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.

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A Thunder of Drums

Think of cavalry westerns, or rather, think of the best cavalry westerns and one name tends to spring to mind – John Ford. The famous trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) forms an integral part of Ford’s building up and subsequent deconstruction of the myth of the west. It’s Ford, and Wayne of course, that we think of as being at the heart of their success. While this is entirely justified, there is, however, another figure who had an influence on the shaping of these films – the author of the source material, James Warner Bellah. Aside from the trilogy, his work also provided the inspiration for A Thunder of Drums (1961), a far less celebrated movie. I’m not going to try to argue here that this is a film deserving of the kind of acclaim accorded to Ford’s work, but it does warrant a little more attention than it ordinarily receives.

The story takes place in and around Fort Canby, one of those isolated and undermanned outposts on the extremities of the frontier. It opens in hard-hitting and startling fashion with an Indian raid on a homestead, the full horror of which is reflected in the terrified eyes of a child witness and in the grotesque shadows playing across the ceiling. When the awful aftermath is discovered by a passing cavalry troop the sour and downbeat tone is further emphasised by the fact that these men are bringing their own dead back home. So, with their faces already covered to counter the stench of their current cargo, the troops set about the grim task of burying the victims. From this point on the threat of imminent violence never really slackens, although the action moves into the confines of the fort and remains there until the last half hour. The uncompromising beginning serves to set up the brutal realities facing the fort’s commander, Captain Maddocks (Richard Boone), a man whose past has condemned him to a life of thankless soldiering. With the arrival of a green young officer, Lieutenant McQuade (George Hamilton), we start to get hints that something dark, some error made years before, means that Maddocks is doomed to remain at his present rank until retirement or death release him. And so this western version of the ancient mariner has the task of teaching McQuade the skills necessary for surviving on the frontier and becoming a proper professional soldier. In the process, we get to see (as in Ford’s trilogy) the minutiae of life at one of these half-forgotten postings. Despite Maddocks’ bristly and abrasive style keeping things ticking over, the mid-section of the movie gets itself bogged down in a pretty tedious love triangle involving McQuade and the fiancée of another young lieutenant. What rescues the picture is the last half hour. The troops move out in the open to avenge a massacre and hunt down the hostiles who have been harrying them. The cat-and-mouse pursuit leads to a well-staged climactic battle that ensures the whole thing ends on a high note.

Joseph M Newman was no auteur; he was, however, a versatile professional, the type Hollywood depended on to make good, tight movies. Throughout the 1950s he made a succession of films that, though largely forgotten these days, included some highly entertaining and capable stuff. In this one, his best work is at the beginning and at the end of the picture – a little like the situation with Escape from Fort Bravo, where the strong opening and close bookend a flabby middle. The climax is well handled as an action set piece, especially the Apache ambush tactics and their sudden appearance like spirits conjured out of the ether. Besides this, the greatest saving grace is the central performance of Richard Boone. I thought he was ideally cast as the grizzled officer, ageing and passed over for the promotion his experience and talent merits yet not succumbing to the corrosive bitterness you might reasonably expect him to feel. He had the necessary grit, and a kind of weary resignation, to deliver his memorable dialogue  and lend it the weight it deserved – towards the end, he even gets to put his own spin on the Duke’s old line about never apologising as it’s a sign of weakness. In fact, there’s a lot in Boone’s performance that recalls James Warner Bellah’s other cavalry journeymen. In contrast, George Hamilton’s portrayal of McQuade is problematic and represents a major weakness. Firstly, Hamilton just doesn’t look right; there’s too much Hollywood polish and smoothness about him. What’s more, he just didn’t have the acting chops to either compete when sharing the screen with Boone or to carry off the pivotal role that was so vital in shoring up that sagging mid-section. Similarly, the lightweight and not especially convincing work of Luana Patten (as Hamilton’s love interest) and Richard Chamberlain fails to add much to the film. Still, there are good supporting turns to help paper over the cracks. Charles Bronson has a medium-sized part as a devious and dirty-minded trooper who comes good in the end, Arthur O’Connell is entertaining enough in the role of the top sergeant that Victor McLaglen played for Ford, although Slim Pickens’ talents are basically wasted.

