Something I like to do on this site is feature a mix of the better and lesser known films. When it comes to the latter category there’s no shortage of candidates to be found among the output of Universal studios. Second features or programmers are of course a varied bunch in terms of quality, but it has to be said that Universal, of all the Hollywood studios, had a real knack for producing entertaining westerns on the cheap. These small-scale, unpretentious movies had a polish and tight professionalism to them that’s very attractive. There’s no doubt that these films were constrained by their budgets but that was often turned into an advantage in itself. The Stand at Apache River (1953) is a fair example of a western which both exploits its limitations and simultaneously suffers from them too.
The opening sees a horseman striking out across an expanse of barren country, nervously checking his back trail for signs of pursuit before heading for the rocky high ground and the promise of safety. This man is Greiner (Russell Johnson), a thief and murderer desperate to avoid a date with the hangman. Hot on his heels is Lane Dakota (Stephen McNally), a driven lawman with a personal interest in running down his quarry. When an unexpected skirmish with a couple of Apache leaves Greiner badly wounded, and Dakota without his much needed proof, the sheriff has no option but to seek temporary shelter until the prisoner is well enough to be brought back to face justice. And this brings us to the location where the remainder of the drama will play out – the Apache River ferry station. Dakota’s arrival coincides with that of a stagecoach carrying Valerie Kendrick (Julie Adams) and Colonel Morsby (Hugh Marlowe), the former being an uncertain bride-to-be on her first trip west while the latter is a veteran Indian fighter with a fearsome reputation. No sooner has this little band of travelers gathered at the isolated station than it’s revealed that a group of 50 Apache warriors has broken free from the San Carlos reservation and may be heading their way. This external threat is exacerbated by a number of internal conflicts, among which are Greiner’s eagerness to elude his captor and the friction that arises between Dakota and Morsby over matters of justice and their respective attitudes towards the Apache. When the station finds itself under siege and repeatedly attacked by the Apache all the tensions within are exposed and add to the danger.
While I was watching this movie I found it difficult not to be reminded of Apache Drums for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s the presence of Stephen McNally in the lead and the fact that the title and credits play over the same footage and images as the earlier film. Additionally, both movies have a similar structure, gradually narrowing in focus and confining themselves to a single set as the story progresses. The Stand at Apache River also tries hard to recapture some of the terrifically claustrophobic atmosphere that characterized and elevated the Lewton/Fregonese film but director Lee Sholem doesn’t quite get there. The lighting and cinematography are similar but the same sense of menace isn’t achieved. Where Lewton and Fregonese kept the Apache largely unseen and thus built them up into frightening bogeyman figures, this movie presents them, or at least their leader, as more rounded characters. While this dissipates the threat somewhat, it does offer the opportunity for some consideration of the nature of the conflict between the settlers and the Apache, deftly highlighting the grievances of and injustices towards the latter group. However, this also feeds into what I see as the main weakness of the movie – essentially there is too much going on. You cannot have drama without conflict but it’s also possible to overdo it. The movie only runs for an hour and a quarter and tries to pack in a siege, commentary on settler/native relations, the problems faced by women in isolated frontier settings, and a love triangle to name just a few. In the end, there are too many themes and too little development – arguably, there’s enough material for a couple of movies here.
Stephen McNally and Julie Adams get the most screen time and both of them turn in perfectly acceptable performances. However, the overstuffed plot which I mentioned does work against them and means that their character development is necessarily limited. This is a shame as both of them have interesting back stories, and the acting chops to take advantage of them, but there’s just not enough time to explore it all further. Hugh Marlowe is fine too as the rigid martinet although his role is fairly one-dimensional. There’s also a nice intense turn by Jaclynne Greene as the frustrated and frightened owner of the river station. Russell Johnson (who passed away just last month) and Hugh O’Brian both play potentially interesting characters, though once again it has to be said they really don’t get the chances to show what they were capable of. The only disappointment for me was Edgar Barrier, who I found pretty unconvincing as the Apache chief.
I guess The Stand at Apache River has to count as a bit of an obscure film these days, and it certainly hasn’t been widely available for home viewing. However, there is a nice DVD out in Spain. Many Universal titles from the 50s seem to be in reasonably good shape and The Stand at Apache River is no exception. The print used isn’t perfect but it’s not at all bad either. While there are a handful of instances of age-related damage, they are few and I wouldn’t refer to them as a particular distraction. Generally, the transfer is smooth, colorful and acceptably sharp. The disc doesn’t offer anything in the way of extras but there’s no problem with subtitles either – there’s the option of French, Spanish or none. All in all, the movie provides plenty of entertainment and excitement. With its short running time it moves along briskly and, leaving aside the matter of the crowded plot, should satisfy those into westerns of this era.