Guy wins both the battle and the fair maiden
In a post on July 19, 2017, I wrote that The Charge at Feather River was "to be reviewed at some point". Well, I think that two years, three months and twenty-five days later qualifies as "at some point".
After a promising start in our noble genre, debuting with his friend Rory Calhoun in Massacre River in 1949, Guy Madison (left) spent most of the 1950s on radio and the smaller screen as Wild Bill in the astonishingly successful Mutual Radio, then Screen Gems series Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which lasted on TV for eight seasons and no fewer than 113 episodes. Feature-film Westerns were relegated to a sideline, though he did the occasional one all through the 50s, starting with RKO’s Drums in the Deep South in late 1951 (a non-starring part in a semi-Western), and later Warners' The Command, 1954, in which he led the cast. Later still he would be second-billed to Victor Mature, this time for Columbia, in The Last Frontier, an Anthony Mann picture (though not his best), in ’55 and then the famous (well, famous now) 1956 horror/sci-fi picture The Beast of Hollow Mountain, released by United Artists, in which his cattle were eaten by a giant prehistoric dinosaur. Reprisal! and The Hard Man, both for Columbia, and Bullwhip, back at Allied Artists, where he had started, would complete his big-screen 1950s. After that it was very much downhill, with Eurowesterns in the 1960s, some of them very bad indeed, ending with the dire spaghetti Reverend’s Colt in 1970. In fact fully 50% of his total feature Western output was in post-1950s Eurowesterns, pretty well junk. It was a sad come-down after such a hopeful beginning.
Between Drums in the Deep South and The Command Madison led in Warners’ biggish picture The Charge at Feather River. I say biggish because it was shot in 3D, then all the rage (it was a short-lived craze and even in ’53 the majority of audiences did not see it in that format) and in Warnercolor. Partly (but I suspect not only) because of this, the print on my modern (Spanish) DVD isn’t very good.
Not such a good image on the DVD
We expect the titles to be lurid on a 3D picture (see Hondo, for example) but the rest of the film is also rather ‘muddy’ and larks sharpness. I guess Warners were too cost-conscious to shoot it in standard format as well. The picture also had the studio's snazzy new 4-track stereo, with the ‘WarnerPhonic/RCA Sound System’. The runtime was 95 minutes. They had a posh score by Max Steiner. So they threw budget at it all right. It was no cheapo second feature or anything.
The big picture
It was to have been directed by André De Toth but he declined it and Gordon Douglas took the reins. De Toth was busy with Warner’s 3D horror House of Wax (strangely for a man with one eye who couldn’t see anything in 3D) and Westernwise in '53 he was doing Last of the Comanches with Broderick Crawford, and The Stranger Wore a Gun and Thunder Over the Plains, both with Randolph Scott, so I guess he didn’t have time to direct Guy as well.
…for which he directed about a dozen films from 1942 to 1947, mostly routine programmers, he then went to Columbia for several years. But in 1950 he headed over to Warner Brothers, where he would stay for the next 15 years and where he would find his greatest successes. His westerns and crime dramas for Warners met with critical and financial success, and it was during this period that he made what is considered one of the classic sci-fi films of the era: Them! (1954). Although he had his share of clunkers, and has at times expressed dissatisfaction with his career (he once said, "Don't try to watch all the films I've directed; it would turn you off movies forever"), he was responsible for some of the more enjoyable films of the 1950s and 1960s.
That’s fair enough, I reckon. He directed 17 Westerns and they were a mixed bag. He said, “I have a large family to feed and it's only occasionally that I find a story that interests me.” He helmed two oaters with Randolph Scott, two with Alan Ladd and three with Clint Walker. For me, The Nevadan with Scott, Fort Dobbs with Walker and The Fiend Who Walked the West with Hugh O’Brian were about his best. Gold of the Seven Saints and the 1966 remake of Stagecoach were probably the weakest. You’d have to put The Charge at Feather River in the competent but uninspiring class, I think.
It’s a tried-and-trusted plot, nothing much original here. A ‘man who knows Indians’ leads an Army patrol to rescue two white women from the Cheyenne. Except maybe in one respect it might be original: I’m not sure when the Dirty Dozen plot was first used. Is this perhaps the first example? A reader might know. You see, Guy recruits his men from a punishment squad, using drunks, deserters, thieves and brawlers. He whips them into shape with a rigorous training regime, then they come good in action, developing an esprit de corps and acting gallantly. Of course we are very used to this story now, not only in war films, but I wonder when it was first done?
It was written by James R Webb. Webb wrote Cape Fear as well as some very ‘big’ Westerns, though not necessarily very good ones - parts of How the West Was Won, also Cheyenne Autumn, Vera Cruz, The Big Country and Apache, as examples: famous Westerns, yes, but all with flaws. Still, he was highly experienced, and knew what he was doing.
