27 April 2011 | Spikeopath
Jim Bridger-The Sioux call him Tomahawk.
Battle of Powder River (AKA: Tomahawk) is directed by George Sherman and adapted for the screen by Sylvia Richards & Maurice Geraghty from a story by Daniel Jarrett. It stars Van Heflin, Yvonne de Carlo, Alex Nicol, Preston Foster, Jack Oakie, Tom Tully, John War Eagle and Susan Cabot. It's a Technicolor production filmed on location in the Black Hills of Dakota, with music by Hans J. Salter and photography by Charles P. Boyle.
"This is the Laramie Conference. A powder keg that may explode at any moment. It would take little to light the fuse. There are important and powerful men here. On one side the leaders of the Sioux nation-on the other representatives of the United States. But on this day it will take a great man to see both sides-Jim Bridger: pioneer, trapper and scout, is such a man."
Coming a year after Delmer Daves' excellent and similarly themed Broken Arrow, Battle of Powder River appears to have been lost in the mix of Westerns sympathetic to the Indians. Much like Broken Arrow, and for that matter Devil's Doorway (1950) as well, this is propelled by a magnetic and strong central lead performance. Van Heflin as Jim Bridger gives the film a believability factor, important for a film that's based around historical events in Montana Territory 1876/7. Thankfully the film built around Heflin isn't too bad either. The plot essentially involves Bridger, a man who married a Cheyenne woman, caught in the middle of an impending war between the Indians and the American military. The army are ordered to build a road and fort on land previously ceded to the Sioux by a previous treaty. This they want to do because of gold having been discovered in the Dakota's. Bridger sets about trying to keep peace but is undermined by personal conflicts and violent bigots like Lieut. Rob Dancy (and effective rascal turn by Alex Nicol).
Naturally for a film of this type, budget, era and running time, it's not an actual history lesson, so folk should not expect as such. But the makers are thoughtful as regards the events of the time and neatly tell their story via the fluctuating perspectives of the characters standing either side of the brewing conflict. It's also nicely shot by Sherman (The Battle at Apache Pass/Comanche) and Boyle (Horizon's West/Gunsmoke), the location work integral to the plot so as to understand what these people were ultimately fighting for. While Salter scores it in standard Cavalry Vs Indians style. The minor problems come with de Carlo's character and the shortness of the action. The former, admittedly lovely in Technicolor, serves only as romantic surplus who does a real dumb thing, and the latter is annoying since Sherman was more than capable of crafting exciting action (for example see the finale of The Battle at Apache Pass). Here the final battle of the title is swift and basically a compilation of charge and be felled sequences, while a buffalo scene is all too brief and only hints at what excitement could have been garnered from that passage of play. Annoyances for sure, but not enough to drag the piece down to B movie fodder territory.
Although it's trumped by two, thematically similar and better movies the previous year, the story, Heflin and the scenery make this a must see for the Western fan. 7.5/10