FORT MASSACRE stars Joel McCrea as Sgt Vinson, a bitter man blinded by hate, a non-commissioned officer suddenly in charge of a cavalry detachment hit by an Apache ambush that left the Captain dead and the Lieutenant dying. They are trying to reach a larger column or the wagon train they were supposed to escort. Supplies are short, especially water, and they are headed for the only known water in the New Mexico desert. They are besieged constantly by roving bands of Apache.
Some of the men begin to believe the Sergeant is deliberately leading them into confrontations. They’ve heard the stories about Vinson’s wife and children. He was due to meet them somewhere when Apaches attacked, raping and murdering her and the children.
The men in his command are an assortment of familiar faces. Forrest Tucker is Pvt. McGurney, an Irishman of humor, suspicious of Vinson’s intentions, and not shy about talking about them with the men. Denver Pyle is Pvt. Collins who wants to believe in Vinson. Anthony Caruso is Pawnee, the Indian scout. John Russell plays Pvt. Robert W. Travis, a man with a mysterious air, a man of privilege that seems more like an officer, who’s the voice of reason among the troop. The rest are some of those faces you know without being able to attach a name. various character types. The medical man who’s always threatening to hang up the uniform, but who always re-ups when the time comes, the niggling coward who constantly gets everyone in trouble but will fight when backed into a corner.
The first hint that Vinson might not be all there comes when Pawnee tells then that the water hole they want to get to has fifty Apache camped around it. They are just eleven men. Needing the water, an ambush is set up. They are aided by the water hole being in a small, enclosed canyon and they have the high ground. They are maneuvering around to set up the ambush when the cowardly soldier hears a rattler near him and, although told to, “Sit still, it will be alright,” fires his rifle early to kill the snake.
The battle is on!
It’s a short fight that gets some of the men killed, but all of the Indians are wiped out down to one, who reaches for an arrow, realizes he’s empty, and raises his hands to surrender, only to ruthlessly be gunned down by Vinson!
After they load up with water and tend to the wounds of the survivors, they move on, next encountering a trader couple working a deal with a Young Apache. Vinson decides t hold onto the young man so he can’t warn any other Apache in the area, putting him in the charge of Pawnee. That doesn’t go well, a fight between the two men ensues, with Pawnee getting knifed in the back, the young Apache making a run for it. When he escapes, Vinson leads the men to the area of the film’s final confrontation.
Abandoned cliff dwellings, it’s where the name of the film comes from, a prophetic nickname hung on it by some of the survivors. There’s only a handful of men left and when they see smoke coming up from within, Pvt. McGurney voices that Vinson has deliberately lead them into another fight.
It turns out to be a very ancient Paiute(Francis MacDonald) and his granddaughter(Susan Cabot), as well as their burro.
They set up there, going into hiding when a band of Apache is spotted heading their way. The old Paiute says he will get them to leave and is in the process of doing so when a second band arrives. The two leaders talk and are preparing to leave when Vinson suddenly rises up, opening fire, and starting the final battle.
All that survive are Vinson, Pvt. Travis, and the two Paiute. The old man is leaving to find the troop they were hunting and bring them there, promising to tell them that Vinson deliberately opened fire when the Apache were about to leave. As Vinson moves to shoot down the old man, Russell’s character does the only thing he can and one last shot is fired.
A nice tight script by Martin Goldman with direction by Joseph M. Newman, this was a B-film that seemed to rise above itself into a fine western. No sentimentality, an anti-racist statement at the core, grim and moody, a psychological western not your usual fare in this type of film. McCrea playing against his usual heroic type worked for me. The outstanding cinematography is by Carl Guthrie, filmed at Gallup, New Mexico, Red Rock State Park, New Mexico, and Kanab, Utah. Guthrie makes good use of all three locations.
This one could benefit from a DVD release and some cleaning up, using wide screen format to give you the whole picture. The print seemed to have a lot of off screen talking in group conversations in the version I saw.
Liked it though.
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