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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fort Massacre (UA, 1958)

A Western worth seeing

While Fort Massacre is a Joel McCrea Western, and ipso facto good, it is an intense drama involving relatively few men (and no women really, despite Susan Cabot being second-billed) and it rather reminds me of a 1960s or even 1970s Western, being tough, cynical and unromantic.
 A late McCrea, worth seeing

McCrea plays a grimmer than usual role, a sergeant, unshaven, filled with hatred of the Apaches who have been responsible for the death of his wife and children. The sergeant finds himself the ranking officer after an attack and in command. He is racked by doubt as to his worthiness and ability to bring the men to safety but does the very best he can despite an unruly, insubordinate and whining crew.

McCrea had been a sergeant the year before, in Trooper Hook, but there he was much 'softer'.

Earlier that year McCrea had done Cattle Empire, in which he was a tougher than usual lead, we think at first almost a bad guy (though not quite, of course). In Fort Massacre he took that persona a step further.
Tougher still
Most of the many Fort pictures involved one of those wooden toy forts made of spiky logs, which is duly attacked by Indians. This one gives a new twist on that: the beleaguered soldiers hole up in ancient New Mexican cliff dwellings and turn that into a fortress.

The picture was competently if routinely directed by Joseph M Newman who had done North West Rangers in 1942, the Tyrone Power Canadian Mountie picture Pony Soldier in 1952, the Robertson/Baxter version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat the same year, and then this one. Later, in his best Western effort, he directed McCrea again in The Gunfight at Dodge City, then the rather weak A Thunder of Drums in 1961 (no thunder and no drums either) and a couple of TV episodes of The Big Valley. It’s not really a stellar Western CV but you know, it ain't bad either.

It was another Walter Mirisch production. McCrea and Mirisch did six Westerns together. It was in fact the first film of Walter's new companny The Mirisch Corporation, and he switched from Allied Artists to the more powerful United Artists.

It was written by Martin Goldsmith who later worked on Gunfight at Dodge City but was no specialist really. There are some good lines, though, such as Joel telling John Russell, “More men find themselves in the wilderness than get lost in it.”

Visually the picture is appealing with its New Mexico locations around Gallup and the Red Rock State Park, with some Kanab, UT thrown in. It was photographed by Carl E Guthrie who had shot some 20-minute Western shorts for Warners in the 1940s then a few feature-length B-Westerns. He did The Oklahoman with McCrea in ‘57 and followed up Fort Massacre with Fort Bowie. He also photographed a lot of the Cheyenne TV series, so he liked his Westerns. His best work, I think, was Yellowstone Kelly in 1959. Fort Massacre is shot in CinemaScope and Guthrie and Newman made the most of the wide screen.
 Making the most of CinemaScope

As for the acting, discounting the Indians, who rarely appear as real people in these pictures but only as a generic threat, and discounting a couple of brief bit parts (an old trader man and his wife played by Irving Bacon and Claire Carleton, and then at the end an old Piute Indian and his granddaughter – Francis MacDonald and Susan Cabot) the only personages are the recalcitrant troopers.

Forrest Tucker leads these with a brave/foolish attempt at a Dublin accent, and among the others there is an excellent John Russell, good old Denver Pyle (who had a difficult part as he was gravely wounded for most of the picture) and the best of them, the Pawnee scout, Pawnee, played by the splendid Anthony Caruso.
 The troopers. That's Russell, center right, and Caruso, far right

I’ve lost count of all the Westerns Forrest was in, almost always as a heavy. He was just great. Sergeant O’Rourke in F Troop on TV, he started pretty high up by landing a supporting part in The Westerner in 1940 with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. After that he was in B-Westerns galore (a lot of those Randolph Scott ones, for example) and then loads of TV shows. A Western-lover will see him pop up again and again, and will always say, ‘Oh good, it’s Forrest Tucker.’

John Russell was of course Marshal Dan Troop in Lawman on TV but he was also in a lot of movies. His first Western was as Lengthy in the excellent Gregory Peck noir Yellow Sky in 1948, and at the very end of his career, in 1985, he was perfectly splendid as Marshal Stockburn in Pale Rider. You’ll probably also remember him as Nathan Burdette in Rio Bravo. A fine Western actor. Here he is the most sensitive and intelligent of the troopers, named Travis, so he must have been standing in for Ben Johnson.
Tough stuff

Anthony Caruso was one of those characters usually defined as ‘colorful’. He has the honor of having played 14 different characters in Gunsmoke, which has to be a record! His looks often got him parts as Indian, Mexican or generic foreigner. He was usually a heavy. Caruso (great name!) was in huge numbers of film and TV Westerns from 1940 to 1989 and is always worth watching when he comes on.

As for Denver, it’s time I did a Denverama, a retrospective of his Western career as I have for various other character actors like Edgar Buchanan, Slim Pickens or Jack Elam. I’ll get to work on that. But he was in so many oaters it’ll be a long job…

La Cabot in her tiny part has a line where she says she is only 17. That’s a bit rich from an actress of 31 but it doesn’t really matter as blink and you’ll miss her. I supposed they billed her after Joel because it was traditional to have a female lead billed second (or even top) but she is only a token presence in this story.
Token part
There are a couple of annoying bits such as where Forrest Tucker wants a drink from his canteen, finds it is empty and throws it down. Why do they always do that? Worse, an Indian exhausts the ammunition in his Winchester and chucks it away. A good director would not have allowed that kind of solecism.

It has a very downbeat ending and the whole picture has a grim tone. Perhaps that contributed to its lack of box-offic success.

But all in all it’s a Western very worth seeing, dark, somber and tough. 

