Apache Rifles

One of the great pleasures of blogging about movies is the way it has a habit of altering one’s plans in a positive way. Recent discussion put me in the mood to watch more William Witney, and the always fascinating tangential comments mentioned Audie Murphy and one of his films I hadn’t gotten round to. Apache Rifles (1964) is a film I’ve had sitting unwatched on my shelves for a while now and it’s one of the later films of both Witney and Murphy and has the added appeal, for me at least, of fitting into that transitional era for the western that has always interested me. The timing, casting and style are all noteworthy in any examination of this period of film history, and the picture itself is a tight and entertaining affair.

This highly fictionalized account sees Apache chief Victorio (Joseph Vitale) break out of the San Carlos reservation in protest at, among other things, the exploitation of the land and breaking of the treaties by unscrupulous gold miners. And so the hunt is on to bring these miscreants back, in this case led by a Captain Stanton (Audie Murphy), a soldier whose driven and implacable reputation precedes him, both among the troops under his command and the Apache he’s pursuing. Reputations are invariably won, and on occasion lost, for a reason; with Stanton, it all stems from his past and what he believes was his father’s misplaced trust in the word of the Indian. Embittered and determined not be played for a sucker in the same way, Stanton has taken a different path to his forebear and fully embraced his hatred for his enemy. In his eyes, the Apache is essentially sub-human, little more than an animal to be brought to heel by whatever means are necessary. Yet just as he achieves success in persuading Victorio to return to San Carlos, the seeds of self-doubt are sown by his encounter with Dawn Gillis (Linda Lawson), a missionary who has opted to live among the despised Apache. What’s worse, from Stanton’s point of view, is the attraction he feels towards this woman, especially in view of the fact she’s of mixed blood with a Comanche mother. Here we have the basis for an internal conflict, one that’s exacerbated by the unexpected shift in circumstances which takes place. At the precise moment when this unapologetic racist is on the point of questioning his own prejudice the carpet is whipped from beneath him. As ever, economic considerations influence political direction and Stanton finds himself pitched into something of a moral and emotional quandary.  Stripped of his command, he can only look on as the scene is set for a bloody conflict between the wronged Apache and the manipulated cavalry, with his own moral and emotional well-being at stake.

Apache Rifles was made at the same time Sergio Leone was turning out A Fistful of Dollars and only a year before Sam Peckinpah would give us Major Dundee. In short, the western genre was in a state of flux at this point, and here we have a movie which is a reflection of that. The central theme of a man coming to terms with his own preconceptions and the reassessment of White/Indian relations harks back to the golden age of the 50s, while the tone and casting straddles the divide. As the 60s progressed, and the spaghetti western gained an ever stronger foothold on the consciousness of the audience, cynicism and a more casual attitude to violence would take root. Apache Rifles isn’t a cynical picture yet there’s a certain bitterness on show that presages what was looming over the horizon. Witney was an action director, an advocate of pace and punch, and there’s a frankness to his depiction of violence that would be built upon (or some might argue exploited) in the years to come. While there’s no explicit gore on display, there’s an acceptance of cruelty – a crucifixion and the torture of an a captive Apache. The film is by no means graphic compared to what would be the case in the future but there is a hard edge to it all the same. The location shooting, in Red Rock Canyon and Lone Pine, similarly recalls the classics of the 50s while simultaneously grounding it in realism.

All of which lead us on to the casting. Once again, there’s that sense of transition, particularly with the presence of Audie Murphy and L Q Jones. It’s impossible to think of Murphy without recalling the 50s, his wholesome persona fitting neatly into that more hopeful and optimistic time. But Murphy was far from simplistic, his war record and increasingly complex performances being proof of that. Given the right material, he was capable of the kind of brooding moodiness that grabs the attention. I think he was a fine actor who grew in stature with each successive picture, bringing a kind of coiled self-awareness to his roles. Taking the part of the principal villain is L Q Jones, a man who had already worked with Boetticher and Scott in Buchanan Rides Alone but who would go on to achieve greater fame in his films with Sam Peckinpah. His is a marvelously weaselly part, one with no redeeming features whatsoever. It’s also worth mentioning Michael Dante, who plays Victorio’s son and heir, a stoic and honorable figure throughout if perhaps a little too noble.

