14 April 2015 | BrianDanaCamp
Stock footage and implausibility abound in minor Columbia western
APACHE AMBUSH (1955) opens promisingly with a sequence at the White House on April 14, 1865 (150 years ago today), in which President Abraham Lincoln, just before heading out to Ford's Theatre, gives an official assignment to an army scout (Bill Williams) and an army sergeant (Ray Teal) to round up Texas cattle and bring it back east to feed a hungry nation after the depredations of the Civil War. James Griffith does an excellent job of portraying Lincoln (not the first time he'd done it) and the scene reminds me that I first saw Griffith impersonate Lincoln in a famous 1957 episode of "The Lone Ranger" called "Message from Abe," in which Griffith plays a character who dresses up as Lincoln and recites the Gettysburg Address at a town's annual 4th of July festival.
However, once the action shifts to Abilene and then Texas, before settling in the fictional Texas-New Mexico border town of San Arturo, the storyline becomes more and more contrived as a number of different factions and plot elements come into play. The wagon train carrying Williams and Teal from Abilene to San Arturo comes under attack from Mexican bandits and Apaches, working together(!). (If I have my Texas lore correct, I'd have thought it would be Comanches and not Apaches raiding that territory, although I'm guessing COMANCHE AMBUSH didn't have the alliterative appeal of APACHE AMBUSH.) The plot focus shifts to a shipment of 100 Henry repeating rifles purchased by an arms dealer working for the bandits and which arrives in San Arturo in a wagon quickly slated for confiscation by the army general (James Flavin) stationed there. However, the rifles disappear and we eventually find that the one character who takes responsibility for hiding them is a one-armed ex-rebel (Richard Jaeckel) who would have had to unload the boxes of rifles and ammo, dig a hole and bury them—with one arm!--in a matter of minutes while the general's attention was diverted. There is one character who could have helped him, but that character disappears from the story at a certain point and is never heard from or mentioned again, so I had a hard time making sense of any of this. Also, Williams and Teal are denied the use of the soldiers they had requested to escort the cattle. Yet when they finally get to the cattle and start guiding it northwards, the Indians attack and somehow Williams and Teal have enough men to do the job even though it's not clear where they came from, other than the copious stock footage.
There are a lot of action scenes, but any scene involving multiple heads of cattle and dozens of Indians, raiders, or soldiers on horseback was evidently culled from another, more expensive movie. I wish I knew which movies, because I'd prefer to see those. Acting-wise, Williams is a particularly uncharismatic hero and the wild-eyed villain, Mexican bandit leader Joaquin Jironza (Alex Montoya), is not very formidable either. Movita, the actress who plays Rosita, Jironza's crafty lover, is a lot more compelling and should possibly have played the lead villain herself. (Movita, aka Movita Castaneda, died earlier this year at the age of 98.) Richard Jaeckel is very good as the embittered former Reb, who lost his arm in a Union prison camp, but one wishes he could have played this character in a better movie. And that whole bit where he takes credit for hiding all the rifles on his own just defies credulity. Tex Ritter and Ray "Crash" Corrigan, onetime mainstays of the B-western, turn up briefly in character parts early on as the shady businessmen responsible for the rifles. Iron Eyes Cody appears as the Apache chief who leads a band of stock footage warriors. George Chandler, who more often played comic or folksy character bits, here plays a cold-blooded killer working for the bandits in quite a change-of-pace role for him.
This was the fifth western I saw in a week that was written by David Lang and directed by Fred F. Sears and easily the weakest. The others were all very good. The best was THE OUTLAW STALLION (1954), which I've also reviewed here, and the others were AMBUSH AT TOMAHAWK GAP (1953), WYOMING RENEGADES (1954) and FURY AT GUNSIGHT PASS (1956), all solid, action-packed pieces with clever plotting and interesting characters. Look at the villains in these films: Roy Roberts, David Brian, Gene Evans, William Bishop, Trevor Bardette, Ray Teal, and the toughest of them all, Neville Brand. You get a bunch of guys like these together, give them horses and guns and put them in front of a camera and the movie practically writes itself. Too bad they had to work in so much stock footage to compile APACHE AMBUSH. The other four westerns were all completely original from start to finish.