Dakota Incident

Republic Pictures was in business between 1935 and the late 50s, primarily concerned with producing B features or programmers the studio nevertheless produced its share of prestige vehicles too with the likes of John Ford, Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray making movies introduced by the famous eagle logo. Still, these were the exception rather than the norm, and Herbert J Yates’ studio generally contented itself with lower budgeted fare. Dakota Incident (1956) was one of he later offerings, made as Republic was beginning the slow wind down towards closure. One of the paradoxes frequently found in cheaply made movies is the way the financial constraints sometimes led to unusual results. And that’s certainly the case here; a well-worn central story drawing in a number of plot strands, not all of them successfully of course, and ending up as an intriguing study of the vagaries of human nature.

Dakota Incident starts out tense and sparse and continues in the same vein right up to its conclusion. The low-key score which plays over the credits, showing a trio of riders driving hard across barren country, sets the tone for what follows. These men are John Banner (Dale Robertson), Frank (Skip Homeier) and Largo (John Doucette), and it’s clear enough they’re running away from something or someone. The fact is they’re outlaws, making off with the proceeds of their latest robbery, and each distrustful of the other. Banner seems to be the leader, but his authority is suffered rather than accepted amicably. The lie of honor among thieves is quickly exposed as both Frank and Largo conspire to shoot down Banner, the latter actually doing so, before riding away with his share of the money. However, the victim isn’t really hurt, only playing possum, and sets off in pursuit of his duplicitous friends. He’ll track them down in a soon-to-be ghost town, a frontier settlement shrinking and dying under the constant threat of Indian attack. While Banner is settling scores others are preparing to leave town when the next stagecoach arrives. This section of the film, a reasonably lengthy one, establishes the identities of the main characters, and helps define the nature of their interconnected relationships. There’s a verbose senator from the east (Ward Bond), a cool and poised showgirl (Linda Darnell) and her mandolin-strumming minstrel companion (Regis Toomey), and a mysteriously taciturn gentleman (John Lund). All these people will board the stage bound for Laramie, all keen to leave their current location behind and all searching for something at the end of the line. What is sought becomes apparent as the journey gets underway, but what they actually find, holed up in a dry river course after an ambush, may not necessarily be the same.

Stories such as Dakota Incident concern themselves with the gradual stripping away of the layers of civilization with which we cloak ourselves, the shift of location from town to wilderness often being implemented as a visual signifier of the process. As soon as the stagecoach moves out into the desert the true characters which have only been superficially explored beforehand become more apparent. The most overt example of this is the way the attitudes to the Indian threat are articulated. It’s the senator who consistently tries to express sympathy and understanding for the native point of view, something which meets with increasing hostility and belligerence from the other passengers as the danger grows more intense. As such, the redemptive aspect (which must necessarily be present in almost any western of the period) applies much less to the senator than it does to the others. One could say that the senator’s journey is one of vindication while his fellow passengers are on the path to redemption. Banner experiences this on two fronts: the final erosion of his racial prejudice going hand in hand with a form of reconciliation with, and arguably atonement for, his criminal past and the consequences that has had for those around him.

Dakota Incident was directed by Lewis R Foster, a man whose career I’m not all that familiar with, although I do have a copy of another of his movies, Crashout, in my to-watch pile. While the town based section of the film has its moments, Foster does much better work when he takes things outside – the brief opening and then the long siege in the desert. The script, by Frederick Louis Fox, concentrates on the pressures the various characters come under and how they react to them. That siege in the dry riverbed has the result of turning the picture into a kind of claustrophobic chamber piece, the cast now limited to the principals and their lack of an escape route turning their thoughts and emotions inward. Director of photography Ernest Haller was behind the camera on a number of highly regarded films noir and brought a touch of that sensibility to his work here, the darker nighttime scenes being especially effective.

Dale Robertson was good value as conflicted or ambiguous western heroes – A Day of Fury and The Silver Whip are other examples of this – and the role of John Banner was a suitable one for him. For much of the movie’s running time he’s hardly what you’d call a likeable guy, he’s self-assured and capable but not in a pleasant way. Playing off his swaggering machismo is Linda Darnell, an actress who was always sultry and possessed of her own brand of self-confidence. She goes from cool composure, a relaxed awareness of her feminine power, to borderline hysteria and naked hatred as the tension of the siege and the lack of water gnaws away at her – a strong performance. John Lund turned in a study in enigmatic passivity (but with an undercurrent of justified aggression bubbling just below the surface) for much of the movie before finding himself sidelined to an extent in the latter stages. The honors, however, belong to Ward Bond in my opinion. Bond was a master of bluster, a solid physical presence who could be a figure of fun or a serious threat depending on circumstance. In Dakota Incident he’s just about tolerated by his fellow passengers, although his speeches on racial harmony and his amorous advances towards Darnell are, for the most part, treated with ridicule and disdain. The net result of this treatment is that the viewer feels a good deal of sympathy for the man, the sentiments he expresses are hardly what I’d call objectionable. Given Bond’s real life hawkish tendencies, his casting as such an outspoken liberal works remarkably well and his character comes off as having a lot more integrity than practically anyone else.

