Fort Massacre

It’s been said that everything has its own time, its place in the overall scheme, and I guess that’s true of art in general and  movies in this particular instance. Anyone browsing around this place for even a short time will probably notice that I’m fond of tracing the lines of development of cinema, especially the western. I like to see where individual films came from, what they were pointing towards and where they fit into the pattern formed by the genre. The reason I mention all that is because as I watched Fort Massacre (1958) it struck me that the film is very much a product of its time, both within the line of progression followed by the western and also on account of its placement in the filmography of its leading player – I shall return to, and try to expand upon, that later.

It opens with a killing, or the aftermath of a massacre to be more precise. In New Mexico a platoon on its way to join up with a larger column, in turn supposed to meet and escort a wagon train, has been ambushed and very nearly wiped out by  a large war party of Apache. What remains is a bedraggled and weary troop under the command of Sergeant Vinson (Joel McCrea), the highest ranking man left alive. It’s down to this man to try to get the survivors to the nearest fort and let his superiors take it from there. However, in order to do this he has to overcome hostility. That hostility is exists on many fonts and on many levels: form the landscape, the elements, the Apache and most damaging of all, from the men he has to lead. The leader whose right to do so is under question could be regarded as something of a cliché, it tends to come down to lack of confidence and questions pertaining to competence. Here, somewhat refreshingly and perhaps daringly, that’s not quite the case. Vinson has to constantly battle the mutinous rumblings from within his own ranks not because they don’t trust his abilities as a soldier, but because his own men look on him as something of a monster, a man consumed with a passion for killing. It’s gradually revealed that Vinson lost all that he held most dear to the Apache and acquired a ruthless, bloodthirsty streak as a consequence. And so every decision that has to be taken is eyed with suspicion by the troopers, and also by the viewers, who wonder whether the veteran sergeant is savior or avenger.

Fort Massacre was the first of two films director Joseph M Newman made with Joel McCrea (The Gunfight at Dodge City would come out the following year) and it’s an excellent piece of work. With the enduring popularity of cult Sci-Fi movies, I imagine Newman’s name will be familiar to many as the man who took charge of This Island Earth. Here, he keeps the story on track and moving steadily forward, making optimum use of the New Mexico and Utah locations. The two big action set pieces are well handled and sure touch of cinematographer Carl Guthrie is also evident throughout. I mentioned the placement of the film in the timeline of the western back in the introduction, and I’d like to attempt to clarify what I was referring to. By the 1950s the western had attained full maturity, and by the end of that decade it was possessed of the self-assurance that its own artistic elevation bestowed on it. So in practical terms, what does that mean? It means, to my mind anyway, that the genre had clarity of vision. The western by this time, and at its best, could regard itself with clarity, unburdened by the awkwardness of its own adolescence and not yet jaded by the introspection of its post-classical years. The western could see itself as it was, and therefore present audiences with a character like Vinson and, with confidence, ask them to make of him what they would.

Which leads me neatly on to Joel McCrea and his portrayal of Sergeant Vinson, which I also alluded to above. McCrea was approaching the end of his career at this stage, with only the aforementioned The Gunfight at Dodge City and the masterly Ride the High Country as noteworthy works ahead of him. His post-war credits, like those of Randolph Scott, were almost exclusively confined to the western so his authoritative position in the genre was and is unassailable. Again, this breeds the type of assurance that allows a big name player like McCrea to tackle a figure of the moral complexity of Vinson. A lesser performer, at a different place professionally, would have struggled with this one. Vinson is neither all bad nor all good, he’s a human being with all the reactions and failings which go with that. This is where the film is at its strongest, I think, that solid core which McCrea provides allowing for a grown-up appraisal of the revenge motif that bypasses the temptation to go for any simplistic resolution.

For long stretches the supporting cast appear as something akin to a Greek chorus, blending into one disgruntled formation, anonymous behind the figurative masks of their uniform and speaking as one as they voice their criticism of Vinson. Yet, from time to time, individuals do step forward and show something more of themselves. John Russell is the next closest to a rounded character, his self-doubting though educated recruit gradually coming into his own as circumstances and the influences of both his fellow troopers and Vinson mold him. It’s a good role for Russell, though he lacks the warmth McCrea naturally exudes he still acts as a figure for viewers to identify with more comfortably. Forrest Tucker  also has opportunities to shine as the stage Irish soldier who mixes insubordination with charm, a very enjoyable turn and he plays well off Anthony Caruso. Late on there are memorable, and at times darkly humorous, appearances by Susan Cabot and Francis McDonald as two Paiute Indians who become reluctantly involved in the soldiers’ plight.