A Thunder of Drums is available as an MOD disc in the US. However, as an alternative, there’s a perfectly acceptable release to be had in Spain. Llamentol/Paycom have presented the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is generally quite pleasing. There is a little softness in the image but it’s clean enough and the colours are nice and strong. There are no extra features offered, but the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be switched off via the setup menu. I found it interesting to see situations that Ford so skilfully presented taken on by someone else. A Thunder of Drums has none of the artistry or poetry of the old master himself, but it’s a fair enough movie all the same. Considering the inadequacies of some of the performances around him, it’s very much to Richard Boone’s credit that he was able to drive the film as much as he did. I feel that the presence of Boone, and Newman’s handling of the action and exteriors earn this at least a qualified recommendation.

Dangerous Crossing

Poster

How many people are familiar with the name John Dickson Carr? I suspect the answer is very few, yet from the 1930s through the 1960s he was one of the best known writers of mystery fiction. In the decades since he has faded into relative obscurity while his contemporary Agatha Christie has remained a recognizable commodity with the general public. Both of these writers specialised in detective stories that were notable not for their strong characterization but for their clever, and sometimes ingenious, plotting. However, one has remained highly marketable and the other has not – why? The changing taste of the reading public is no good as an explanation since the work of both of them is very much a product of its time. No, the answer may lie in the fact that, at least from the 1970s on, Christie’s writing has been regularly adapted for both television and the big screen. So, as a big fan of Carr, it’s refreshing to see a film available that was sourced from his work.

A newlywed bride (Jeanne Crain) stands on the dock waiting for her husband (Carl Betz). When he arrives they both board the transatlantic liner that will carry them off on their honeymoon. Their happiness, though, is destined to be a short-lived affair. While the husband goes off to see the purser, the wife agrees to meet him in the bar and waits there. It’s a long wait, and when she tries to find him it appears that no one else on the ship has ever laid eyes on the groom. As an increasingly paranoid Crain roams the fog bound ship in an effort to trace her missing spouse, and prove that she’s not some nut job, the characters whom she encounters range from the suspicious to the downright untrustworthy. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Dangerous Crossing (1953), and the result is a neat and professional little mystery that reaches a satisfying conclusion in its short running time. 

Since this is essentially a B picture, there are no major stars on view and the focus is firmly on Crain, and Michael Rennie (TV’s Harry Lime) as the seemingly sympathetic doctor. Crain’s best scenes come towards the beginning of the movie as it slowly dawns on her that her husband is not to be found on the ship and everyone, both crew and fellow passengers alike, treat her with what could be best described as indulgent scepticism. There are also enough doubts sown in the minds of the viewer as to whether the heroine is delusional or the victim of an elaborate plot to keep things interesting. Michael Rennie is solid, as always, playing the one character who may believe Crain’s story. The support cast doesn’t feature too many faces that would be immediately recognizable, but Willis Bouchey (who graced many a John Ford picture) has a nice turn as the ship’s captain.

Jeanne Crain fears for both her life and her sanity.

While Dangerous Crossing has been released as part of the latest wave of noirs from Fox it does not, in my opinion anyway, really belong in that category. It is most assuredly a mystery, albeit one with a few noir touches such as the paranoid atmosphere and the shadowy photography of Joseph LaShelle. There are some nice sequences on the foggy nighttime decks, a tense cat-and-mouse scene in the baggage hold and a chase through a crowded ballroom. This is all handled competently, if unspectacularly, by director Joseph M. Newman. In the hands of someone more imaginative, Hitchcock for example, these set pieces could have been much more memorable. As it is, they seem a little flat – not bad, just not as good as they could have been. 

For a fan of his work, it’s great to see some of John Dickson Carr’s work on the screen. Carr was a hugely prolific writer (he also worked under the pseudonym Carter Dickson since his output was so prodigious that he needed two publishers to handle it) yet few of his works have appeared  on film and I’m not sure why this is. I had been of the opinion that the tricky nature of his plotting might not translate well to film but I’m not so sure of that now. Anyone familiar with the TV series Jonathan Creek (certainly inspired by the locked room and impossible crime puzzles of Carr) will know that this kind of material can work successfully if approached in the right way. Whatever, fans of the master of detection – a kind of mix of Christie, Chesterton and M.R. James – will have to settle for this for now.

The DVD of Dangerous Crossing, part of the recently revived Fox Noir line, is fantastic looking and I’d be hard pressed to find any fault with it. Fox have been doing great work in offering rare and surprising titles in very nice and affordable editions. In addition to the film, there’s a commentary track, an isolated score from Lionel Newman, trailer etc. We also get a short featurette on the film with info on Jeanne Crain and on Fox’s recycling of their sets; I suggest watching the movie first, though, as the featurette does contain a spoiler. So, you get an entertaining, if minor film in a fine presentation from Fox – just remember, it’s not really noir.