I don’t think Dakota Incident has been released on DVD anywhere to date – I have Jerry Entract to thank, again, for my getting to see it. The lack of availability is a shame as it’s definitely worth seeing for the cinematography of Haller and also the casting. I wouldn’t say it’s an overlooked classic or anything of that kind, but there’s a good deal to take from it if you appreciate 50s westerns. In fact, I think that’s a comment which could be applied to a lot of Republic’s output – films which are imperfect in many ways yet different enough, with their own look and sensibility, to deserve a little more attention.

This piece is offered as part of the Republic Pictures Blogathon hosted by Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s. I’d like to suggest readers visit the site and check out the other contributions to this blogathon dedicated to the films of Republic by following the link above. Alternatively, feel free to click on the badge below, which will take you to the same destination.

 

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45 thoughts on “Dakota Incident

  1. Good stuff Colin. This one’s available on YouTube (as appears to be the norm with Republic pictures) and I’ll try to catch it at some point. Linda Darnell was such a great leading lady and completely capable of playing more than passive love interest parts – I love her in Fallen Angel, in which she beguiles Dana Andrews so convincingly. The role Ward Bond took sounds to me like a terrific casting joke.

      • He was the supporting actor’s supporting actor, wasn’t he? Earlier today I was fortunate enough to catch a big screen showing of Gone with the Wind, and who should pop up at some point but Mr Bond, playing a soldier. He must have been in so many movies…

        • That’s right. He has quite a memorable, albeit small, role in Gone With the Wind and his list of credits is indeed huge – it seems he appeared in 21 films in 1939 alone.

  2. I love the eloquent and clear way you lay out the elements and engine behind the story Colin. A pleasure to read, as always. I’ll certainly look out for this.
    Many thanks,
    Chris.

  3. This is a good one which I’ve always enjoyed. It turns up quite regularly on TV here in the U.K. and in a reasonable quality print. The cast is excellent. Dale Robertson was one of those actors who looked completely comfortable in westerns. A quality that, I’m afraid, has been all but lost in more recent attempts within the genre. (Robert Duvall is about the only actor I can think of who still has that aura about him). Linda Darnell also seemed to fit into westerns without trying. I’ve thought so ever since I heard her sing “Ten Thousand Cattle” in My Darling Clementine. A perfect western moment!
    For some reason, I always confuse Dakota Incident with another picture with a vaguely simiar storyline called “Dragoon Wells Massacre” which is also shown on TV here quite often.
    It’s good to read such a typically perceptive review of a little-discussed but solid 50s western. Thanks Colin!

    • Cheers, Dafydd. The plot, or variations on it at least, is familiar enough territory but I like the way it’s handled.
      You’re quite right that the casting of seasoned western performers, those who were a good fit for the genre, helps enormously.

  4. Not seen this one either but as always you make these little known titles sound really worth pursuing – shall chase that YouTube version – thanks as always chum. And great to be reminded of Darnell too, always a better actress than she got credit for.

  5. Great to see your choice, Colin!
    Much as I really like Robertson, I’ve always found “DAKOTA INCIDENT” a tad static (especially for a Republic western) but your incisive review has made me want to rewatch with new eyes.

    • I can see where you’re coming from with the “static”reference, Jerry. I guess the fact such a significant portion of the story is confined to a tight little location can create that feeling. Personally, I really enjoy those films which focus on a small group of characters in a limited space – there’s a good deal of drama to be derived from the developing relationships, due largely to the fact they’re forced to interact with types they wouldn’t normally associate with.

  6. Oh Dear!
    I found the sensational poster artwork that you sourced to be far more interesting than
    anything that happens in the film.
    As you know I have never been too keen on Lewis R Fosters Westerns but I would certainly
    move CRASHOUT up the pecking order in your legendary “to be viewed heap*
    I was most amused by your “political” Ward Bond comments. 🙂

    The writer Frederick Louis Fox was,until recently unknown to me,but I have been ploughing
    through the excellent THE REBEL TV series and see that Mr Fox wrote some of the best
    episodes in a very strong series.
    The 16mm prints from which the DVD set was sourced have suffered the ravages of time
    but it’s still pretty watchable for the most part. Perhaps not right up there with HAVE GUN WILL
    TRAVEL but a strong adult themed series all the same.

    As Dale Robertson Republic Westerns go I much prefer HELL CANYON OUTLAWS
    a lower budget independent effort released by Republic.
    HELL CANYON OUTLAWS (UK title THE TALL TROUBLE) has excellent credits with
    director Paul Landres,shot by Floyd Crosby and edited by Elmo Williams.
    Sadly watchable copies of HELL CANYON OUTLAWS are impossible to track down.
    Hopefully Toby’s great Republic Blogathon might prompt some brave soul to release some
    of these overlooked films.

