on 30 October 2009
Made a couple of years after Ford's 'Fort Apache' (1948), in some ways Douglas' violent film is reminiscent of that earlier work. Gregory Peck's straight-backed Captain Lance, unpopular stickler for honour and adherent to all the fine print of duty, recalls Ford's military martinet Lieutenant Colonel Thursday (Fonda). There's a significant difference of course: Lance has a quiet competence throughout (and grudging respect of the ranks) conspicuously absent in Thursday's command. And whereas Thursday's actions lead to disaster, Lance pulls off a successful mission. Corporal Gilchrist (Ward Bond, also in 'Apache'), grudgingly admits as much as he declines to shoot the Captain, maddened at the height of his personal whisky drought: Lance is "the only man who can get them through", faults and all. Like the narrow pass through which the Apaches must move to attack the fort, Lance works within a narrow confine of responsibility and honour which can be dangerously constricting.
Interestingly, for a film ostensibly full of action, much significance attaches itself exactly to the opposite. For instance, it is Lance's unwillingness to draw upon others to clear his honour that estranges him from the post and his girlfriend Cathy after the death of Lieutenant Holloway. Most importantly, it is Lance's 'failure' to shoot the indian chief at the beginning, immediately after the fluke capture, which precipitates the death of so many others (a fault corrected at the end when Lance uses a knife in the last struggle). The film suggests that it necessary to bend the rules sometimes to achieve more effective results (whether or not this includes condoning murder in cold blood of a captive is another matter) - and positions various disrupting influences against the Captain as way of demonstration of the checks and balances this involves.
Chief of these is Corporal Gilchrist, who rather steals the film - particularly in the light of Peck's characteristic dullness as an actor. It is Gilchrist who is present at the start of events, he who rounds out the film. It is he too, who provokes a rare yielding, as far as military rules are concerned, by Lance: the Captain allows him a surreptitious swig of whisky just before the final attack. A boisterous, womanising drunkard, Bond plays a character to the hilt familiar from Ford's 'cavalry trilogy' and other films.
The forces contrasting Lance's discipline, control and code of honour rang neatly and conveniently against him at the fort. A deserter, a drunkard, a frustrated bully, an irrationally violent man - these and others, are the small command aptly chosen by Lance (being those the army can "spare mostly easily") to support his mission. In effect, such a select rabble represent the dregs of the army. But also, the weaknesses and darkness which all men contain, and naturally it is these which Lance has to face and master, as much as holding the pass against more physical incursion.
Reflecting this intrigue, the film is naturally rich in character acting. Besides Bond's loud bluffness, one also relishes Chaney's satanic Kebussyan (his character definitely *not* a Fordian derivative!), and the grouchy bitterness of Neville Brand's sergeant Murdock. Much of the film's pleasure lays in such incidentals, especially as the events at the pass, when examined logically, hardly make military sense (Why don't the indians just attack in one go? Why do they keep retreating back through the pass when they have broken out?)
Douglas, who went on to make the superb 'Rio Conchos' (1964) and the minor cult item 'Barquero'(1970) made too few Westerns, and does a good, tough job in direction. His pacing and grasp of tension helps to mask over the glaring differences in geology between the studio's 'pass' and the real thing shot on location. Co-scriptwriter Brown was to write Hawk's masterpiece El Dorado. In short: recommended, but for a more complex and convincing portrait of the cavalry under command see Ford.