No great Western, perhaps, but with some merit
Both are siege Westerns with a small cast and both have McNally (and a glam dame, natch) holed up in a building and under attack from Apaches. Siege Westerns can be tense and gripping, and they have a long history (think of DW Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch in 1913). The danger within and the threat from without can make for exciting cinema. But they also tend to be static, with little sweep and movement, and they rely on the interplay between the characters under siege (rarely do the besiegers get anything but a one-dimensional treatment as the generic enemy). Other examples are Apache Territory, with Rory Calhoun, The Outcasts of Poker Flat with Dale Robertson, Hangman’s Knot with Randolph Scott (one of the very best siege Westerns) or The Nebraskan with Philip Carey, but there are many more. It was a favorite subject – also because it could be done on a limited budget.
This one was slightly unusual in that it gave more space to the motives of the besiegers, sympathizing with them, in fact, and it also pointed out conflict within the attackers’ ranks as much as the (obligatory) division among the defenders.
Sheriff Lane Dakota captures escaped villain Greiner (Russell Johnson), saving him from two Apaches in order to keep him for the noose. “You’re gonna die hangin’,” he informs the wounded man, helpfully. Riding double (Greiner’s horse has perished) they set off back to town for this ceremony (the sheriff isn’t too interested in any formalities such as a trial) and they come up on a stagecoach (a curiously green one) crossing Apache River on a river barge (a bit like Lee Van Cleef’s in Barquero later on) to get to the relay station on the other side. In a good little moment the sheriff wants to light a cigar and swipes his match on the rump of the unconscious man in front of him.
At the station they meet the rather disobliging proprietor, Ann Kenyon (Jaclynne Greene – this and a small part in Stranger on Horseback two years later were her only feature Westerns) and her helper, the young man Hatcher (a youthful Jack Kelly but already in his fifth big screen oater). Mrs Kenyon’s husband (who will turn out to be Hugh O’Brian but he’ll only appear 55 minutes in) is away and there is a hint that Mrs K and young Hatcher are, ahem, intimate.
On the stage are a glamorous Eastern lady, Valerie Kendrick (Julie/Julia Adams – she seemed to use both first names) and the stiff, Apache-hating Colonel Morsby (Hugh Marlowe).
Now Ms Adams, be she Julie or Julia, as well as being very beautiful, is well known to us Westernistas. In fact she had started in a low-budget Lippert Western, The Dalton Gang, in 1949, had done no fewer than six oaters the year after that, and then was memorable in Bend of the River, the Anthony Mann picture with James Stewart, and in the Budd Boetticher-directed Horizons West with Robert Ryan, both in 1952. In ’53, as well as The Stand at Apache River, she would star in The Man from the Alamo, The Mississippi Gambler and Wings of the Hawk. I mean, come on, dudes, respect.
As for Mr Marlowe, I also have a lot of respect for him in Westerns. It is in fact a pity that he did not do more because he only appeared in seven but he was superb. When you see him as the outlaw leader in Rawhide (a much underrated and very fine Fox picture of 1951, and itself a kind of siege Western) you realize what the genre missed by not using him more. Way of the Gaucho and Bugles in the Afternoon followed and if these pictures were perhaps not out of the very top drawer, his performance in them certainly was. Afterwards, he had a smallish part as Susan Hayward’s husband in the very good Garden of Evil and he led in The Black Whip in 1956.
We also meet the rather ghoulishly named old stage driver Deadhorse (Forrest Lewis: 1953 was his first year in Westerns, and he did five in ‘53 alone), who helps defend the way-station. Add in Edgar Barrier as the (rather unconvincing) Apache chief Cara Blanca and that’s that as far as the actors are concerned. It’s hardly a cast of thousands, more of an ensemble piece.
Of course by 1953 we were used to more pro-Indian pictures. The Delmer Daves-directed Broken Arrow in 1950 had shown us Apaches under a statesmanlike Cochise who makes peace with James Stewart, each man battling more with hardliners and hotheads in his own ranks than with the other side. Anthony Mann’s fine Devil’s Doorway with Robert Taylor, released the same year, also gave us the Indians’ side of the equation. So Roll ‘em Sholem and his writer Arthur A Ross (using a Robert J Hogan novel) had the colonel, who believes that the only good Apache is a dead one and genocide is highly to be recommended, versus the decent lawman Dakota (who may be biased because he admits to Valerie that he has Indian blood) believing that it was all the white man’s fault. “We robbed them. We killed them. When they fought back, we called it murder.” The colonel disagrees: “We were too soft,” he says grimly.
At the very least it makes for some interesting dialogue.
The Indians, 50 of whom have broken out of San Carlos, come first to trade, saying, “We want only peace.” That’s fine by Sheriff Dakota but it sure ain’t with the colonel. He wants them Apaches either back on the reservation pronto or, preferably, dead. So obstinate is he that although both the chief and the sheriff do their best to calm things down, the colonel gets his stupid way and it isn’t long before the shots are being fired and (for the Apaches are low on ammo) the fire arrows are flying.
Meanwhile, the sheriff and the Eastern lady are getting closer. She has come out West to be married but she doesn’t love her fiancé. We know it won’t be long before the lovey-dovey commences and sure enough, soon they are in each other’s arms.
The injured man Greiner, lying upstairs in a bedroom, wants to profit from the mayhem to make his escape and when he learns that the fickle and faithless Mrs Kenyon has persuaded gullible Hatcher to do a bunk during the fighting, he muscles in on the scheme. Worse, he gets the couple to steal the guns of the sleeping men (with great dereliction of duty all the men, even the soldier, are asleep at their posts). So that means the defenders will be left with no weapons. Uh-oh.
The chief is wounded in the firing and Sheriff Dakota manages to drag him into the cabin. There some hothead Apaches burst in and kill the colonel. Chief Clara Blanca shouts out to them that the hated officer is now dead, and they can stop fighting. But no dice. Their blood is up now and it’s an all-or-nothing showdown climax.
This action is quite well handled, I must say. There’s also some good photography, by Charles P Boyle, who had worked under John Ford as assistant cameraman on the likes of 3 Godfathers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, so must have learned a thing or two (DP Winton Hoch won a cinematography Oscar for Yellow Ribbon after all). Although much of the picture is shot on a studio set, the cabin interior, some of the location shooting earlier on, in the Red Rock Canyon State Park, is very attractive and very Western. There’s a nice DVD.
Don’t get me wrong: The Stand at Apache River is not Fordian. It’s not a great Western at all. And remember, 1953 was the year of such mighty Westerns as Shane, The Naked Spur and Hondo. It’s not in the that class, far from it. But it is an enjoyable ‘small’ Western, with some weaknesses, but some strengths too, which can hold its own with second-rank oaters of that year such as The Man from the Alamo or The Nebraskan. Definitely worth a look.