, Carey dying the minute the knife goes in.
It’s not all death and mayhem though, but mostly it is. Todd’s Comanche wife has been raped and then murdered along with their two children by the Harper’s. Todd retaliates in a fit of pique and kills three of Harper brothers, for which he is arrested by the sadistic Bull.
After axing Bull, the wagon train is attacked by Apaches and Todd unbelievably survives being thrown over a cliff with the wagon he’s still chained to.
At the time I saw the film I recognised the kid playing young Billy, Tommy Rettig, as the boy in the “Lassie” TV series which is another reason why this movie sticks in the memory.
A Thunder of Drums (1961)
I remember this film so well because it was the main feature on a double bill with an Italian sword and sandals epic “The Colossus of Rhodes”, directed by none other than a pre-“Fistful of Dollars” Sergio Leone.
“A Thunder of Drums” is what was called an “adult film” back in the day, George Hamilton as a typically green around the ears cavalry Lieutenant – the kind they used to ‘frag’ in Vietnam – learning from his ex-girlfriend how he nearly made her pregnant.
That bit obviously went way over my head at the age of nine, but watching it again many years later I’m struck by the quality of the supporting cast including Charles Bronson, Slim Pickens, Arthur O’Connell and – er – Duane Eddy.
The one scene I do remember from when I saw it the first time is towards the end when Hamilton and his superior, played by Richard Boone, go off in search of a cavalry troop that has gone out on patrol and not returned. Boone detects the smell of rotting bodies which eventually leads him to the site of the massacred troops, the camera dwelling for just a few seconds on the horrific carnage inflicted on the men by Apache warriors.
There’s one surprise at the end of the film that I hadn’t noticed until I watched it again recently. Hamilton’s character apologises to Boone for his previously inept behaviour, prompting Boone to reflect that his predecessor at the fort used to have a saying, “Never apologise, it’s a sign of weakness”.
I checked and sure enough, the script is by James Warner Bellah, who also wrote the original source material upon which “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” was partly based. So there it is. “A Thunder of Drums” is an unofficial sequel to “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”.
The Battle of Apache Pass (1952)
Another film I obviously caught on rerelease in the late 50s, I was unaware at the time that it was a loose sequel to the James Stewart Western “Broken Arrow”, in which Jeff Chandler played the famous Apache chief, Cochise for the first time. It’s a genuine old-fashioned cavalry and Injun movie, short on fact but full of enough action to keep a seven-year-old-kid enthralled for 85 minutes.
I remember quite clearly a scene in which the supposedly benign Cochise kidnaps a friendly rancher and has him tied to the back of a horse as a hostage. When negotiations with the army fail, Cochise whips the horse and sends the poor man to his death. Not that benign, then.
As with a lot of the cowboy films I watched as a youngster this one also sports an impressive supporting cast including the likes of Richard Egan, Hugh O’Brian, Jack Elam and James Best. Jay Silverheels, the perennially friendly and wholesome Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” TV series, is cast as the villainous Apache, Geronimo, a part he also played earlier in “Broken Arrow”.
The battle at Apache Pass is apparently famous for being the first time the army used artillery against those pesky Native Americans when they selfishly fought to keep the invading white settlers from stealing their land. I won’t insult you by revealing who wins.
Having first seen the film towards the end of the 1950s it’s one of those rare examples of a movie being just as good as I remembered it was all those years ago. Probably worth watching in a double bill with “Broken Arrow” or a triple bill if you’re up for watching “Taza, Son of Cochise” as well, what with Chandler putting in a cameo appearance as the Apache chief for the third and last time.
The Scalphunters (1968)
This is what would be categorised as a rollicking comedy-Western adventure, and as rollicking Westerns go this one’s not too bad. What makes the film an interesting addition to the cowboy genre is the addition in the cast of African American actor Ossie Davis, as escaped slave Joseph Lee.
With the civil rights movement in America running at full gallop in the mid-sixties, it was only going to be a matter of time before Hollywood saw the wisdom of addressing the question of slavery full-on, albeit wrapped inside a comedy film in order to avoid upsetting certain sections of the audience.
