Often a film will stick in one’s mind because of a certain scene or sequence. That’s certainly the case with Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), a movie I first saw many moons ago but whose climax lingered on as a fond memory down through the years. Under such circumstances revisits are a delicate matter, best approached with caution as disappointment is always ready to pounce. When I eventually got the chance to see this western again last year I was pleased to find that my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me – I enjoyed it immensely. Digging it out and giving it a spin the other day, for the purposes of this piece, allowed me to recognise some of its weaknesses more clearly but still didn’t dilute any of the punch of the ending.
The action takes place in Arizona during the Civil War, where a group of Confederate prisoners are cooped up in the dusty Fort Bravo. Among the jailers is Captain Roper (William Holden), a hard-bitten man who thinks nothing of marching a recaptured prisoner back through the blazing desert heat as an example to the others. While such actions naturally stir resentment among the southerners, his own commander and peers don’t shirk away from expressing their disapproval either. The tensions within the stockade are only one aspect of the problem though, as the fort is right smack in the middle of hostile Mescalero territory. The threat posed by the Apache is an ever present one and is highlighted early on when a detachment is sent out to locate a delayed supply convoy, finding only burned wagons and dead drivers. On the return leg the troop encounter a stage and escort it back to the safety of the fort. This stage contains one Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker), who’s using the cover of a wedding invitation to facilitate the escape of the Confederate OC, Captain Marsh (John Forsythe). This leads into an unconvincing and undeveloped love triangle which, in combination with the less than riveting escape plan, could well have sunk the picture. Fortunately, the addition of some ripe dialogue and good support playing (William Demarest in particular) just about keep things afloat. The resulting escape and pursuit get things back on course again, and by the time Roper, Marsh et al find themselves surrounded by some of the most cunning Apaches ever seen on film the tension has been wound tight. Those scenes in the latter half of the film are worth the price of admission alone. Watching the small, isolated group, huddled in a desert crater, move from defiance to fearful realization and back again is quite powerful stuff. Adversity is said to bring out the best and the worst in men, and the sight of Roper striding out at dawn, a revolver in both fists, to meet fate head on is a marvellous image.
William Holden was arguably in his prime when Escape from Fort Bravo was made (the same year as Stalag 17) and he gave a very strong performance as the practical and ruthless Roper. He was ideally suited to playing tough cynics with a deep set yet true sense of personal honour. Watching Holden’s honest, warts-and-all portrayal of Roper really shows up the inadequacies of his co-star. John Forsythe is a likable enough actor but there’s a lightweight quality about him (it worked well enough in a movie like The Trouble with Harry, and Hitchcock obviously thought enough of him to cast him again in Topaz and in his TV show) that’s not quite right for the part of a tough veteran. I’ve always enjoyed watching Eleanor Parker, she had a sassiness that suggested she could hold her own in any company and give as good as she got. However, she’s poorly served by her role here and the aforementioned “love triangle that really isn’t” is largely responsible for that. It seems odd to refer to a director’s twentieth picture as his breakthrough, but in this case I believe that’s actually the case. John Sturges would go on to make a string of ever more successful films after this and showed that he was highly capable when it came to action. His best work is in the early and latter stages, when he made effective use of the Death Valley locations and avoided the studio mock-ups. It’s also notable that he wisely chose to shoot the key scenes without any musical accompaniment and they’re all the better for it.
When Warner released Escape from Fort Bravo in their Western Classics box there was a good deal of griping about the quality of the transfer. It seemed to be the general consensus that much of the blame could be laid at the door of the poor condition of the Ansco Color elements. In truth, the transfer isn’t that bad and the colour is actually fairly strong. The real problem is that the print used is very dirty and obviously had little or no work done on it. It’s available in the R1 box (probably the best value), and individually in both R1 and continental R2. Escape from Fort Bravo belongs to that small category of westerns, along with Two Flags West and Major Dundee, that has Yankees and Rebs fighting side by side against the Indians. I think it’s a fine little western whose strong opening and blinding finish certainly shore up a slightly sagging middle section. Recommended.