Fort Massacre is easy enough to track down for viewing, there are readily available Blu-ray and DVD options in the USA, Europe and, I  imagine, other territories. Towards the end of last year there was a blogathon dedicated to Joel McCrea which I had hoped to participate in but which circumstances at the time just didn’t allow. I regret missing out on it and the reason I mention it here is because Fort Massacre was the film I had planned to write up as my contribution. Well, here it is, a few months late, and I recommend anyone reading this check out the other entries in that blogathon, which can be accessed here – good film writing doesn’t have an expiry date.


45 thoughts on “Fort Massacre

  1. It was worth waiting for, Colin! Delighted to now be reading the review you had intended for the fabulous Joel McCrea Blogathon.

    It always strikes me how this particular role in McCrea’s CV stands out from the rest. We know from comments he made at other times that his image in movies was important to him and his wish not to upset his fans by playing a certain type of role was strong. Evidence is solid that he was averse to playing Gil Westrum later in “RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY” because he felt it would disappoint his fans and so the role of Steve Judd went to him. Knowing all this, I am always surprised by his acceptance of the difficult role in “FORT MASSACRE”. Having said that though, I think he played it superbly.

    I am so pleased you chose this film in the McCrea canon, Colin. A masterful piece.

    • Thanks, Jerry, I just couldn’t get this piece together for a number of reasons back when Toby was running the blogathon but I fully intended to get it out there at some point.
      And yes, for one reason or another, we do tend to associate McCrea with a certain “type” and although he didn’t confine himself exclusively to that it’s nice to see him take on a role that displays a more marked contrast.

      • It is good to see, I agree, Colin, and I think it shows he was an actor of broader range than sometimes we give him credit for.

          • “SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS” is a special favourite with me and McCrea was terrific in it. He showed a lighter side when younger in this film, “FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT” etc. I also have always liked him in “PRIMROSE PATH” and “DEAD END”.
            No wonder he is one of my absolute favourite actors!

              • Recommend “DEAD END”, Colin. Directed by Wyler in 1937; McCrea is the male star but it is probably especially known as a star-making appearance by Bogart. Shows stage origins; it is quite a powerful film. Love to know what you think of it.

    • By all accounts, both editions are very good quality so I guess whichever is cheaper/more convenient. I have the DVD so the Blu-ray is still on my list of stuff to get when the finances are healthier, which may be some time. 🙂

      • I always really well to mature and confident westerns (which is why I’m such a fan of the Ranown cycle I suppose). Sounds great. I’ll look to see what the Blu-ray actually goes for these days – one wishes the pound were a tad stronger against the euro …

        • Agreed on every point there, my friend, and I might also add that it would be no bad thing if the pounds were a little more plentiful as well as stronger.

          Anyway, I think the movie is very worthwhile – it’s certainly a mature, thought-provoking effort, well made and acted, not overblown or overextended, and has flashes of humor at times to help it along.

            • Well those Preston Sturges films are sublime and McCrea is excellent in them, they’re among his best roles. In this movie, there’s not a lot of opportunity for his wit but there is at least one scene where he gets to deliver a fine piece of darkly humorous dialogue in perfect deadpan fashion. As I say there is a sprinkling of this dark humor all the way through but it’s spread around the cast members.

  2. Very nicely written Colin. Love the allusions to Greek Tragedy and the Cavalry Uniforms as ‘figurative masks’. It’s interesting to compare the McCrea character in FORT MASSACRE to the one he played in the excellent and underrated TROOPER HOOK (1957). In MASSACRE the McCrea character has been scarred by the brutality of the Indian, in HOOK McCrea’s Cavalry Sergeant has been traumatised by the brutality of the White Man in the context of the hell-hole that was Andersonville, the South’s largest and most notorious POW camp for Union soldiers during the Civil War. Both roles requiring an intensity and a
    psychological depth that were a million miles away from McCrea’s stereotypical ‘straight arrow’ roles (good as they were). It would be brilliant to see TROOPER HOOK In Hi-def as the Blu-Ray iterations of FORT MASSACRE are eye-popping. Thanks Colin for prompting me to start my day thinking about Joel McCrea pictures!

