Ambush

Mention cavalry films to anyone familiar with classic era movies, and westerns in particular, and the odds are they will immediately think of John Ford. Even so, most of those same fans will be aware of the fact that he certainly wasn’t the only one to spin tales of the men and women populating the isolated and dusty outposts of the frontier. The self-contained communities, the remoteness and the ever-present danger of these settings meant they were bursting with potential as backdrops for a wide range of dramatic developments. Ambush (1950), with its focus as much on the tensions simmering away within the fort as the threats of the hostile land around it, and of course the strong Irish presence among the horse soldiers, appears reminiscent of a Ford movie. And yet it’s a different creature at heart; the sentimentality and whimsy aren’t  there, and the sense of community is not as pronounced.

There’s a fine, tense opening which underlines the perilous situation. It’s Arizona and Apache chief Diablito (Charles Stevens) has broken out of the reservation and is raiding. The first shot of the movie reveals the aftermath of a massacre, broken bodies strewn across the landscape amid the smouldering remnants of wagons, the only sound being the cries of the retreating raiders. Up in the mountains Ward Kinsman (Robert Taylor), some time scout for the army, is busy packing away the gold he has been prospecting for, but stops abruptly when a startled bird rises suddenly from a copse of bushes. His caution is understandable since the smoke drifting off neighboring peaks indicates Diablito isn’t far away. Still, it’s something of a false alarm as the alien presence is actually only that of Holly (John McIntire), another scout who’s been sent to bring Kinsman back to base. While that in itself is far from plain sailing, it’s achieved in due course and main thread of the story becomes apparent. A young woman by the name of Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl) has come west in the hopes of finding her sister who has been abducted by the Apache. Her family is army and so she the influence needed to have a party under the command of Captain Lorrison (John Hodiak) assigned to the task. It’s hoped that Kinsman can be persuaded to sign on as scout, thus his summons back to the fort at short notice. What follows is the attempts to trace and rescue the captive woman, complicated by two romantic subplots. The first is a fairly standard affair involving competition between Taylor and Hodiak for the affections of Dahl. The other is treated as a subsidiary, although I feel it’s much more interesting, and concerns the forbidden relationship between a young lieutenant (Don Taylor) and the abused wife (Jean Hagen) of an enlisted man.

Ambush was the last movie made by Sam Wood, he died before its release, and it’s a solid piece of work with some memorable sequences, well-handled pathos and a nice line in suspense. Cavalry westerns, especially those which spend any amount of time in and around a fort or outpost, have a tendency to become a touch episodic. That’s the case here, as the film digs into the lives of the characters and builds towards the final confrontation with Diablito’s Apaches. The plus side of this though is that the scenes in the fort have a tight shadowy atmosphere, a reflection perhaps of the restrictive nature of army life and its effects on the personal lives of the characters. ON the other hand, there’s also plenty of location work on view, with New Mexico standing in for Arizona, and the outdoor action scenes are very well shot. If I have a criticism, it would be that some of the romantic stuff revolving around Taylor, Dahl and Hodiak could have been cut. I see it as being used to emphasize the rivalry between the two men but it’s not really necessary, adds little and slows things down somewhat. Aside from that, the movie carries only a little fat and moves along at a nice clip.

Taylor had already tried his hand at westerns back in 1941 in Billy the Kid. At that time he was 30 years old and, although arguably too old to be playing Mr Bonney, he looked a little fresh-faced for the genre. By the time of Ambush the war years were behind him, he was rapidly closing in on 40 and had taken on the harder look that would serve him well throughout the coming decade. Aside from the slightly jaded toughness that make his scenes with Dahl more interesting, there’s a surprising level of vulnerability on show too. It’s not so often that you see films of the era allowing their leading man to take a good old-fashioned hiding, but that’s exactly what happens to Taylor’s character at one point when he challenges Hodiak’s by-the-book officer to a fight. And Hodiak is fine too in that inflexible role although, as I mentioned before, the contrived romantic rivalry over Ms Dahl is something of a pointless distraction. Dahl’s role was mainly about looking good and keeping her potential suitors on their toes, and she manages both tasks easily. The more complex female part was given to Jean Hagen, she doesn’t get to exhibit the glamor of Dahl but it’s her conflicted yet loyal woman who makes the bigger impression – both actresses were cast together again in the following year’s Barry Sullivan crime picture No Questions Asked. Lots of good support is provided by Don Taylor (as Hagen’s would-be lover), the ever-reliable John McIntire, Bruce Cowling (who would go on to play Wyatt Earp in the underrated Masterson of Kansas), Leon Ames and Ray Teal.

There are plenty of options for watching Ambush as there are DVDs available from the Warner Archive in the US, as well as editions on the market in Spain and Italy. I have the Spanish version, although I did own the Archive disc too in the past and the transfer looks identical to my eyes. It’s one of those unrestored prints – cue markers and the odd scratch on view – that’s in reasonable shape overall. It could use a clean up but it’s not the kind of title whose profile, or market potential, is likely to justify the expense that would entail. So, Ambush offers a strong cast, authentic locations and good visuals. Marguerite Roberts’ script, taken from a Luke Short novel, maybe should have trimmed some material from the mid-section but that’s not what we could term a fatal flaw by any means – it remains a well-made and entertaining western.

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35 thoughts on “Ambush

    • I think you’ll like it. It’s what you might term a good bread and butter western – it doesn’t do anything very startling but what you get is consistently entertaining.

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  1. Good to know there’s an Italian edition – never seen this one and I always liked Wood as a really solid crafts man (he shot big chunks of GONE WITH THE WIND and was the only director to handle two films with the Marx brothers).

