Robert Wise directed this 1950 western just the year before the release of his seminal THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Joseph Cotten as Confederate Colonel Clay Tucker and Jeff Chandler as Major Henry Kenniston are the main protagonists here, constantly battling with words. Cotten comes off as the more reasonable as Chandler has a deep hatred of Rebels and Indians in pretty much equal measure. Linda Darnell is Elena Kenniston, widow of the Major’s brother, killed in the battle at Chancellorville. Cornell Wilde is Captain Mark Bradford, a man who harbors a secret love of Elena.
An order by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 provides captured Rebel forces a chance for freedom. Because of the need for troops in the war, Union forces in New Mexico are short, a lot of them considered unfit for duty in a full out war. Major Kenniston is one of them, having taken a bullet in the leg, leaving it stiff, in his first battle of the war. He’s consigned to command the fort in New Mexico.
Colonel Tucker commands the Rebel prisoners in one northern prison. He’s a man of Georgia and word is that Sherman is laying waste to the south, headed for the area. The offer is made to him and his men that if they swear allegiance to the north, they will be given their freedom and sent west. Cavalry is needed to fight the Apache. Captain Bradford is the officer who makes the offer, Tucker accepts(and is reduced to Lieutenant) on the promise they won’t have to do anything against Southern people, and the two men become friends on the ride. Also accompanying them is the widow Kenniston, her year of mourning over and headed for California where she has family(she’s Hispanic).
They arrive at the fort and the war of words begins between Kenniston and Tucker. Kenniston is bitter over his brother’s death and his being so far from the war. Things aren’t made any better when Tucker reveals he was with Stuart at Chancellorville and had led the patrol at the front of the charge. He makes it plain he expects them to desert at the first chance, not even convinced when Bradford points they had plenty of opportunity on the ride west when he was the only genuine Union officer.
Things come to a head in the uneasy alliance when Kenniston orders Tucker to form a firing squad to execute and then bury two civilians accused of selling whiskey and guns to the Apache, only for them to learn after the fact that they were, in fact, Rebel agents. Kenniston says he sees no difference in gun/whiskey runners and traitors.
Tucker’s next mission with his men is to escort a wagon train to a river west where they are to turn them over to a California Union company. They plan to head back into Texas after that. Plans begin to come unraveled when they find the widow hiding in a wagon, defying her brother-in-law’s edict that she stay at the fort. He claims a desire to protect her as she’s family, not admitting to himself what his real reasons are for the order.
Also, there’s a civilian traveling with them who reveals himself to be a Rebel agent, part of a plan to link with Southern sympathizers in California, and their gold, in a bid to save the South. He wants Tucker to return to the fort where he can keep an eye on Kenniston. And to get in the good graces of the commander, he must force the widow Kenniston back with him.
He’ll be gotten word when to make a move, It could be months or next week.
Patrols keep finding wagon trails, but no wagons. Kenniston splits Tucker’s forces and sends them out under command of Bradford and another lieutenant(he still doesn’t fully trust Tucker) to find those wagons.
Then a patrol brings in a prisoner, the Apache chief’s son. Kenniston wants him questioned and sends for the scout that “understands that stuff.” Tucker receives word to get his troops and link up with a Rebel force of wagons, slips out of the fort to find one group, sends to the Lieutenant back to the fort to assist in the questioning of the Apache, then finds the other, taking Bradford prisoner. He sends a couple of men to get the captain near the fort.
The fort…it suddenly finds itself surrounded by 1500 Apache. Under truce, Kennsiton rides out with his scout to meet the chief, who demands his son back. Incensed at being ordered by an Indian and sends the young brave out…after shooting him in the back and tying him across his horse. The battle is on then.
Tucker gets the three back and has to make a decision then. Continue on or return to help the fort.
The cavalry charge and the defense of the fort is beautifully filmed. Women and children join the fight, some loading, one scene of a small boy poking a big rifele through a hole and cutting loose. It finally comes down to the Apache wanting only one man and Kenniston knows it. The scene of him walking out the gate, unarmed, in the nighttime, a haze ahead, the gates swinging shut just as you hear a horrible cry of pain.
Filmed in black and white, this was one of the best westerns, cavalry branch, I can remember seeing. Nice performances all around and this one was loaded with those faces one recognizes, but can’t usually figure a name. Arthur Hunnicutt is Rebel Sgt. Pickens, Jay C. Flippen as his Northern counterpart, Sgt. Terrance Duey, even a young Dale Robertson has a small part.
For other overlooked films, go to Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.