Although the lead character, Joe Bass, a wild hell-raising fur trapper, is played by Burt Lancaster, it’s a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas who nearly steals the film from both Lancaster and Shelly Winters, as scalphunter leader Jim Howie.
I say nearly because the whole film is actually hi-jacked by a horse that skids to a halt whenever anyone emits a high-pierced whistle, throwing its rider into the dust at every opportunity. Yep, it’s that kind of film.
It’s also the kind of movie that these days would get a trigger warning on TV about racist content, what with the Kiowa’s referred to as ‘dirty redskins’ and Burt calling our Chinese brethren by a name you shouldn’t call them by anymore. The message at the end is a bit too obvious, both Lancaster and Davis covered in mud to the point where you can’t tell them apart.
Despite this, the worthiness factor stays mostly hidden beneath the boisterous veneer of the movie as a whole. A rousing score by Elmer Bernstein also helps to ensure the film is still an entertaining watch even after all these years.
Nevada Smith (1966)
I do like a good revenge movie and this is one of the best. Steve McQueen, in top-notch cowboy form, plays the title role. It’s a prequel spin-off from an earlier movie, “The Carpetbaggers”, in which Nevada Smith was played by Alan Ladd, so consider this an early ‘origins’ film.
Smith’s parents are murdered by three outlaws, played by Martin Landau, Arthur Kennedy and Karl Malden. Nevada vows to hunt them down and, after an interlude in which Brian Keith, playing a benign gunsmith, teaches him how to shoot, he tracks down his first victim, Landau.
I remember the ensuing knife-fight between the two of them because McQueen stabs Landau multiple times in the stomach, finishing the murdering swine off like the dog he is. Next up is Arthur Kennedy.
Smith is so obsessed with revenge he goes to the inordinate lengths of getting himself banged up in the same prison as his quarry, before shooting him in the middle of a snake-filled swamp after they’ve escaped from the prison. Now for Karl Malden or Mr. Potato Face as someone unkindly christened him.
Karl Malden turns out not to be so easy to entrap, so Smith joins his gang, going undercover in order to catch him by stealth. This is the bit that slightly disappointed me when I saw it back in the 60s, because when McQueen finally gets the chance to kill Malden, he inexplicably lets him live, albeit after having pumped him full of bullets.
Rio Conchos (1964)
This was a very popular film when first released for a number of reasons. First off you had professional American football player Jim Brown as cavalry Sgt. Franklyn, which attracted a lot of attention because he wasn’t in the same mould of someone like Sidney Poitier, who up to that point was the go-to guy when it came to African American actors.
Also, tame as it might seem by today’s standards, there’s a stunt involving Brown, Richard Boone and Stuart Whitman in which they – or their stand-ins – are tortured by being dragged behind a speeding wagon. It was thought to be so impressive that I remember one of the major daily newspapers running a spread specifically on the sequence in question.
There are similarities between “Rio Conchos” and the earlier John Wayne oater “The Comancheros”, probably due to Clair Huffaker co-scripting both films. For example, Nehemiah Persoff in “The Comancheros” and Edmond O’Brien in “Rio Conchos” are both heading up secretive communities that operate outside the law, in O’Brien’s case a bunch of ex-Confederate soldier’s intent on making the South great again by selling rifles to the Apaches. And Stuart Whitman is in both films as well.
It’s a real high, wide and handsome Twentieth Century Fox Cinemascope production that features great performances from all the principals, most notably Richard Boone as an embittered ex-officer out to avenge the death of his family at the hands of the Apaches.
Stuart Whitman is reliably granite-jawed as the army captain leading Boone, Brown and Tony Franciosca, who plays a Mexican knife-throwing scoundrel, in pursuit of O’Brien’s lawless Confederate organisation.
A thoroughly entertaining widescreen Western, directed by Gordon Douglas, that every discerning cowboy film fan should be familiar with.
Tune in a couple of weeks from now for part 2 of my favourite non-JW Westerns from my childhood.