Better than many think
1953 was one of the greatest ever years for the Western movie, and in many ways it marks the high water mark of the genre. All the big studios joined in. In February MGM released the Anthony Mann-directed The Naked Spur with James Stewart; in April Paramount finally released Shane, one of the most famous Westerns of all, after a very long gestation period (filming had started in July 1951); and in November Warners released its Louis L’Amour story Hondo, with John Wayne. These were mighty pictures. Other studios got in on the act: in August Universal put out The Man from the Alamo with Glenn Ford; Columbia headlined Rock Hudson in the Raoul Walsh-directed Gun Fury, released in November; Fox went with Powder River, a sort of My Darling Clementine clone, in June; and so it went on. And of course the B-Western was at the height of its powers. IMDB lists 96 Westerns released between January 1 and December 31 (o happy day).
Jeff Arnold’s West must examine these pictures. It is our bounden duty. To start our 1953 season on JAW we are, however, going for what in Jeff’s view was one of the very best of the bunch, even if it has been, unjustifiably, slightly overshadowed by the likes of Shane and The Naked Spur. The film was actually quite bally-hooed by MGM and talked of as one of the big pictures of the year, though of course the likes of Julius Caesar, Mogambo and Kiss Me, Kate were bigger. A New York Times report said, “The film industry grapevine has been heralding another Western milestone in Escape from Fort Bravo”. The Metro execs, by now bossed by Dore Schary, only allowed three Westerns that year (Naked Spur, the Ava Gardner/Robert Taylor vehicle Ride, Vaquero!, and Fort Bravo) and perhaps they wanted to make a thing of it to get in the Paramount league.
John Sturges was not perhaps (yet anyway) in the Anthony Mann class, but Metro had him helm an oater when the studio ended the vintage year on a high, on December 4 releasing the magnificent Escape from Fort Bravo.
There were many reasons for this picture’s quality, as I hope this review will illustrate. One was the photography. Father and son Robert and Bruce Surtees were supremely good Western cinematographers. Clint Eastwood understood Bruce’s talent, using him on sixteen pictures, including the visually stunning Pale Rider. Father Robert is probably best known for photographing Ben Hur, but also The Graduate, The Last Picture Show and The Sting, but in the Western domain, which is of course what really counts, we remember him for the 1960 Cimarron (a soapy Western but fine visually), The Hallelujah Trail (a bad Western but fine visually), The Law and Jake Wade (an excellent Western and fine visually) and, perhaps best of all, Escape from Fort Bravo (superb in every regard). Surtees worked well with Sturges and this was one of four Westerns they did together.
The movie had been slated as a 3D one. 3D was all the rage in 1953. United Artists had started the ball rolling with Bwana Devil, released in November ’52, and probably the most famous 3D picture was Warner’s House of Wax, April ’53, which was odd because it was directed by André De Toth who only had one eye and couldn’t see 3D at all. Westerns were considered ideal for the medium. We got (in alphabetical order) Devil’s Canyon, Fort Ti, Gun Fury, Hannah Lee, Hondo, Jesse James vs the Daltons, The Moonlighter, The Nebraskan, Southwest Passage, The Stranger Wore a Gun, Taza Son of Cochise and The Wings of the Hawk. Not bad, huh.
The craze was short-lived, and of course the majority of audiences anyway saw these pictures in standard format, special theaters being required for 3D projection. Those who did see them in the exciting new form, donning their cardboard and cellophane eyeglasses, were treated to a great number of guns and arrows fired directly into the camera, people lunging at the audiences with knives, and so on. Gasp. At least they were by slightly lesser directors. Classy directors tended to use the medium sparingly and to good effect. In any case it was academic, for as far as Fort Bravo was concerned (and by the way, Fort Bravo was its working title, and appears on the final screen, and I’m calling it that for short) it was not to be. The craze fizzled out, and Sturges and Surtees could use standard – and much cheaper – cameras.
But they had the new Anso Color. And they had stunningly good locations. The story was set in Arizona, in 1863, where Fort Bravo is a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederates – actually there was no such prison in Arizona Territory, but never mind. The fort is remote and in the heart of Apache territory – the deadly Mescaleros are massing to join Cochise. When four of the Reb captives escape, Captain William Holden pursues them implacably (Holden did implacable) and in the end the warring white men are forced to unite to fight the common enemy. This tale was shot in various New Mexico locations and, especially, in Death Valley, California, pitilessly suitable and marvelously photographed by Surtees.
The story was actually by Phillip Rock and Michael Pate. The New York Times was rude about it: reviewer ‘HHT’ (Howard Thompson) called it “an unconvincing story, credited to Phillip Rock and Michael Pate” but I think it was rather good. Of course, it wasn’t entirely original. Fox’s Two Flags West of three years before, a very fine picture by the way, directed by talented Robert Wise (what a pity he only did three Westerns) was from a Frank S Nugent story, about the ‘Galvanized Yankees’, Confederate prisoners of war who fought Indians on the frontier under the command of Union officers. There’s some basis of truth in it: between January 1864 and November 1866 about 5600 Confederate soldiers put on the Union blue. Of the ones who served on the frontier, most were in Minnesota where there were serious Indian troubles, but some did go as far south as Fort Union in New Mexico. And in Major Dundee in 1965 (click the link for our recent review) Sam Peckinpah did something similar, with Charlton Heston and Richard Harris as the frenemies.