    • Yes, I remember from comments you made in the past that you weren’t overly fond of this film, John. It worked for me though and, as I said above, it relies on the kind of setup I usually find attractive.
      Hell Canyon Outlaws, now there’s a title that grabs the attention pretty forcefully, isn’t one I’ve seen and I agree the people involved make it sound worthwhile.

  7. Mmm….I’d really like to see this one. 🙂 I have a funny relationship with movies set in the Dakotas these days, as I live in North Dakota and interact with quite a few traditional farmers and cowhands who have don’t the work for many generations, as well as lots of Lakota people (I’m taking private lessons in the Lakota language from a native speaker). I also made the effort this summer to go to the Black Hills, South Dakota’s Buffalo herds, the badlands, the site of Wounded Knee (both of them, actually), and the sight of Custer’s folly over in Montana. It has really changed the way I watch the movies, but certainly not for the negative.

    • Clayton, the setting of the movie in this case isn’t all that important, it could just as easily take place in any frontier location. However, I quite understand your interest – familiarity with a setting inevitably adds something, although it can of course lead to some disappointment when you notice errors made or liberties taken.
      Oh, and the best of luck with the Lakota language lessons.

  8. I’m pretty much with you on this and feel John K. is too hard on it. Not inspired realization maybe, but solid and in 1956 it’s hard to be uninteresting in the variations on these stories. I’ve seen this a couple of times, actually liked it more the second time. Not great but not bad either–one more middle-range 50s Western but there can’t be too many of those for me.

    I do agree with John that CRASHOUT is especially good Lewis R. Foster and you’ll want to get to that. It’s one I want to get back to myself.

    A few other comments touched on Ward Bond. I especially agree with Patricia that he’s always good, conspicuously good in all truth. I have no sympathy at all for where he was politically but never think about that when I watch him in movies as he’s always so completely believable in any role given him. And he’s brought so much to so many great movies. The John Ford ones alone make him one of the greatest movie actors ever.

    Very good piece as always, Colin.

    • Thanks, Blake. Yeah, solid and mid-range is about the way I’d rate the film too, which shouldn’t be read as any real criticism. I’ll certainly be watching Crashout, I just don’t know exactly when that’s going to happen.
      On Bond, again I wouldn’t share his views but, like yourself, that never made any difference to my appreciation of his acting talent. The sheer number of parts he played, both large and small, and played them so convincingly speaks for itself.

  9. Colin, I was really interested in this, I’ve had a copy in my stack for quite a while now yet haven’t gotten to it. As so often happens you are motivating me to want to pull it out and check it out now! Love the cast — a lot of favorites for me here in Darnell, Lund, Toomey, and Bond. Traveling characters thrown into a dangerous situation is a tried-and-true Western theme which so often works well. Enjoyed your review!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

      • Pulled it out and watched it tonight, should have a post up Tuesday or Wednesday. A nice middle-of-the-road Western. I agree with your take — no classic, not a film I’d call a favorite, yet enough interesting moments, actors, etc., to make it worth taking a look.

        Best wishes,
        Laura

        • I’ll look forward to seeing your own post then, and happy to have encouraged you to give it a go. As you say, there are good things going on, and I feel there are enough of them to rise above the elements which don’t quite work.

  10. Nice job, Colin, and setting out the merits of this film. I haven’t seen this one, but it sounds interesting, especially the survivalist aspects that seem to come into play later in the film. It’s noteworthy that, despite coming as part of the last gasp of Republic’s output, the film still features a pretty impressive cast, at least to those of us who treasure character actors like Doucette, Homeier, Bond and Toomey, et al, not to mention the delicious Darnell. I don’t think I’ve seen any of Dale Robertson’s western work, hard as it is to believe, considering his extensive genre resume. Need to remedy that…pity this one seems hard to find.

    • Hi, Jeff, and thanks. Yes, there’s a good front line cast and the smaller supporting roles aren’t short of familiar faces either. Robertson is, of course, a strong western presence and more of his work has become available in the last few years. Sadly, this movie remains without a release anywhere, but it can at least be found online.

  11. Colin

    Thanks for the heads up on this one, as it now has been added to the list. Lewis R Foster was a serviceable director of B fodder and cranked out several that are well worth a look, CRASHOUT, THE BOLD AND THE BRAVE, THE LAST OUTPOST, etc. After film work dried up, he easily made the move to television and did more than a few excellent episodes of various series. Two of my favorite, are, ARMED and DEBT OF HONOR from the “STAGE 7” 1955 series. Neville Brand headlines the first and Edmond O’Brien and Charles Bronson are in the second. (Reviews up of course)

    Gord

    • There are clear imperfections in this movie but it’s easy to find and view online so give it a try some time and see what you think.
      Those TV show, as usual, sound like they deserve a look.

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