Full of vim
The New York Times reviewer of the day said that this movie, produced by Kirk Douglas, was “not sedentary.” Fair enough. There’s loads of action, with Indians attacking the fort with flaming slingshots, a horseback duel like a medieval joust, knifings and shootings and heaven knows what else. But it’s directed by André de Toth and while some of De Toth's westerns were actually very good (Ramrod, say, or Day of the Outlaw) some were pretty clunky, and this one is in the clunky dpartment.
Kirk is full of vim and you can’t help liking him, especially when he saves the whole wagon train and fort from a fate worse than death or, er, death. That smile is irresistible.
After some less than happy early Western experiences (Along the Great Divide and The Big Trees) at least Kirk seems to be actually enjoying an oater.
His muscular ways extend to an Italian girl he finds on the prairie (Elsa Martinelli, whose Indian make-up descends only as far as her chin). She strips in the opening shots of the film and bathes in a river. The closing scene shows la Martinelli bathing naked again, this time with Kirk. 1955-erotic, man. Walter Abel, the John Ireland-ish Army post commander, wonders which side Kirk is on and indeed, there seems to be a fine line between Indian fighter and Indian lover. That was in fact often the case.
The smart scumbag
Walter Matthau as the smart scumbag and Lon Chaney as the dumb scumbag are both excellent. Chaney is called Chivington, a very appropriate name for an Indian-killing swine. The Indian chief seems to be a mittel-European but turns out to have been played by Eduard Franz, born in Milwaukee.
The dumb scumbag, jesting with Kirk
The movie has a CinemaScope Technicolor Oregon picturesqueness.
Wilfred M Cline photographed it and the photographic theme is important: Elisha Cook Jr. plays a photographer of the West who had worked with Brady in the Civil War. There is an interesting dialogue between Cook and Douglas about photography.
There is a quite modern eco-friendliness to the movie as Red Cloud opposes the whites because of the pollution they bring. It’s reasonably Indian-friendly and we are invited to sympathize with the Native American plight.
Hank Worden is Crazy Bear (and I think I spotted him also as a corporal). There’s an annoying kid who deserves to be put down - humanely, of course (I'm not cruel). Irritating children were quite common in 50s Westerns. There’s a plot development about hidden gold (yawn).
Kirk broke his nose doing one of the stunts.