Anyway, Rock and Pate came up with the yarn. Only three movies were made from a Rock story and this was the only Western. Pate, on the other hand, was more Western, and an interesting character. Writer, producer, director and above all actor, he was in fact Australian, only relocating to the US in the 1950s and returning there later on. For some odd reason, in Hollywood he cornered the market in Indian chiefs. He was Vittorio in Warners’ Hondo the same year as Fort Bravo and went on to be Chief Four Horns, Watanka, Puma, Thin Elk, Sierra Charriba (in Dundee) and heaven knows who all else in different Westerns. Fort Bravo was the only feature Western he wrote (he also penned an episode of Rawhide) but the story is gripping.
The screenplay was by Frank E Fenton, who wrote the scripts of eight big-screen Westerns, most notably River of No Return and Garden of Evil (the latter a fine film) as well as the Western noir Station West with Dick Powell. He also wrote Ride, Vaquero! I think his dialogue on Fort Bravo was really good, with some witty badinage and even occasionally some observations verging on the profound.
The film benefited enormously from William Holden in the lead. He had made big hits after the war with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd and George Cukor’s Born Yesterday (both 1950) and in June 1953, six months before Fort Bravo, Paramount released Wilder’s Stalag 17, for which Holden won the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for his part as the cynical sergeant. So Bill was a big star. He had done some Westerns as a young man, starting at Columbia with the amiable Arizona and fun Texas, then doing the early-Western/romance Rachel and the Stranger, the dark The Man from Colorado, with his pal Glenn Ford, and he was especially good in my view leading in Streets of Laredo in 1949, a color remake of Paramount’s The Texas Rangers of 1936. So he certainly had Western form. He is perfectly ‘Western’ in Fort Bravo, steely, disliked by the men but uncaring for he is right, and finally melting (slightly) at the charms of the Southern belle.
Another of the many reasons I like this film is that this belle is first seen firing a derringer. The stagecoach she is riding in is attacked by Indians and she brings her four-barreled pepperbox to bear. “You done, good, lady,” the driver tells her afterwards. Indeed she did done good, for hitting anything whatsoever with that pop gun from a careening coach at more than six feet would have been a remarkable feat of markswomanship; never mind a Mescalero at full gallop. When Captain Holden helps her down from the coach (the pair will, of course, fall instantly in love) he asks her what on earth this little gadget is, rather as John Wayne scornfully demanded of Joanne Dru of her derringer in Red River, you will certainly recall. Our leading lady replies that “it’s supposedly a deadly weapon.” Well, you know how your Jeff loves derringers. In fact I think it might be time for a mise à jour of his seminal work on The Derringer in the Western Movie, with which you are undoubtedly familiar. I haven’t updated it since the summer of 2018, and there have been more derringers since then. But that will be for another day. Bet you can’t wait.
As for the glam heroine of Fort Bravo, it was Eleanor Parker. Ms Parker was one of those truly beautiful stars whom the camera loved. She was thrice Oscar-nominated, justly so. Tragically (for me) she only did three Westerns, and the other two, Metro’s The King and Four Queens with Gable and Many Rivers to Cross with Taylor, weren’t very good. She had actually been cast in They Died With Their Boots On but her performance was left on the cutting room floor, curse those editors.
In Fort Bravo she plays the femme fatale whose winsome ways beguile and even soften the tough captain but who in reality is in cahoots (no other word for it, cahoots) with the Rebs. The glam Southern lady spy was quite a feature of certain Westerns and Eleanor made a good ‘un.
She is the intended of the Confederate Captain Marsh, played by third-billed John Forsythe, probably most famous to (relatively) modern audiences as Blake Carrington in Dynasty. This was his only Western.
He isn’t bad, I guess, though not terribly convincing, and he seems to have an almost – and daringly hinted at, for the day – gay relationship with the young officer Bailey, a poet with floppy hair (so he must be gay). One soldier says scornfully of Marsh, “You treat him like he was your kid brother” and he does seem to have an inordinate affection for the fellow.
As Marsh lies dying in the last reel I swear he puckers his lips in an affectionate moue of goodbye to the young soldier. Bailey is played by John Lupton, whose biggest claim to Western fame was perhaps taking the James Stewart part as Tom Jeffords in the TV version of Broken Arrow in 1956, though you may prefer his part as Jesse James in that 1966 epic Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter which we reviewed as part of our Jesse season some time back so click the link for that (though caveat lector).
