"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Guns of Fort Petticoat (Columbia, 1957)

Audie's first non-Universal Western

The Guns of Fort Petticoat was the first Western Audie Murphy made put out by Columbia – in fact his first non-Universal Western. He had signed a seven-year contract with Universal in 1950 for $2500 a week, and made thirteen Westerns with them, the last (for the moment) being a co-starring role with James Stewart in Night Passage. In 1957 Murphy signed a three-movie contract with producer Harry Joe Brown (who made those excellent late-50s Westerns with his business partner Randolph Scott) and Fort Petticoat was the first. Murphy was thus involved in the production. However, Brown and Murphy fell out and the other two films were never made.

Fort Petticoat was directed by George Marshall and from that, and the title, one might imagine a comedy Western from the director who gave us Destry Rides Again (and its remake, with Murphy, Destry), The SheepmanAdvance to the Rear and others. But in fact Marshall and Murphy play it straight, telling the 1864 story of a soldier who organizes the defense of a mission in Texas against Comanche Indians and some white bad guys by women whose husbands are all away at the war.
Lt. Audie
Such a movie could never be made now. The basic idea is that Murphy treats the women as rough soldiers (“Come on, men!” he shouts at them) and the ladies tie up their skirts and learn, amusingly, how to shoot and fight. In that innocent, pre-feminist day, audiences (male and female) could chuckle at the incongruity of ladies doing drill and shouldering arms. Still, World War II was a fresh memory in most of the spectators’ minds; women had played a vital role in the American war effort and people were beginning to think differently. Perhaps there was a proto-feminist message in the film after all. Women unite and beat men at their own game.
Prefiguring The Magnificent Seven
The biggest weakness is the writing. The screenplay was by Walter Doniger. Doniger had written some Cheyenne and Tombstone Territory episodes and indeed as far as Westerns are concerned he confined himself to TV shows throughout his career. This was his second feature of only two (he had also worked on Along  the Great Divide). It’s a pity they couldn’t find someone better because the story had potential.

It starts with a Union Army Lieutenant Hewitt (Murphy) who tries, but fails, to warn the Sand Creek Indians of the coming massacre by Colonel Chivington (Ainslie Pryor), who is portrayed as a regular Army officer and Hewitt’s superior. Hewitt deserts and rides about Texas (Colorado is not mentioned), nicely photographed by Ray Rennahan around Tucson, trying to warn the settlers about the coming Indian rampage or revenge. It isn’t really clear why Texas Comanches should take revenge for a Colorado massacre of Cheyenne but I suppose the Comanche did fight alongside Apache and Kiowa at Adobe Walls in '64 so maybe the Comanche were doing some secondary guerrilla raiding on behalf of their Cheyenne cousins. The beginning and ending of the movie are perfunctory and essentially a cheap trivialization of the Sand Creek Massacre in rather poor taste.
What was interesting and could and should have been developed in the script, was the idea of a Texan ‘deserting’ the cause of his native South to join the Union Army, then returning to Texas as a deserter from that Army and trying to re-integrate. But the screenplay, directing and acting weren’t up to that and what we have here is really a B-action-movie without a great deal of quality.
She's learned how to use a Henry
The best thing about it is the trio of bad guys, who are: cruel, laughing villain Ray Teal, wonderfully good as always; portly, cowardly, smiling Mexican, Nestor Paiva, always entertaining; both led by a runty, unshaven, frock-coated ruthless murderer James Griffith, cadaverously excellent. All three are quite ready to sell the women out to the Indians (would probably cheerfully sell their grandmothers) to save their worthless hides, which they do not. To show how lowdown the bad guys’ boss is, he ties a fellow up then shoots him with a derringer. Derringers were, as you know, always the weapons of sneaky crooks and gamblers (and women).
Bad guy fires derringer
Happily, Audie rode back to Universal the following year and made the rather good Ride a Crooked Trail.


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