Not great art but quite enjoyable
The notion at the heart of them all is the old one about a martinet by-the-book commander who cannot understand that the West Point manual doesn’t apply here out on the wild frontier, and a savvy local who knows the ways of the West. It was done most famously (and best) by John Ford as Fort Apache, with Henry Fonda as the rigid Easterner officer and John Wayne as the ‘man who knows Indians’. But many other writers used the idea.
This time, i.e. in Tomahawk Trail, it was cobbled together by David Chandler, who did something similar in Apache Drums, from a story by Gerald Drayson Adams. Adams (1900 to 1988) was an Oxford-educated literary agent but he came to specialize in tough-guy movie scripts. He wrote or co-wrote 21 feature Westerns between 1948 and ’64 and we might mention The Duel at Silver Creek for Don Siegel, Wings of the Hawk for Budd Boaetticher, and Chief Crazy Horse for George Sherman. He had a penchant for Cavalry/Apache Westerns, and Tomahawk Trail is another Victorio tale.
Victorio was a favorite Indian foe for Western movies and he was defeated and killed numerous times by different people and at different times. You’ll probably recall Duke and Ward Bond killing him in Hondo. Ben Johnson did it in Fort Bowie. The real Victorio (Bidu-ya or Beduiat) was a Mimbreño Apache who was actually killed in Mexico in October 1880 by soldiers under Colonel Joaquin Terrazas in the Battle of Tres Castillos. But that isn’t so Hollywood.
In the group are troopers Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan, John Smith and Harry Dean Stanton. Also Robert Knapp, who is the bolshie one (there’s always a bolshie one). Knapp did six Westerns, including two other Selander ones. You’ll remember John Smith from Laramie on TV but he had quite a line in big-screen Westerns too and you may recall him in Fury in Showdown, where he was very good as the heavy, or Quincannon, Frontier Scout, yet another Selander picture.
As for Stanton, billed without the Harry, he was just starting out down the long trail of a Western career that would encompass (if trails encompass, probably not) 98 appearances, and he’s still doing it. Actually, this picture and Revolt at Fort Laramie were his very first Western outings, and they both had Lesley at the helm. Red Morgan was a great Western stuntman who worked on 100 feature Westerns, from Lucky Cisco Kid in 1940 to Blazing Saddles in 1974.
So that’s a good troop.
The scout is an Apache one, played by Eddie Little Sky. This part was made into a big, and
good one by good old Harry Lauter in the Fort Courageous remake but Eddie is strong within the limits of his short part. He was actually an Oglala Lakota so was a bit out of his ground in Arizona, but never mind.
There have to be some dames, obviously. No party of endangered white men in a Western was complete without them. These are Ellen Carter (Susan Cummings; remember her from Utah Blaine the same year?) who was captured by the Apaches, and the friend she made when in captivity, Tula (Lisa Montell, not often in Westerns), who turns out to be Victorio’s daughter. The patrol comes across these two and the gals tag along to Fort Bowie. Sergeant Chuck is very respectful and gentlemanly towards them but some of the coarser troopers lust after them and Pvt. Knapp especially is very beastly, attempting rape. I must say though that the dialogue between the two women is very weak, often childlike.
Thanks to the lieutenant’s off-the-scale Doh!-rating they have to trudge to the fort on foot, trying to avoid but having to fight Apaches, but they finally do get there, thanks to Chuck (helped by John Smith) and guess what? Yup, they find the gate open and no guards. At least they don’t say, “I don’t like it. It’s quiet. Too quiet.” Writer Chandler managed to resist that one. But inside all they find are corpses. Something tells me I’ve seen this scene before.
Of course it was filmed at the Kanab movie fort in Utah, a favorite Selander stamping
ground, and Bel Air leased it often. Fort Bowie and Fort Courageous were shot there too, also in black & white, so the footage matched.
The quality of the print today is good, and the monochrome pleasing. William Margulies was the DP. He did seven Westerns for Selander.
The well has been poisoned, as usual in these movies, so they are short of water. Chuck wants to go on to Fort Stanton, three days away, but will they make it? In the end they decide to stay and fight it out. They discover that the marauders have overlooked cases of rifles in the vault, so they are well-armed. They brace for the attack.
Well, there are ululating Indians, fire-arrows, hand-to-hand knife fights, the whole nine yards. One of the arrows finds its way into the Eastern lieutenant’s chest but he’s no loss, honestly.
There’s rather a surprise ending, which won’t surprise you at all if you’ve seen the other movies, and of course Sgt. Chuck goes off with Ellen to start a new life, as per usual.
It isn’t bad, in fact, given the budget constraints (it barely makes the sixty minutes in
runtime) and modest cast. Old Lesley knew what he was doing. Chuck, still a year before The Rifleman, is actually rather good. Brian Garfield called the picture “drab”, but that’s a bit harsh, I reckon.