16 May 2005 | FrankiePaddo
Stage station "Stagecoach" with good cast
A interesting western, more interesting than the criticism (ie: B western, formulaic) it gets.
Based on a story by Ernest Haycox, who wrote "Stage to Lordsburg" on which John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach was based, this film shares many of that films themes and locales (not Monument Valley here but still set in the south west).
Much like "Stagecoach" the film is about how various people handle themselves when faced with danger. Unfortunately here the writing spends too much time on the subplots - the love triangle between the station master (Robert Horton) his old flame and his new love, and the Mexican bandits' (Gilbert Roland) attempts to steel the gold shipment , at the expense of tension from how various different "types" of people act when holed up awaiting the inevitable Indian attack.
In "Stagecoach" the various types were the outlaw, the prostitute, the banker, the drunken doctor, the gambler, the upper class lady etc all "typifying" the various strata in society. Here we have a Mexican bandit, a station master trying to downplay his background, a gambling woman, a Cavalry Officer and his daughter, a woman with a checkered past, 4 cow hands ( some loyal some not ) , a Mexican Indian half breed, a employer and a Mexican cook.
In "Stagecoach" the action is as much the interaction between the people on the coach and at the stage station as is the Indian attacks, especially in the lengthy middle sequence set at a stage station. (run as in this film by Mexicans). Dudley Nicholls who wrote the screenplay for Ford (with Ford's uncredited assistance) stressed the class antagonisms, conflict and prejudices. In Ford's film ethnicity is irrelevant and class is the determinator of social standing. Here, in "Apache War Smoke", class is played down and ethnicity is played up ( but for no purpose) and the "types" don't represent class positions or even their ethnicity but rather background on which to hang the plot. Unfortunately if you take all the meaty stuff that Nicholls put into the "Stagecoach" script you are left with just another western. And we have that here, plus a lot of the scripting that is western melodrama ( the love triangle, the father vs son scenario, who do the Indian's want ?). But still some of the original themes shine through.
The writer has thrown in some mystery as well. The Indians, although not fleshed out, are genuinely aggrieved at someone in the stage station who has murdered some of their number.
What saves the day here are some nice touches; for instance for a film of the time that has a number of ethnic types as leads and supports (at least 4 people at the station are Mexican or part Mexican, and one is half Indian) race and race issues never arise. Maybe the plot could have made something of this but as it is it is neat to see that people forced together to defend themselves not thinking of it in terms of race issues. Similarly, although all underdeveloped, there are romantic interludes between Roland's Mexican bandit and 2 Caucasian women, the half Mexican station master and the officer's daughter, as well as an undeclared love between the half breed boy and the same officer's daughter, and no one thinks this as odd or worthy of a racial slur. It's refreshing to see that the American southwest at that time portrayed, as I suspect it was, a great big melting pot.
The cast are fine- Gilbert Roland's self assured, natural flamboyance is fun to watch and easy on the ear ( here he plays the Latin lover with six guns), Robert Horton is rugged and I am surprised he didn't have more major roles before he broke through with the lead on TVs "Wagon Train" ( although he doesn't look like a half Mexican), Harry Morgan is excellent ( the medium shot of him being challenged by Roland's outlaw whilst guarding the gold is great) but his scenes are very few, Robert "Bobby" Blake is the half breed and captures the "lost youth" which was popular in the 50s, while in bits we have all the usual western faces that always lend a feeling of authenticity; Hank Worden ( Searchers, Three Godfathers Sergeant Rutledge, Red River), Gene Lockhart, Myron Healey ( Cattle Queen of Montana, Rio Bravo), Douglas Dumbrille, Argentina Brunetti, Glenda Farrell (very convincing as a frontier woman), and Emmett Lynn. Patricia Tiernan and Barbara Ruick are decorative as western women always are.
The director Harold F Kress only had a few stabs at directing, being more well known as an editor, before and after this. He won Academy Awards for "Towering Inferno", "How the West was Won". However you can tell he is an editor, as the film pumps along at a brisk pace and some of the action sequences, particularly the small combat scenes rather than the big action scenes are well handled.
At only just under 70 minutes people would assume this to be a programmer. The action sequences ( although not convincingly filmed) are large scale. I don't think they have been imported from a different film....although this is a remake of MGMs 1942 "Apache Trail" so who knows, but the footage seems to match. If they are not imported then I think that maybe this was planned as a "A feature" which was cut down to this length.
There is also a curious mix of photography - there are some nice low angle shots and atmosphere shots, then shots which are static and seem to come from a different film.
Still, when you write these long reviews people think you must love the film. I don't but I do think that it has a lot going for it, within its limitations , and more importantly it was fun ( and painless) to watch. And because it was underrated it was even more enjoyable.