The only other two Confederates highlighted are the NCOs, Corporal Young and Sergeant Campbell, and their exchanges are another of the pleasures of the movie as the crusty old sergeant teases the hotheaded young corporal. William Campbell played Cpl Cabot Young and the excellent William Demarest did the sergeant. You might have thought Campbell would have played Campbell, but no. Demarest started off in vaudeville and you always feel there is a laugh lurking even when he is playing serious parts. The IMDb bio says, “He made his reputation in eccentric comic supporting roles, invariably seen as pushy, wary or droll cops, business guys or wisecracking, jaundiced friends of the hero with names like Mugsy, Kockenlocker or Heffelfinger.” Westernwise he will be remembered for his ranch foreman Jeb Gaine on Tales of Wells Fargo on TV but he did eight feature Westerns and you may recall him trying to keep the peace between Lewis and Clark in The Far Horizons (click for our review). I like him especially in Along Came Jones.
When on patrol Captain Holden and his men find some burnt-out wagons which had been carrying rifles and the deceased drivers staked out on anthills. There’s a good scene as he and his Kiowa scout (Frank Matts) silently watch the Mescaleros gathering during the hasty funeral of the drivers, and when the captain barks out “Mount up!” the instant the final Amen is uttered we are reminded inexorably of John Wayne peremptorily cutting short such a ceremony in The Searchers. I wonder if John Ford saw Fort Bravo.
There is in fact much Fordian about Fort Bravo: a Cavalry/Apache story with lusty soldierly singing, a fort at the heart, dances, relationships, the savage setting. Sturges was no Ford but he was developing as a talented director. This was his eighteenth film at the helm but first ‘proper’ Western. He had made two contemporary adventure stories with strong Western tints, The Walking Hills (1949) and The Capture (1950) and he would go on, after Bravo, to do another, the absolutely splendid Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). He would really assert himself as ‘real’ Western director with Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957 and would put himself in Jeff Arnold’s good books for all eternity (or as much of eternity as Jeff gets) for The Magnificent Seven, probably my favorite Western of all time. Mind, he would also make some dross. Sergeants 3 and The Hallelujah Trail were really dire; truly awful. Still, all in all, Sturges is one of the Western greats.
The dances are quite something. Carla (Parker) has managed to bring a whole array of stunning ball gowns with her in those few valises. Oddly, too, the Confederates invited (only the officers, natch) seem to have been captured with their immaculate dress uniforms about them. The songs are pretty though apparently anachronistic, My Darling Clementine (1884), Dem Golden Slippers (1879), John Brown’s Body (Pete Seeger version), Golden Wedding (1880) and Little Brown Jug (1869). Or so I learned from the IMDb Goofs page. It doesn’t matter. And talking of anachronisms, they use Colt Peacemaker .45s and Trapdoor Springfields, quite far-sighted of them for 1863. These things have never worried me much but some people object.
I spotted Glenn Strange the Great as a sergeant, disgracefully uncredited, so that was another plus.
The climax is exciting and impressively well staged and acted. The Mescaleros show themselves to be highly talented tacticians. Holden informs us authoritatively that “Mescaleros never attack at night” but during the day, under the pitiless sun, the besieged, forcibly now allied, suffer terribly. The sergeant and corporal die gallantly. Others are hit by arrows. Water is short. Finally Holden is heroic. Then (spoiler alert, but you knew) a bugle is heard and we get a classic example of the US Cavalry arriving at the last minute to save the whites in extremis, a trope as old as the Western but still good in 1953 (and beyond).
Escape from Fort Bravo is a first class Western movie, certainly good enough to hold its own with the likes of Naked Spur and Hondo, and maybe even better than that. Hondo beat it at the box-office, though, grossing $8.2m to Bravo’s $3.1m. Of course Shane put them both in the shade, with $20m. But Bravo’s $3m + wasn’t bad on its $1.5m budget. It didn’t persuade the new Metro execs to invest in Westerns, however. The nearest they got in 1954 was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, about as Western as a lump of cheese. MGM, grrr.
It was produced by Nicholas Natfack, who would later be responsible for Gun Glory with Stewart Granger in 1957 but who deserves great credit for Fort Bravo, and also for Devil’s Doorway (1950) with Robert Taylor and Vengeance Valley (1951) with Burt Lancaster, both excellent Westerns.
The New York Times review was hardly glowing, calling it “a basically standard [love] triangle that perks up for some random, tingling Indian skirmishes but remains radiantly dwarfed nearly all the way by the towering grandeur of the Ansco color [sic] backgrounds.” But it was far better than that. Later critics too have not been fulsome. Dennis Schwartz called it “a modest but fairly entertaining Western”, adding, “Though not one of the better Westerns it was still effective”. Leonard Maltin thought it was “well-executed” and awarded it three stars. Brian Garfield called it “much better than average”. But for me these crits weren’t praise enough. No, this Western is unjustly underrated. It is highly recommended if you haven’t seen it, and indeed still recommended if you have. I’ve probably gone on at too great a length about it, but I feel it needs defending.