Films that adopted a pro-Indian stance can be found throughout the 50s, some more explicit in their sympathies than others. Smoke Signal (1955) offers an interesting variation on this trend; it would be inaccurate to refer to it as directly pro-Indian, rather it provides a critique of anti-Indian thinking. By casting a traditionally heroic actor in the central role and keeping his motivation slightly ambiguous for much of the running time – personally, I feel that greater ambiguity would have made the tale even more fascinating, but more on that later – it challenges our conventional genre perceptions. Add in an unusual setting, with the characters running the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and the ingredients are in place for a compelling western.
The story is built around Brett Halliday (Dana Andrews), a former captain in the US Cavalry who deserted, joined the Utes and turned renegade. However, Halliday has been captured by the army and is being held prisoner at a remote fort until he can be transported for court-martial. The opening sees Captain Harper (William Talman) and his patrol coming upon the fort that’s currently under siege. Harper’s arrival puts him in command of the tiny garrison which has been whittled down by relentless attacks. He has a special interest in seeing the captive called to account since his brother was killed in a battle with a band of Utes led by Halliday. Apparently, these Utes have been massing and forming alliances with other tribes to stage a spectacular uprising. Harper is initially skeptical about this but when proof is provided it becomes evident that holding out in the fort is not going to be an option. Although reluctant to do so, he takes Halliday’s advice and decides to evacuate the fort, bringing some abandoned boats and making a break for it down the uncharted river. The majority of the running time is spent on this perilous journey, where the small band of survivors must fend off the harassing Utes and struggle to overcome the dangers posed by nature. While Halliday protests his innocence of the charges against him at the beginning, he avoids mention of this for most of the journey. Instead, we’re left to wonder and, like the desperate group around him, have our doubts raised only by his seemingly selfless actions and determination to see his captors to safety. Gradually, as Halliday’s knowledge of the Indians and their tactics proves more effective, he gains the trust of a few of his companions. His strongest allies are the late garrison commander’s daughter (Piper Laurie) and a grizzled old campaigner, Sergeant Miles (Milburn Stone), he once led. The turning point comes when the inflexible Harper, seemingly motivated by spite, orders Miles to undertake a suicidal mission. From here on, sympathy shifts to Halliday, the sole exception being the callous and brutal Lieutenant Ford (Rex Reason). The emphasis of the film is on the group dynamic as much as anything, and the shifting loyalties is an important part of what keeps the viewer’s interest alive. Who, if anyone, will make it to journey’s end is always uppermost in our thoughts and the battle for hearts and minds, ours as much as the characters on screen, ensure the tension is maintained right to the last scene.
Director Jerry Hopper made a series of good if fairly unremarkable movies in the 50s (Secret of the Incas perhaps being the most notable) before embarking on a long and successful career in a string of well-known TV shows. Hopper, and cameraman Clifford Stine, get good value from the Grand Canyon locations, the towering rock face being both visually impressive and also hammering home the bottled up, claustrophobic atmosphere. However, it has to be said that while the location work is extremely attractive, there’s far too much reliance on obvious and distracting back projection. Hopper’s handling of the action scenes is just fine, the sporadic battles and skirmishes blend well with the ever-present threat of the raging river and keep the story moving along. I think my biggest complaint relates to the script, and the ending in particular. For me, this was altogether too pat and slightly unsatisfactory – I feel that not only does Harper behave out of character but he gets off a bit lightly too.
Smoke Signal is really Dana Andrews’ picture all the way. Writing of this actor before, I commented on his tendency to internalize his feelings and play things down. That understated quality is highly appropriate for the character of Brett Halliday, a man to whom being true to his own inner convictions has brought only the distrust and enmity of others. I think Andrews was capable of hiding things so well that it’s a pity the scrip didn’t capitalize on this talent and keep the viewers guessing a little longer about the true nature of his character – it would have added more depth and uncertainty. There’s an excellent example of Andrews’ carefully modulated playing in one of the early scenes, when Halliday and Harper first meet. Harper, full of scorn and bitterness, reaches out to snatch away the native amulet Halliday wears round his neck. The flash of anger and resentment that briefly flits across Andrews’ momentarily clouded features, not much more than a twitch of muscle and a hardness of eye, tells us that this charm is special to him and that Harper’s action has gravely insulted him. When it comes to screen acting it’s the little things, those fleeting gestures and tics, that often speak loudest. William Talman tended to get cast in villainous, or at least unsympathetic, parts. He’ll always be remembered as Hamilton Burger, Perry Mason’s eternal foe, but he was exceptional as the psychotic bad guy in Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. In this film though he portrayed a man bound by his own rigid code, a by the book disciplinarian with a narrow and inflexible perspective. Talman’s performance, alongside Rex Reason’s thuggish characterization, is what lends Smoke Signal its pro-Indian status. As such, it earns its credentials almost by default; the film paints the Utes’ opponents as deeply prejudiced rather than showing the Indians themselves in an especially positive light. As the only woman in the movie Piper Laurie spends much of her time torn between Andrews and Reason, but does well providing a non-partisan viewpoint. In supporting roles, there’s strong work from Milburn Stone, Robert J Wilke and Douglas Spencer.
Pegasus in the UK licensed Smoke Signal from Universal for their DVD release. The disc presents the film in a nicely framed 2:1 anamorphic transfer. The image looks a little soft in some places but there’s no real damage on show and the colours are bright and strong. There are no extra features whatsoever offered, just the main menu and scene selection. Anyway, the Pegasus release is the only one, so far as I’m aware, that presents the movie in the correct aspect ratio and with anamorphic enhancement. Universal westerns from the 50s are always worth seeking out – they’re generally attractive to look at and often feature plots that throw out something a little different. Smoke Signal is a solid, medium grade western that works pretty well. Andrews is dependable and credible, Hopper’s professional direction keeps it all moving along ensuring the pace never flags, and the location work is very welcome. Generally, this is a tight and entertaining mid 50s western that I’m happy to have in my collection.