40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS (1966) was the last starring western for war hero-turned-western star Audie Murphy, who had ended his fruitful 15-year association with Universal Pictures the previous year. Released by Columbia Pictures, it turned out to be an unfitting send-off, undercut by an extremely low budget, a talky script, and an undistinguished no-name cast (aside from Murphy and screen vet Kenneth Tobey).
The plot might have made a good western had it been accorded a bigger budget and a stronger cast. A beleaguered Arizona cavalry division harassed by Cochise and his Apache warriors is expecting a shipment of repeating rifles, which could mean the difference between life and death for Apache Wells, an outpost housing the army and surviving settlers. The weapons become the object of less-than-intense conflict involving the Cavalry, the Indians and, later, a renegade group of army deserters. Murphy plays Captain Coburn, a no-nonsense type who romances a settler's daughter (Laraine Stephens) and agrees to take her two younger brothers (Michael Blodgett, Michael Burns) into the undermanned regiment after their father is killed in an attack. A display of cowardice by the youngest brother (Burns) has dire consequences, resulting in a meandering subplot requiring his redemption.
The production values here are far less polished than one would find in a typical TV western of the time, such as "Wagon Train" or "The Virginian." The no-name performers overact and are given reams of unnecessary dialogue in order to pad out the film's running time. Frequent narration tells us things we can see for ourselves. Most of the film was shot at ordinary-looking Southern California ranch locations. All this is especially disappointing given the participation of director William Witney, a one-time action specialist at Republic Pictures, who'd been directing for 30 years at this point.
Things pick up, however, in the film's final third when Corporal Bodine (Kenneth Tobey), a vengeful ex-sergeant with a grudge against Murphy, decides he has other plans for the 40 rifles and convinces four of the remaining soldiers from the escort to accompany him. Murphy, who'd been left for dead, has to get the rifles back while Burns, the cowardly brother, has to prove himself a man. This section of the film was shot in more remote California locations which actually pass for Arizona and features a larger band of Apaches on the prowl as Murphy undertakes a holding action, guarding a pass alone with a stack of fully loaded repeating rifles. Director Witney's considerable expertise kicks in during this stretch and gives a hint of what might have been. Composer Richard LaSalle pumps things up with a rousing, if clichéd, score
Audie Murphy only appeared in two more films, both little-seen. First was the international thriller, TRUNK TO CAIRO (1966), directed by future Cannon Films mogul Menahem Golan, while his final film was the Budd Boetticher western, A TIME FOR DYING (1969), which Murphy produced and appeared in briefly as Jesse James.
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