Guy wins both the battle and the fair maiden
For the final episode of Season 1 of The Westerns of 1953 we have what was in many ways a surprise hit – at the box-office anyway, if not with the critics. Released in July ’53 by Warners, five months before the studio’s bigger hit Hondo, The Charge at Feather River grossed $3.65m, more even than the fine Anthony Mann/James Stewart picture The Naked Spur ($2.25m) and considerably more than MGM’s ‘big’ Westerns of the year Escape from Fort Bravo ($2m) and Ride, Vaquero! ($1.65m), according to a Variety listing of January 13, 1954.
The film was directed by Gordon Douglas and headlined Guy Madison. Douglas, as we said this time last year in our survey of his Westerns (click here for that) was a bread-and-butter director who was self-deprecating about his work. And indeed many of his oaters were far from glorious. But just occasionally he could come up with a goodie. Myself, I would classify The Nevadan, Fort Dobbs and The Fiend Who Walked the West as first-class pictures in the genre. As the IMDb bio on him says, “Although he had his share of clunkers, and has at times expressed dissatisfaction with his career (he once said, ‘Don’t try to watch all the films I’ve directed; it would turn you off movies forever’), he was responsible for some of the more enjoyable films of the 1950s and 1960s.” He certainly got pace into Feather River, and quite a lot of zip.
As for Madison, after a promising start in the noble genre, debuting with his friend Rory Calhoun in Massacre River in 1949, Guy spent most of the 1950s on radio and the smaller screen as Wild Bill in the astonishingly successful Mutual Radio, then Screen Gems series Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which lasted on TV for eight seasons and no fewer than 113 episodes. Feature-film Westerns were relegated to a sideline, though he did the occasional one all through the 50s, starting with RKO’s Drums in the Deep South in late 1951 (a non-starring part in a semi-Western), and later Warners’ The Command, 1954, in which he led the cast. Later still he would be second-billed to Victor Mature, this time for Columbia, in The Last Frontier, and Anthony Mann picture (though not his best), in ’55, and then the famous (well, famous now) 1956 horror/sci-fi picture The Beast of Hollow Mountain, released by United Artists, in which his cattle were eaten by a giant prehistoric dinosaur. Reprisal! and The Hard Man, both for Columbia, and Bullwhip back at Allied Artists, where he had started, would complete his big-screen outings of the 1950s. After that it was very much downhill, with Eurowesterns in the 1960s, some of them very bad indeed, ending with the dire spaghetti Reverend’s Colt in 1970. In fact fully 50% of his total feature Western output was in post-1950s Eurowesterns, pretty well junk. It was a sad come-down after such a hopeful beginning.
Feather River was shot in 3D, all the rage in 1953, in Warnercolor and with snazzy new 4-track stereo through the ‘WarnerPhonic/RCA Sound System’ (unfortunately, only the mono version of the soundtrack has survived). The runtime was 95 minutes. They had a posh score by Max Steiner. So it was no low-budget second feature or anything. Warners had had a huge hit with the André de Toth-directed horror House of Wax in April and wanted to apply it to its Westerns too (Hondo was also shot in 3D). In fact De Toth had at first been slated to direct Feather River, but he was busy with the horror movie and three other Westerns that year, so Douglas got the job. Some 1953 3D Westerns are now being released in 3D on Blu-Ray but as far as I know not this one, yet, and in fact the print on my DVD isn’t very good, rather ‘muddy’ and lacking sharpness.
Feather River has a tried-and-trusted plot; nothing much original here. A ‘man who knows Indians’ leads an Army patrol to rescue two white women from the Cheyenne. Except maybe in one respect it might be original: I’m not sure when the Dirty Dozen plot was first used. Is this perhaps the first example? A reader might know. You see, Guy recruits his men from a punishment squad, using drunks, deserters, thieves and brawlers. He whips them into shape with a rigorous training regime, then they come good in action, developing an esprit de corps and acting gallantly. Of course we are very used to this story now, not only in war films, but I wonder when it was first done? In some ways you might consider Douglas’s own Only the Valiant of 1951 a version in the sense that an army officer (Gregory Peck) mans a fort with a battalion of cowards and crooks.
Feather River was written by James R Webb. Webb wrote Cape Fear as well as some ‘big’ Westerns, though not necessarily very good ones – parts of How the West Was Won, also Cheyenne Autumn, Vera Cruz and Apache. But The Big Country was a good ‘un. He was certainly highly experienced, and knew what he was doing.
We know well what the ‘types’ will be on the patrol. There’ll be a truculent, insubordinate trooper; there’ll be an amusing, jokey one; there’ll be a big-ox type; there’ll be a man with ‘a past’ needing to redeem himself; there may be a coward who will finally show courage (usually through self-sacrifice); and so on. True to form, we get Neville Brand as a bolshie private. Dick Wesson will provide the comic relief. Henry Kulky plays the boozy big fellow. Steve Brodie is a trooper who has been dallying with the sergeant’s wife, and so the sergeant doesn’t want him to return alive from the dangerous mission. There’s an ex-Reb officer, now in the Union ranks, played by our old friend Lane Chandler, first a star of silent Westerns, then leading in talkie oaters for minor studios, then eventually accepting bit parts wherever he could get them (he has a total of 149 feature Westerns to his credit, so respect, starting with Open Range in 1927 and ending with One More Train to Rob in 1971).