New Mexico cliff dwellings serve as fort



  1. Your blog is costing me a fortune! I learn of books and films that have dropped under my radar and, next thing you know, it's on Amazon or ebay looking for them.

    Seriously, this is a wonderfully informative blog and a great service to Western buffs. More, please.

  2. Well, Bob, I'm sorry about the credit card bill but take solace in the fact that mine is worse.
    I thank you for your kind comment.
    I love Westerns and love talking about them, even if virtually. Sadly, in my village in darkest France there are few hard-core Westernistas, so the concept of a blog was tailor made for me. I know there are many equally loony types out there, Western-lovers from Marseille to Manila and Milwaukee, and I especially like it when they leave comments, even disagreeing, because it makes it a dialogue, always more satisfying than a soap-box sermon.
    Best wishes,

  3. Hi Jeff
    Fortunately for you, you live in France. That's more a western loving country than Belgium. For example when I want to see westerns from the fifties, I need to buy import dvd's (like Sidonis; I know you dislike the subtitles but at least they edit those films) otherwise I don't see them at all.
    Anyway I love your blog and I find it interesting to read your comments and those of others, and indeed sometimes I disagree. De gustibus non disputandum est. Yes I'm a Latinist!

    1. De gustibus non disputandum est indeed. 0r chacun à son goût as they say here. (Chacun à mon goût would be better). The French do have a long and worthy tradition of the Western (including in comic books). Not sure about Belgium!

    2. Belgium has some famous comic westerns such as 'Lucky Luke' (a classic one by Morris), 'Comanche' (by Hermann), 'Durango'(spaghetti western by Swolfs)...Yet for me the best comic western is 'Blueberry' (by Giraud (Fr)-Charlier (Be))Do you know this one?

    3. Yes, I have been a Lucky Luke fan for years and greatly admire the man 'plus vite que son ombre'. I also quite like Blueberry. I tend to consider them both as French rather than Belgian, but fair enough! I don't know Comanche or Durango. Are they good?

    4. Lucky Luke is pure 'Belgian'. The drawings from 'Blueberry' were made by Giraud (He was French, died a few years ago) The writer of Blueberry was Charlier: he was from Belgium, also died long ago.
      'Comanche' was a comic from the seventies, early eighties. Hermann (from Belgium) the cartoonist is still alive. At this moment he is finishing a new western comic. Last year he won in Angouleme at the comic festival the highest award. Durango, first 10 albums drawn by Swolfs, is a western comic in the style of Leone: close-ups, graphic violence,... As a real 'westernista' I also collect western comics...

  4. By the way I like this 'oater' (new word for me). McCrea in an unusual role in an rather hard western

    1. Yes, a good word, oater. Webster's says the first known use was 1946.

  5. Hi Jeff,
    I have been lucky enough to find when in Paris a second hand Sidonis DVD boulevard St Michel for only 5 euros and it was worth of the investment... A very unusual but excellent McCrea, a bunch of soldiers who a few years later could have been the Dirty Dozen of the West and a few years earlier The Lost Patrol in the West, a spendid scenery and moreover a very sharp - sometimes blackhumoresque - dialogue, what else!? Amazing though is the treatment of the Indians 8 years after Broken Arrow but in 1958 the politically correct was still in the limbo...

    To come back to Lucky Luke, I do not agree that he is 100% Belgian as asserted by one of your reader.
    Yes, Morris, his génial creator - in 1946 - is 100% Belgian, and a true lover and connaisseur of the American West, but his encounter in New-York in 1955 I think, with the equally génial René Goscinny, a frenchman - cocorico !- will bring a new dimension to the Lucky Luke series until Goscinny's death in 1977. The French and Belgian comics authors have historically been used to work together, inspiring and nourishing each others, like Charlier, Franquin, Giraud, Goscinny, Herman etc. The editing companies being also very important Dargaud, Dupuis, Le Lombard etc as well as the weekly Tintin, Spirou both belgian or the french Pilote - founded by Jean-Michel Charlier -belgian-, Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny both french who had previously publishedin Tintin, Oumpah Pah - a humorous serie set in the XVIIIth century during the French-Indian or Independence War just before the beginning of Asterix. Pilote used to publish special - and serious - dossiers such as the one about the Fetterman massacre I had never heard of before.
    We could also mention Jerry Spring created by Jijé from Belgium - one of the writers being Goscinny - Jack Diamond created by the belgians Liliane Funcken et Fred Funcken whe also made the lesser know Lieutenant Burton, or an other important belgian serie Les Tuniques Bleues, originally more humorous or the very simply titled Western by the Belgian Jean Van Hamme - famous creator of XIII and Largo Winch both rather poorly adapted in feature films like unfortunately Lucky Luke in 2009 in spite of an impressive casting with Jean Dujardin as the lonesome cowboy.
    All this - sorry having been a little long - just to say that the franco-belge school of bande dessinée has extensively used the western themes thanks to talented artists.

    1. I'll leave you French and Belgians to fight it out as to ownership. As for me, a foreigner living in your land, I shall remain a Lucky Luke fan to my dying day…

  6. I just caught up with FORT MASSACRE last evening. I believe it was recorded from the wonderful Encore Westerns channel. My childhood research shows that I saw it in the initial release paired with a terrible Bob Hope movie and I don't recall seeing it since. I'm a big fan of the McCrea-Scott-Murphy westerns of the 50s and especially enjoyed seeing McCrea in a darker role than usual. And the ending caught me completely off guard especially after anticipating a romantic angle with Susan softening the sergeant. All in all...the color, the scenery, the fort and as usual the character actors made the watching a pleasurable evening.