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    • Yes, he had a surprisingly varied career and handled all kinds of material very well. I think he did a great job on For Whom the Bell Tolls, and I have a bit of a soft spot for Command Decision.

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      • Yes, agree completely about COMMAND DECISION too (though it always pales for me in comparison with the not dissimilar 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. But will always remain grateful to him for the sheer wonderful weirdness of KING’S ROW 🙂

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        • Ah well, Twelve O’Clock High is just pure class, a first rate film in so many respects. There aren’t too many movies in a position to challenge it so I’d say there’s no shame in anything paling alongside it.

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            • Yes, Gable certainly shines and there’s such a strong ensemble cast to back him up.
              I guess you could say Peck was a bit young although I can’t really complain about his performance.

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              • No, exactly, Peck is really good – but I suppose, because the likes of Gable and James Stewart served during the war and were clearly more mature in years (and Peck was still quite boyish looking). But along with WAY TO THE STARS it remains probably my favourite of the films of its type.

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  2. Always a pleasure to see a good review of a western starring Robert Taylor, a major star who clearly felt comfortable in the genre and was effective in his roles.
    I acquired the Archive print only last year and I think the print quality is excellent; great clarity and good contrast in the darker scenes.
    I completely agree, Colin, that the affair between the abused wife played by Jean Hagen and the young cavalry officer (Don Taylor) was a high point of the movie and very mature in its treatment.

    Good western.

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    • I think, as you suggest, that Taylor’s comfort in the genre was one of the reasons he was so effective in the genre. Glad you agree on the quality of the movie and its strengths too, Jerry.

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  3. I really have to get up to speed with Taylor’s westerns. The sorts of thing I know him from are sworrd-ish bits, like The Adventures of Quentin Durward, Quo Vadis, Knights of the Round Table and Ivanhoe. He’s certainly a serious presence. I’ve seen The Law and Jake Wade, but I wasn’t to hot on it overall, but he was great throughout. I’ll have to give Ambush a spin.

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    • He made his fair share of swashbucklers and costume epics, and generally performed well in such roles. I think he really took to westerns though, and film noir too, and did terrific work there. I’d recommend checking out The Last Hunt, which I rote up here a few years back, if you get the opportunity – it’s an excellent film and has a great part for Taylor.

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    • The genre did have a habit of encouraging good work from a whole range of actors, even those who might have been considered “soft”, or whose screen persona mightn’t have been immediately associated with the western. Says a lot about the genre, really.

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  4. This is a Western I liked a great deal. Terrific opening, as you’ve noted, and excellent performances from Taylor and John McIntire, among others.

    It’s been a few years since I last saw it and your post makes me want to revisit it. Thanks so much for calling attention to it, I hope others will enjoy it as we have!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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    • Thanks, Laura, I’m always happy if I put anyone in the mood to watch or rewatch something. You know, I just remembered that I’d meant to say that it’s a pity John McIntire isn’t in the movie more. Of course that’s something could be said about pretty much every film he appeared in, so maybe my omission is excusable.

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  5. My favorite Robert Taylor western is WESTWARD THE WOMEN. He is surrounded by very strong women in that movie, no Arlene Dahl “looking good” roles seen here. Denise Darcel is in WTW with Taylor and is also in William Wellmans’s great film, BATTLEGROUND, where Bruce Cowling is cast as a gruff combat grunt. John McIntire is also in both AMBUSH and WTW. Solid acting by all.
    I saw AMBUSH several years ago and recall enjoying it, good pacing and character development. I prefer B&W westerns and AMBUSH looks great. Thanks for the, as always, fine review Colin. I will pull out my disc and watch it again this week.

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    • Thanks, Elise. If there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t seen Westward the Women, then I’d urge them to rectify that at the earliest opportunity. It is an extraordinarily good film.

      You know, I’m not sure if I ever thought about whether I had a preference for B&W or color westerns, or films in general for that matter. Thinking about it now, I don’t believe I’m too bothered one way or the other – as long as the movie is well made and makes use of the artistic potential of whatever format it employs, then it’s all good with me.

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  6. Colin, further to my comments elsewhere re European imprints of good westerns that are not available in decent prints in the U.S. or UK – I have just today received Spanish imprints of “SHOTGUN” (very good pq) and “RED MOUNTAIN” (beautiful print!). For any of your readers who may not have found the European releases of these films yet (like me) – I recommend them!

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    • Good to know, Jerry. I got the Italian release of Red Mountain a while back and thought it looked very good so I’m pleased to hear the Spanish version is of good quality too.

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    • Generally, yes, just a lot of stuff got in the way and has been occupying my time. For one reason or another, I haven’t been in the mood for posting – will do as soon as possible though. Thanks for asking.

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  7. Great review Colin ,and a good movie .I have all his westerns including SAVAGE PAMPAS in which I thought he and Ty Hardin were miscast .. American actors playing Arentine roles .Good to see Don Taylor in this who starred in SUBMARINE COMMAND and also directed RIDE THE WILD SURF. My favourite Robert Taylor western is THE HANGMAN.

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    • Thanks. I haven’t heard too many people cite The Hangman as their favorite among Taylor’s westerns. I recall being quite fond of it myself although it’s been some time since I last saw it. I really ought to watch it again, and maybe write something on it…

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  8. Colin ,I watch THE HANGMAN a fair bit. I recently read about a goof in the movie on the IMDB discussion board when Jack Lord is breaking out of jail through a hole in the wall. A crewman can be seen in the street and he ducks back out of sight .I never noticed that until I read about it and anyway they probably thought it wasn’t worth reshooting as they would have to rebuild the wall .

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  9. Golin

    First time I caught this one was only last year and quite enjoyed it. The older Taylor got, the more I liked him. Good duster for a rainy afternoon.

    Gord

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