Webb was at the typewriter
We know well what the ‘types’ will be on the patrol. There’ll be a truculent, insubordinate trooper; there’ll be an amusing, jokey one; there’ll be a big-ox type; there’ll be a man with ‘a past’ needing to redeem himself; there may be a coward who will finally show courage (usually through self-sacrifice); and so on. True to form, we get Neville Brand as a bolshie trooper. Dick Wesson will provide the comic relief. Henry Kulky plays the boozy big fellow. Steve Brodie is a trooper who has been dallying with the sergeant’s wife, and so the sergeant doesn’t want him to return alive from the dangerous mission. There’s an ex-Reb officer, now in the Union ranks, played by our old friend Lane Chandler, first a star of silent Westerns, then leading in talkie oaters for minor studios, then eventually accepting bit parts wherever he could get them. He has a total of 149 feature Westerns to his credit, so respect, starting with Open Range in 1927 and ending with One More Train to Rob in 1971.
Brodie is one of the ne'er-do-wells who actually in the end does do well
The sergeant concerned is third-billed Frank Lovejoy, and he takes the acting honors. Square-jawed Lovejoy, from the Bronx, was more usually a tough cop or reporter, and he got second billing after Vincent Price in House of Wax. You may also remember him from the TV show Man Against Crime. But he did do the occasional Western, even starring in one, the RG Springsteen-directed Cole Younger, Gunfighter in ’58 (a movie we will be reviewing soon, as part of our RG-fest). He has a bit of ‘business’ chewing tobacco (actually I think it’s gum mostly) and deters a rattler by spitting juice at it, and, because it’s 3D, at us. In fact, there's a good deal of arrows and tomahawks and heaven knows what flying directly at the viewer, probably enough to make you gasp if you were wearing the 3D eyeglasses, but a bit silly to us now.
Frank is the sergeant
Naturally the women will be rescued, because you have to have dames on the party, sharing the danger and so on. It was de rigueur. They are sisters, Anne and Jennie. Anne is played by Helen Westcott, Peggy in The Gunfighter, and Jennie by John Ford alumna - though only afterwards - Vera Miles (not in my view the best of actresses in Westerns). Anne is pleased to be rescued and will of course fall for the handsome Guy, while Jennie has a case of Stockholm Syndrome: she has ‘gone native’ and is now more Cheyenne than white. She is betrothed to Chief Thunderhawk, and the chief is not best pleased that his fiancée has been ‘rescued’ or, as he sees it, kidnapped. Thunderhawk is played by Fred Carson, but they needn’t have bothered crediting him. He doesn’t say anything and is only seen from afar, before being shot off his horse, RIP.
One sis is pleased to be rescued; the other - not.
It’s a post-Civil War story centered on the fictional Fort Bellow. Ex-Union officer Miles Archer (I thought he was Sam Spade’s partner), played by Madison, is persuaded to lead an expedition to rescue two white women held captive by the Cheyenne. The iron horse is coming and so there will definitely soon be war, they say, and it’s now or never. At first Archer refuses – too busy ranchin’, you see, and he’s had enough of fightin’ - but he is persuaded by a young former soldier of his in the war, Johnny (Ron Hagerthy), who is the women’s brother. Dan Haggerty, Don Haggerty, Ron Hagerthy, you have to be careful, but I think I’ve got the right one. He will spend most of the trip being wounded.
Once Archer has trained up his renegade military crew, they set out in plain clothes, not wishing to alert the Cheyenne to the fact that they are soldiers. With them go a tubercular artist/writer, Grover Johnson (Onslow Stevens, the general in Them!, a former electrician who later became an alcoholic and, apparently, an avid nudist; he’s quite good as the artist). He will not die of his cough.
Onslow is the artist
Members of the party are picked off one by one by the Indians, who don’t seem fooled by the plain clothes. One of them is Pvt. Wilhelm (Ralph Brooks) and this movie is noted for being the second use of the ‘Wilhelm scream’ (Wilhelm is hit by an arrow), a yell of pain which had quite an afterlife, being used in Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies. It was first done for Distant Drums in 1951. But that’s enough movie trivia. Anyway, eventually they manage to infiltrate the Cheyenne village and grab the two gals. Now they have to get back to the safety of the fort. That won’t be easy, not with Thunderhawk on the warpath.
They do get back to the fort but guess what? Yup, the gate is open and there are only bodies inside and the well has been poisoned. How many times have we had this plot twist? It would be used again in Tomahawk Trail, Fort Bowie and Fort Courageous, to name but a few. So they have to set off to the next fort, the nearest one, the (equally fictional) Ft Darby.
The trekkers will be beset by many travails before they reach safety, especially as Jennie is on the side of the Indians. But finally they reach Feather River, where they can stand off charges by the Cheyenne. There will be casualties in the party, natch (especially among the traitors) but in the last resort white civilization will triumph over native savagery (it was still the early 1950s, after all), the US cavalry will arrive at the last moment, and Guy and Anne will go off to the sound of wedding bells.
They repulse the charges
I told you, it’s not very original. Brian Garfield said, “Webb’s script, arguably his poorest, leaves few clichés unturned.” And he described Douglas’s direction as “listless”. I didn’t mind the picture, though I thought Madison was a bit on the bland side. If you like your Westerns big, colorful and noisy, with many old favorites in the plot, you’ll enjoy this one. And it's a funny thing about Westerns: one person's tired old cliché is another's comfortably familiar convention.