THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER was one of the first westerns to make use of that new fangled movie device called 3D. We get lots of shots of arrows, spears, tomahawks, and knives coming at you. And there’s one amusing sequence, despite the tenseness of the situation, of one man spitting tobacco at a rattler coiled to strike in order to stay hidden from the Cheyenne hunting them.
Guy Madison is the star. He was big on TV at the time as Wild Bill Hickok and here he plays Miles Archer, an ex-Union officer pulled back in for a suicide mission. At least it seemed like one. Westward expansion was on and the railroads were about to push into Cheyenne territory. Word had come of two white women, sisiters, in a village that had been missing for five years, their parents slaughtered and them taken. Miles is not interested until he learns that they are the sisters of his drummer boy, Johnny McKeever(Ron Haggerty). Jenny(Vera Miles) and Anne(Helen Westcott) were their names.
Miles is saddled with a bunch of screw-ups, The Jailhouse Brigade they’re called. His first view of them is a bunch of men walking around with signs hanging around their necks. I got drunk. I fight, AWOL. One had drunk and fighting on his sign. He had to pick from them.
Only one did he recognize, one with a fighting sign. Pvt Zebulon Poinsett, an ex-Confederate officer that had briefly held him captive during the war. He picks out a dozen, then begins training them them in tactics they will need. He has eight days to get in, grab the two women, and get out. Two other civilians accompany the mission. Johnny whose sisters they are out to rescue and an artist/reporter, Grover Johnson(Onslow Stevens), who will chronicle the mission. he’s also dying of consumption.
It’s not a tight-knit bunch starting out. One man has brought a large canteen of alcohol along. The AWOL man, Pvt Ryan(Steve Brodie), has that reputation of liking women. He was caught just before they start out in the married quarters, where single men aren’t allowed, sparking the wife of Sgt. Charlie Baker(Frank Lovejoy), regular army and part of the mission. Baker promises Ryan he will not return from the mission.
The next big problem occurs when they grab the two women during the night and learn neither wants to go. Jenny was just a child when captured and had been tapped by Chief Thunder Hawk(Fred Carson) to be his wife when she grew up. She had princess status and was thoroughly Cheyenne by now. Anne hates the Cheyenne and after five years with them knows how she will be viewed by “proper” white women. They get back to the fort only to find the soldiers slaughtered, the women missing. Baker’s wife is among the missing until they find one dying man wh tells them the women were evacuated to a larger fort. Pressing on is their only option.
Now it’s a race with Thunder Hawk after them and dissension in their own ranks. Neville Brand has a small part as a soldier interested in saving his own hide, however he might do it, though he redeems himself in the end. When the Cheyenne manage to steal their horses during one battle. They have the high ground, but Thunder Hawk can wait them out. Help has to be sent for somehow, some way.
The title of the film comes from where the small group of men make their stand against overwhelming numbers. the only thing they have going for them is those new repeating rifles given them at the beginning of the mission.
Liked this one. It was the biggest grossing western of 1953 and introduced another special effect to movie making: The Wilhelm Scream!. Although it originated in a 1951 film, DISTANT DRUMS, it got it’s name from a character in this movie, where it was used several times, as well as countless others over the years. The clip below the trailer is a compilation of many of them. Check it out. You will be amused I promise.