The Battle at Apache Pass

You might be forgiven for thinking the concept of the sequel or prequel was an invention of modern-day Hollywood, such is the frequency with which it is discussed and/or complained about on various internet fora. The fact is though such phenomena have been around a long time, the film industry never being one to pass up the opportunity to cash in on a winning formula. Delmer Daves had made one of the earliest and best of what has become known as the pro-Indian cycle of westerns in Broken Arrow and this was followed up a few years later by George Sherman’s The Battle at Apache Pass (1952), which saw Jeff Chandler reprise his role as the Apache leader Cochise. The film may not be quite the equal of its predecessor but with Sherman calling the shots it’s still a fairly strong entry, visually striking and featuring the kind of smooth economy characteristic of much of the director’s work.

With the Civil War raging to the east the army is stretched thin, so thin in fact that frontier outposts are being abandoned as the troops are transferred to the front line. The opening sees a fort in flames as its occupants move out and the hawkish Geronimo (Jay Silverheels) watches and ponders the implications. One man’s trouble is, as always, another’s opportunity and Geronimo see the chance to wrench back control of the territory formerly ceded to the might of the cavalry. The stumbling block to the belligerent warrior’s plans is the Chiricahua chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler), a man intent on finding some means of peaceful co-existence with the white interlopers. Cochise has reached a sort of informal understanding with the local army commander, Major Colton (John Lund). If Cochise is faced with internal challenges, then the same can be said of Colton. In fact, the soldier’s difficulties are greater as they come from  three directions – the scheming Indian agent Baylor (Bruce Cowling), the inexperienced and regulation-obsessed Lt Bascom (John Hudson), and a disreputable profiteer by the name of Mescal Jack (Jack Elam). Baylor is an ambitious man, one who is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his aims, and has no hesitation in using the aggression of Geronimo along with the foolishness of Bascom and the greed of Mescal Jack to start a shooting war that will increase his personal power. The result of Baylor’s machinations is that Colton and Cochise are reluctantly forced into a confrontation neither man wants, and one which both of them knows can only end badly. The climax comes in the form of the titular battle, a spectacular affair which will see much blood spilled, and marks the beginning of the long and brutal Apache Wars, but also one which ends on a cautiously optimistic note.

The movie blends a number of historical events, principally what is known as the Bascom affair and the battle of the title.The former saw the attempted capture of Cochise using the ruse of a fake parley and led to a serious erosion of trust between the warring parties. The latter was one of those few occasions when the native Americans engaged the army in a face-to-face pitched battle, and suffered heavy casualties when the soldiers used artillery to blast them out of the rocks of Apache Pass. Sherman’s direction of the action scenes, particularly the climactic battle, is exemplary and shows evidence of  fairly large budget. However, the film is more than just a handful of set pieces strung together; Sherman knew how to tell human stories and the glue which holds it all together is the relationship between Colton and Cochise, and also the tenderness and love between the Apache chief and his wife Nona (Susan Cabot). This is what lends depth to the film, the bonds of love and loyalty, trust and honor, and it makes the climactic payoff all the more affecting. On a purely technical level, Sherman’s compositions are breathtaking at times, approaching Fordian proportions as he glories in the vastness and magnificence of the Utah locations, with ant-like human figures dwarfed by the ancient, primal landscape.

The Battle at Apache Pass was Jeff Chandler’s second go at portraying Cochise, and he would return to the role briefly at the beginning of Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise two years later. There have been comments in the past on this site relating to white actors portraying Native Americans, and I’d just like to take the opportunity to quickly address the matter here and forestall any (in my view) unnecessary complaints  – films such as the one in question in no way demonstrate any disrespect to the people on screen, and it actually goes to great lengths to make the point that the Apache were more wronged against. The casting decisions of over 60 years ago are what they are and shouldn’t be judged according to 21st Century standards – the fact remains that films such as this wouldn’t have been made at all if it weren’t for the casting of white actors in leading parts. For me, the crucial matter is how the parts were played rather than who played them. Jeff Chandler’s Cochise fully embodies the notions of dignity and honor; there’s no caricature on display, there’s merely a real human being concerned with the welfare of the people he leads and the woman he loves. The same could be said of Susan Cabot, who brings a real sense of grace and propriety to her part. John Lund doesn’t get mentioned often but he was a fine actor – I thought he was excellent opposite Barbara Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own – and has the right kind of weary decency as the army veteran. Richard Egan is another actor who really ought to have gone on to better things – his role as the sergeant here is very impressive and the interaction with, and deference towards, Susan Cabot’s Nona is a notable aspect of the movie. And let’s not forget Jack Elam, a familiar face in so many films. If ever a man was born to play slippery villains, then it was Elam and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here.

The Battle at Apache Pass is widely available in Europe, although I’m not sure if it’s been released in the US. I have the German DVD from Koch Media, and I’d imagine the other versions probably use the same master, which presents the film reasonably well. The colors are strong and true but there is a little softness from time to time and the presence of cue blips attest to the fact there hasn’t been any restoration undertaken. As is the case with most of George Sherman’s films, it’s both visually attractive and interesting in terms of theme. I liked it and recommend checking it out.

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