A Fordian cavalry Western
At first sight this is just a Civil War cavalry Western with William Holden directed by John Sturges and therefore solid, workmanlike and worth seeing. What elevates it to something more, indeed into a work of art, is the quite stunning photography of Robert Surtees. I have commented elsewhere on the cinematographic talent of the Surteeses, father and son. This was Surtees père’s finest Western work.
The location scenes are shot in ‘Anso Color’ in New Mexico (you can tell because it’s so beautiful) and in Death Valley, and what could be more suitable - for this pitiless, arid landscape is entirely appropriate to the brutal struggle for survival that takes place there.
Death Valley, in more ways than one
The story, credited to Phillip Rock and Michael Pate, borrows a little from Fox’s Two Flags West of three years before, and tells of Confederate prisoners breaking out of a Union fort in Arizona and pursued by Holden. The two sides are united in the face of an implacable common enemy, Mescalero Apaches. The Apaches are brave and skilled tacticians.
Michael Pate was a most interesting person. He was Australian, only relocating to the US in the 1950s. For some odd reason, as an actor he cornered the market in Indian chiefs. He was Vittorio in Hondo in 1953 and went on to be Chief Four Horns, Watanka, Puma, Thin Elk, Sierra Charriba and heaven knows who all else. But he also wrote, and the story of Escape from Fort Bravo is both gripping and authentic.
The music, by Jeff Alexander, is very good, orchestral variations on a theme of cavalry tunes.
Holden is, as per usual, excellent as a martinet with a human face. Eleanor Parker, the southern spy who falls for him, and he for her, is very beautiful. There is a daringly hinted at gay relationship between the Southern officer, John Forsythe, and a lieutenant, John Lupton (he had to be gay as his hair is floppy and he writes poetry). William Demarest is fine as the crusty old Southern trooper who shows outstanding courage.
The ending is gripping, violent and moving. This is a very good Western, well directed and acted and above all shot by a master photographer. The movie has a Fordian air to it – the cavalry environment, the dance, the deadly Indians, the songs, the arid terrain, the Stout/Hoch/Glennon/Clothier look of the picture. You need to see this one.