Apache Rifles is readily available on DVD, both in the US and the UK. The US edition comes via VCI – I imagine the Odeon UK disc replicates the transfer – and presents the film in its native 1.85:1 ratio. Overall, this is a good presentation of the film that is colorful and free of major distractions and damage. Happily, there are some worthwhile extra features included: there’s a gallery and trailers for some other VCI titles as well as some short featurettes. There are brief pieces on the Lone Pine museum and Michael Dante discussing his work with Witney, and then a more substantial piece on the position Apache Rifles occupies in the evolution of the genre. The latter includes some interesting information on the cast and crew of the movie. All told, this is an entertaining film, one of the last of what might be called the classic westerns. It’s certainly worth a look for anyone keen on the genre and the direction it was taking in the 1960s.


29 thoughts on “Apache Rifles

  1. Very fine piece Colin, and I welcome this Witney kick that you are on.
    The extras which include the Dante interview give a good impression of what Murphy was like
    on set,what he would not tolerate.I understand Dante got along pretty well with him.
    Some great stories there.
    Dante was good,at least he worked with Boetticher and Fuller as well.
    Talented Linda Lawson,I understand married Paul Newman’s business partner.

    • Cheers, John. I’ve been enjoying these Witney movies myself and it’s about time he was given a bit of coverage on this site.

      Films like this often don’t come with much in the way of extra features so I appreciate them a lot when they are present. It’s always good to hear from those who were directly involved in the productions like Dante.

  2. Another fine piece here, Colin!
    My appreciation for Murphy has continued to grow over many years. I remember a quote from him back in the day, along the lines…”I’m no actor and I’ve got 20 films to prove it” or something like that. I don’t agree with him and he certainly rose to meet good material and/or a good director on many occasions.
    This particular film I have only seen once, many years ago, and I remember finding it rather flat and uninspired at the time. However, my admiration for both Murphy and Witney, plus the depth of scrutiny of your fine review, mean I should revisit when I can – and soon!

    • Thanks, Jerry. I rate Murphy better than his own self-deprecating attitude, which I think has colored the opinions of some towards his abilities.
      I like this movie, maybe in part because I was in the right mood for it. I also appreciated looking at where it fits into the wider picture with regard to where the genre was going at that time.

  3. Jerry’s quote was attributed to Randolph Scott and greatly amused Lee Marvin.
    Randy applied for membership of a somewhat snooty golf club and was told
    we don’t offer membership to actors. Randy replied “I’m no actor…I’ve made fifty films
    to prove it”…..they let him in.

    Murphy always said he was handicapped by a “lack of talent” his many fans would beg to differ.
    He also said that he made the same film fifty times.
    Murphy had little time for Hollywood which he considered was “full of phonies”
    ARIZONA RAIDERS also with Murphy and Dante (as a very nasty heavy) directed by Witney is
    also very good.
    As good as Audie was in those early Universal pictures you could see he was getting bored with the whole thing in later fare like THE QUICK GUN,.

    • It’s been a while since I watched Arizona Raiders and the impression I took away from it at the time was the toughness it displayed, it felt genuinely mean in places.

  4. Colin,
    The Sony MOD that appeared several years back was a lovely remastered widescreen transfer,
    and yes,uncut it’s graphically violent in parts.
    I don’t know if the film has been released in Europe.
    I liked the film at the cinema many moons ago,and thought it looked dreadful on TV,edited and
    at the wrong ratio.Seeing a film in a decent transfer in the right ratio makes all the difference.
    Even the most maligned of the Murphy/Witney trilogy 40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS is not half
    bad when viewed in it’s intended ratio…there was a very nice Spanish version released
    a few years back..by Sony Spain..not some dodgy imprint.

    • Sony put the film out in the UK a few years ago as a MovieMail exclusive, which I have. Amazon still don’t seem to offer it direct although there are 3rd party sellers offering it for a very good price.
      I have that Spanish Sony release of 40 Guns to Apache Pass too, middling film that I agree needs to be seen in the correct ratio.

  5. John was, of course, correct about that Randy quote. I just remembered Audie being very self-deprecating and I think you are spot-on, Colin, in your view that it coloured critical opinion of him.
    As for the rather good “ARIZONA RAIDERS”, it was shown on TV in very recent months in Hi-Def and ‘scope aspect. Made the whole thing so much more enjoyable. Witney again, of course.