    • Thanks, buddy! That’s interesting to read about contrasting part he played in Trooper Hook as it’s a film I have a copy of but keep leaving to one side, partly because I’d heard its reputation is a bit weak. I think I’ll have to try to watch it a bit sooner now in light of what you say here.

      • I hope you do get around to “TROOPER HOOK”, Colin. I think it is under-rated, as Nick says. Be good to see a forthcoming McGuigan review here soon!……..

  3. Colin

    Caught this one on the tv a year or two ago and was quite happy I did. You nailed it right on the button. I think Tucker was a vastly under-rated actor.


    • Thanks, Gordon. Yes, Tucker was guy whose name I always liked seeing in the credits. I guess I first became familiar with him through TV reruns of F Troop when I was very young, and then I was a little surprised to learn he’d had such a long and varied career, and that his work wasn’t confined to comic roles.

        • Me too, the only ting that’s held be back is the fear, which has proven to be the case with other material before, that I may feel completely different about it now, that I may not get the same enjoyment from it.

          • Colin

            I know of what you speak. Comedies some time do not seem to hold up as well as Westerns or Police Drama. I did catch some CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU episodes a few months ago and they were still funny. I was really surprised how corny the spy series MAN FROM UNCLE 2 and 3rd season was. I loved the show as a kid. We all wanted the MAN FROM UNCLE toys etc. Still need to watch the 4th season. Actually GET SMART held up fairly well for a comedy series. Don Adams is a hoot!


            • Yes, comedy, and even material with strong comic elements, can be more problematic. I think tastes in humor seem to change faster or more radically, and then there’s the issue of topical material that’s no longer relevant. Straight drama, on the other hand, and regardless of genre, often appears more effective over time, especially if we the viewers have matured further in the interim.

  4. One of my favourite Forrest Tucker roles is ‘Mountain Phil’ in the-not-particularly-good 1970 Lee Van Cleef vehicle BARQUERO. Tucker, probably the best thing in the movie, shines as a jesting, psychopathic backwoodsman
    and I’m convinced that most of his dialogue is adlibbed. There’s also Tucker’s notable ‘I don’t like yer’ scene with The Duke in CHISUM …..

    • I think Tuck was a good match for the Duke in “CHISUM”, a western that seems to be greeted less-than-enthusiastically in some quarters but I think it one of the Duke’s very best later films.

    • Yes, I’ve not seen Barquero for some time and I almost forgot about Tucker.
      Chisum is a very enjoyable film, dumb in places but Wayne is on great form and Tucker was a good foil, authentic in a western setting and physically imposing enough to play opposite the Duke.

  5. I agree with your comment we tend to associate McCrea ”with a certain type’ and I am drawn towards him therewith more than in Fort Massacre. Have not view said movie in a long while n now with this review will give it another go. Best regards.

    • Yes Chris, I think most fans of McCrea will share your preference for the more familiar persona, though there are still flashes of that on show as despite being obviously darker it remains a fully rounded characterization, and that may be one reason why this film isn’t talked about as frequently as some of his other work. Anyway, it’s good to hear you now feel inclined to check it out again.

  6. Well,Colin apart from anything else you have
    encouraged the elusive Mr Beal out of the shadows where
    he has been lurking for some time 🙂
    Mr Beal knows more about Noir than anyone else I have
    encountered-but he’s no slouch when it comes to Westerns
    as well.
    I second Nick’s appraisal-a fine essay and another great choice
    having kick started the year with a Randolph Scott film.
    As you well know I have little love for TROOPER HOOK-as turgid
    and dreary as any Charles Marquis Warren film.
    When McCrea was directed by Joseph Newman the quality improved
    certainly as far as the Warren and Francis D Lyon entries go.
    Newman is vastly underrated and the aforementioned THIS ISLAND
    EARTH was a highlight. Sadly THIS ISLAND EARTH needs a proper
    restoration-it’s one of several Universal titles in bad shape.
    Another case in point is Jesse Hibbs’ THE SPOILERS which again
    needs a serious restoration-that is if master elements still exist.
    Then again there are all those lost/missing Universal CinemaScope
    titles-but we.have been over that time and time again,.
    It would be hard to single out the many great one liners in
    FORT MASSACRE certainly as far as McCrea’s winging troop go.
    McCrea is outstanding and is matched by Russell and Tucker.
    I have the Blu Ray from Germany’s Explosive Media and it’s a beauty and
    a major upgrade over the DVD.

