Ben Johnson is nothing if not a genuinely likable guy. Sure, he's from Oklahoma and Texas and grew up with horses and for all we know his politics, combined with all that equinity, may have put him somewhere to the right of Genghis Kahn.
But that would be hard to believe. He's measured and slow in speech and demeanor. When he says "Yes, sir" or "No, sir", it sounds like he's been using those polite forms of address since infancy. I've always liked the guy, even when he was a heavy in "Shane." (He reformed.) He's handsome too, and he sits a horse splendidly. Under John Ford he was never anything except a "trooper" or, at most, a sergeant. Here, he's a commissioned officer. It's easy to see why he might have gotten mixed up in the unholy mess that is this movie.
Alas, he's not only a Captain, he's a romantic lead. It just doesn't sound kosher when Ben Johnson is compelled to say something like, "Listen, you mean more to me than any woman I've ever known, but you're not for me." That's not Ben Johnson. That's the screenwriter, Maurice Tombragel, taking a snooze instead of working.
At least the woman he's romancing, the mammose Maureen Hingert, is beautiful. She was Miss Ceylon somewhere back in the 1950s. She doesn't look much like an Apache though. She's all glamorized up with eye make up and lipstick and silken hair.
But then so is the dissatisfied and ambitious wife of the Commanding Officer. He's Kent Taylor. She's Jan Harrison. Taylor has a Hollywood haircut and the neatly trimmed beard of a college professor. He acts like a Hollywood utility player. Jan Harrison can't act at all, but at least she was "Miss Washington State" at some point. With a little imagination Maurice Tombragel could have interpolated a swimsuit competition. ("Darling, why don't you and Chanzana go down to the river, slip into your tiny bikinis, and have a nice swim? I'll join you later with the videocam." See how easy it is?)
I don't know how far I want to bother getting into this. The musical score is by Les Baxter, who did some nice arrangements for pop songs in the 50s, but this is generic and could have been written by a Magic 8 Ball. The Apaches speak Indianese. "You get off horse. Leave guns." (That's a direct quote.)
You know, I hate saying this, but it's impossible to watch a movie like this -- cavalry versus Apache -- without Ford's enchiridion coming to mind, especially examples like "Fort Apache" and "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon." Ford's movies have a lived-in quality. It's not just that characters are fleshed out with human quirks, while here everyone is stripped of every feature that doesn't advance the story. It's that in "Yellow Ribbon," John Wayne wears red long johns under his dusty uniform. Here, the uniforms are tightly tailored, not baggy and used. The boots are refulgent. They're so polished they probably emit a glow in the dark.
There's a scene in which a sergeant is captured and tortured by the Apache. ("Torture him. Torture him good.") Well, the truth is that the Plains Indians were pretty rough customers when it came to torture, though of course it wasn't torture to them. They probably called it "enhanced execution." The Apache might debone captives, beginning with the phalanges, but they expected the same treatment from their enemies. The attitude towards battle of the Indians on the high plains was remarkably similar to that of the Greek city states -- bravery was a virtue of the highest order.
Anyway, however much I enjoy Ben Johnson, he's not enough to save this movie. Let's fillet this sucker.