The sergeant concerned is third-billed Frank Lovejoy, and he takes the acting honors. Square-jawed Lovejoy, from the Bronx, was more usually a tough cop or reporter, and he got second billing after Vincent Price in House of Wax. You may also remember him from Meet McGraw or the final season of Man Against Crime. But he did do the occasional Western, even starring in one, the RG Springsteen-directed Cole Younger, Gunfighter in ’58. He has a bit of ‘business’ chewing tobacco (actually I think it’s gum mostly) and deters a rattler by spitting juice at it, and, because it’s 3D, right at the audience. In fact, there’s a good deal of arrows and tomahawks and heaven knows what flying directly at the viewer, probably enough to make you gasp if you were wearing the 3D eyeglasses, and very popular at the time, but a bit silly to us now. The New York Times reviewer said, “Mr. Lovejoy who, though pinned down by a Cheyenne war party, simultaneously is able to defend himself against a menacing rattlesnake by turning a stream of tobacco juice at the oncoming critter and directly at the camera. That’s really getting close to the customers.”
Naturally the women will be rescued, because you have to have dames on the party, sharing the danger and so on. It was de rigueur. They are sisters, Anne and Jennie. Anne is played by Helen Westcott, Peggy in The Gunfighter, and Jennie by John Ford alumna – though only afterwards – Vera Miles (not in my view the best of actresses in Westerns). Anne is pleased to be rescued and will of course fall for the handsome Guy, while Jennie has a case of Stockholm Syndrome: she has ‘gone native’ and is now more Cheyenne than white.
Jennie is betrothed to Chief Thunderhawk, and the chief is not best pleased that his fiancée has been ‘rescued’ or, as he sees it, kidnapped. Thunderhawk is played by Fred Carson, but they needn’t have bothered crediting him. He doesn’t say anything and is only seen from afar, before being shot off his horse, RIP. Odd that the movie was called Thunderhawk in some languages (eg Tordenhøg in Danish).
It’s a post-Civil War story centered on the fictional Fort Bellow. Ex-Union officer Miles Archer (I thought he was Sam Spade’s partner), played by Madison, is persuaded to lead an expedition to rescue two white women held captive by the Cheyenne. The iron horse is coming and so there will definitely soon be war, they say, and it’s now or never. At first Archer refuses – too busy ranchin’, you see, and he’s had enough of fightin’ – but he is persuaded by a young former soldier of his in the war, Johnny (Ron Hagerthy), who is the women’s brother. Dan Haggerty, Don Haggerty, Ron Hagerthy, you have to be careful, but I think I’ve got the right one. He will spend most of the trip being wounded.
They say of the Henry repeating rifles that you can “load on Sunday and shoot all week”, though in fact the rifles used in the movie are 1892 model Winchesters, quite advanced for late 1860s.
Once Archer has trained up his renegade military crew, they set out in plain clothes, not wishing to alert the Cheyenne to the fact that they are soldiers. With them go a tubercular artist/writer, Grover Johnson (Onslow Stevens, the general in Them!, a former electrician who later became an alcoholic and, apparently, an avid nudist; he’s quite good as the artist). He will not die of his cough.
Members of the party are picked off one by one by the Indians, who don’t seem fooled by the plain clothes. One of them is Pvt Wilhelm (Ralph Brooks) and this movie is noted for being the second use of the ‘Wilhelm scream’ (Wilhelm is hit by an arrow), a yell of pain which had quite an afterlife, being used in Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies. It was first done for Distant Drums in 1951. But that’s enough movie trivia. Anyway, eventually they manage to infiltrate the Cheyenne village and grab the two gals. Now they have to get back to the safety of the fort. That won’t be easy, not with Thunderhawk on the warpath.
They do get back to the fort but guess what? Yup, the gate is open and there are only bodies inside and the well has been poisoned. How many times have we had this plot twist? It would be used again in Tomahawk Trail, Fort Bowie and Fort Courageous. I remember it in Northwest Passage in 1940. You’ll be able to think of others. So they have to set off to the next fort, the nearest one, the (equally fictional) Ft Darby.
The trekkers will be beset by many travails before they reach safety, especially as Jennie is on the side of the Indians. But finally they reach Feather River, where they can stand off charges by the Cheyenne. There will be casualties in the party, natch (especially among the traitors) but in the last resort white civilization will triumph over native savagery (it was still the early 1950s, after all), the US cavalry will arrive at the last moment, and Guy and Anne will go off to the sound of wedding bells.
I told you, it’s not very original. Brian Garfield said, “Webb’s script, arguably his poorest, leaves few clichés unturned.” And he described Douglas’s direction as “listless”. Dennis Schwartz agreed about writer Webb but not about director Douglas: “Though the routine screenplay by James R. Webb is nothing to do a war dance over, the superb direction by Gordon Douglas … is something to get excited by”. Actually, I don’t mind the picture. Although I thought Madison was a bit on the bland side, most of it nips along nicely. There is also some great location shooting by DP J Peverell Marley (of The Left-Handed Gun fame). The New York Times reviewer said of the 3D, “This is especially striking in panoramic shots from craggy mountainsides, or in sweeping vistas of vast mesas.” I’d like to see it that way. The NYT critic added, “But while these panchromatic scenes are pleasing to the eye, it is obvious that the producers were more concerned with hurling such assorted and deadly missiles as knives, arrows, spears, tomahawks and furniture at the customers.”
If you like your Westerns big, colorful and noisy, with many old favorites in the plot, you’ll enjoy this one. And it’s a funny thing about Westerns: one person’s tired old cliché is another’s comfortably familiar convention.
Well, that’s that for Season 1 of The Westerns of 1953. Season 2 will be back in the fall. Bet you can’t wait.