    Talking about Explosive Media in April they are releasing Newman’s
    PONY SOLDIER on Blu Ray. PONY SOLDIER has already been
    released on Blu Ray by Twilight Time but at $30 that’s too steep for
    me.Also in April Explosive will release THE BRAVADOS,making it’s
    Worldwide Blu Ray debut.
    PONY SOLDIER is a very good Mountie movie-it’s a shame Newman
    made so few Westerns.I’m also very fond of Newman’s A THUNDER
    Although not a Western Newman’s KISS OF FIRE is another Universal
    film that has yet to surface on DVD-I hope the film is not on the missing list
    KISS OF FIRE is a tale of 17th Century California with Jack Palance
    Barbara Rush and Rex Reason.

    • John, I like what I’ve seen of Newman’s work so far so your remarks about Kiss of Fire have me interested. As for Pony Soldier, that’s a beautiful looking film, one I imagine will scrub up well on Blu-ray. And of course The Bravados is just good all round so its appearance in Hi-Def is to be welcomed.

  7. Alas,Nick Beal,

    Nick,I don’t remember the Andersoville references in
    TROOPER HOOK..perhaps I was not paying attention
    as I should.
    It’s interesting that Warren made the Playhouse 80 TV Movie
    WITHOUT INCIDENT round about the same time (possibly back to back)
    with many of the folks involved with TROOPER HOOK.
    WITHOUT INCIDENT covers more or less the same ground as
    TROOPER HOOK and headlined Errol Flynn.
    For me,WITHOUT INCIDENT is a superior piece of work.
    Warren’s style,such as it is,seems better suited to the small
    screen-his work in that medium is pretty impressive.

    • John, I know you don’t have much of an opinion of Warren’s films as director but I thought I’d mention that I watched Little Big Horn a few months ago and thought it was a solid piece of work.

  8. “LITTLE BIG HORN” is one western I have never seen but would like to. Taken note of your recommendation, Colin.

    I have a somewhat higher opinion of Warren’s work than John, I know. I count “CATTLE EMPIRE” as pretty good late McCrea, for example. But as John says, Warren’s finest work turned up on TV – “GUNSMOKE”, “THE VIRGINIAN” and of course “RAWHIDE”. All fine work.

  9. There is a scene in TROOPER HOOK where McCrea faces
    the racist/redneck element in a store that is totally blown by
    Warren’s ham fisted direction-just think what Don Siegel
    or Jacques Tourneur would have made of such a scene.
    HELLGATE is OK but needed a better director.
    Despite my dislike of TROOPER HOOK I guess I would buy a
    Blu Ray of the film in a heartbeat-this goes for any Fifties Western
    starring McCrea,Randolph Scott or Audie Murphy-I wish more of
    them were available.
    Regarding my previous comments on THIS ISLAND EARTH-the
    Blu Ray from Elephant Films France is certainly the best version
    currently available-in fact I’m pretty happy with mine.
    The film is hard to judge picture quality wise as the special effects
    employ lots of optical filters and the like-though I must say the several
    earthbound exterior scenes look most impressive..if any of that makes
    any sense.

    • Hmm, very interesting re the direction in Trooper Hook, and I need to check it out sooner rather than later.
      Yes, I think I know what you mean about This Island Earth as effects can be problematic and show up weakness in a transfer very easily. All those imperfect editions have meant I’ve been happy enough to hang onto my old UK DVD.

  10. When TROOPER HOOK moves outdoors it’s quite impressive. Ellsworth Frederick’s photography is a plus factor- the interior scenes are far less impressive and the ending is a total mess…be VERY interested to know what you think…. a most impressive (mostly wasted) supporting cast, I might add.

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