      • I think most – but not all – UK TV channels have got the message loud and clear now (certainly the Beeb) that films should be shown as intended. There have been some great examples in recent months. Good to see. (I, for one, cannot afford to devote vast amounts of income towards official purchases of everything and now, quite often, the TV broadcast version is as good anyway).

  6. Audie’s correct comment, made in a 1971 interview was that “I had no talent…..I made the same film 20 times….” And I still beg to differ.

  7. Colin,
    40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS has a weak script and a less than stellar supporting cast.
    Ken Toby is OK as the heavy but I prefer him in Sci-Fi.
    Witney’s handling of the action scenes make the whole thing worthwhile.
    Some striking locations in part,too.
    Out of the three Witney’s I think I prefer ARIZONA RAIDERS.

  8. I still haven’t seen APACHE RIFLES. I believe this is the only Audie Murphy Western I haven’t seen yet and long on my want list. Didn’t know it was available so thanks for this piece partly for that and also for more comments on this transitional period which fascinates me too, as we’ve discussed more than once. The movie certainly sounds like it could be good with that story–and has Witney.

    I agree with all the comments about Audie Murphy, but I think it may be better for an actor to underestimate his talent than overestimate it. He will work to be real, and this can lead to a lot. Murphy should have taken another look at his movies though–he didn’t make the same movie over and over and wound up with quite a range between affable good guy and that “brooding melancholy” that you describe. For example, NO NAME ON THE BULLET and THE WILD AND THE INNOCENT (back to back 1959 movies) find him in virtually opposite roles, wonderfully effective in both, and they are both superior Westerns.

    • Hi,Blake. The VCI release of the movie is easy, and cheap, to track down so I hope you do get the chance to plug that gap in your viewing of Murphy’s films.
      Good point about an actor’s estimation of his own talents and abilities – Murphy always comes across as quite natural on screen, and that is more than likely the result of the professional way he approached his work.

  9. This one I have. I grew up on Murphy westerns with Dad so have seen the majority of his flicks and have to admit I prefer the fifties flicks overall because I found them making better use of the low budgets they were handed then many of his sixties efforts. Nice to see L.Q. being L.Q. here. Just the way we like him.

    • There are still some Murphy films I haven’t seen, though I do have copies of the majority of them. Overall, I guess I’d have a preference for his 50s stuff too, and for similar reasons to those you mention. The Universal-International stuff always looked lush, for example.

  10. I’m a big Murphy fan as well; I watch DESTRY pretty much every year. This is one that I haven’t seen, so thanks for the wonderful tip! Such a mellow guy, but such a dynamic cowboy star. Being a fan of serial and b-reel westerns (Mix, Jones, McCoy, Brown, et al.), I see a kinship between Murphy’s approach and theirs…calm but resolute.

    Nice checking in here again; sorry it’s been so long.

    • Hi, Clayton. I haven’t been around the web as much as I ought to myself so it’s good to hear from you, and I hope you’re keeping well.
      I’m not so familiar with those programmer stars you mention – it’s a gap I need to fill in at some point – but it’s interesting to hear you feel Murphy is comparable in terms of screen persona.
      And I agree Destry is a good little movie, much better than it’s reputation as a lesser remake of Marshall’s own earlier classic would suggest.

      • Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Johnny Mack Brown & William Boyd are my real western heroes. I love the 30’s stripped down & fun action. I highly recommend seeing RAWHIDE with the baseball star Lou Gehrig; totally fun and worth it’s weight in popcorn. 🙂

        • Yes, others have recommended trying out some of those movies before and I keep meaning to do so. It’s down to forgetfulness on my part rather than any reluctance.

  11. Murphy could act … given the chance. Look at his performance in The Unforgiven – directed by John Huston. Very good. Unfortunately, most of the time they weren’t really interested in that, and much of his work is a formula product.

    • Some of his films gave him only fleeting opportunities to show off his acting skills, though I feel they were present even then. But there were other times when he was given more to work with and handed more challenging roles – he never came up short of the mark in those circumstances.

  12. Pingback: Bullet for a Badman | Riding the High Country

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