Western RoundUp: Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958)
A frequently seen theme in the Western film genre is a disparate band of travelers banding together against a common foe, most often Indians.
One of the most famous Westerns featuring this theme is John Ford‘s Stagecoach (1939). Two lesser-known but solid examples which have been featured here in previous posts are Dragoon Wells Massacre (1957), which I wrote about here in November 2020, and Escort West (1958), which I discussed in May 2021.
This month we’ll look at another film with this storyline, Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958). Ambush at Cimarron Pass was a Regal Film distributed by 20th Century-Fox. It stars Scott Brady, Margia Dean, and Clint Eastwood, who had started his film career in small roles just three years previously.
It’s nice to note that two of the film’s cast members, Eastwood and Dean, are still with us today. Eastwood will be 92 in May 2022, and I was inspired to watch this film thanks to the recent 100th birthday of the film’s leading lady, Margia Dean. Dean was born April 7, 1922.
Another cast member, Ray Boyle, just passed away very recently, in January 2022. Boyle, who plays Johnny Willows, was 98.
Ambush at Cimarron Pass takes place shortly after the end of the Civil War. Brady stars as Sergeant Matt Blake, who’s leading a small band of cavalry soldiers through Apache territory. Their mission is to deliver a shipment of guns to a fort a few days away, along with Corbin (Baynes Barron), who has been arrested for his plans to sell the guns to Indians.
Along the way Blake and his men are waylaid by a group of men led by former Southern officer Captain Sam Prescott (Frank Gerstle). Prescott and his men, including Keith Williams (Eastwood), are Southerners who resent the Yankee cavalry soldiers, but they all have a much bigger problem dealing with Apache Indians. The two groups agree to work together to get to the safety of the fort.
The Apaches soon show up in the area with a woman they’ve kidnapped, Teresa (Dean), and use her as a distraction to steal the group’s horses. The men find themselves having to walk to the fort along with Teresa, their only protection being the rifles that the Indians still want. It’s a true Catch-22: The rifles are a means to keep the group alive, but the guns also attract the Indians who are determined to acquire them.
One by one several of the men in the group are picked off by the Indians or die for other reasons, ultimately leaving about half of the men and the one woman attempting to make the last, most dangerous treacherous leg of the journey to the fort.
Ambush at Cimarron Pass is admittedly a rather middling movie; it’s not particularly distinguished but it moves quickly, with a short 73-minute running time, and I enjoyed watching it. It’s always interesting to me to see what fresh spins filmmakers put on a tried-and-true story.
In addition to enjoying the familiar storyline, I particularly appreciated that the movie was filmed extensively at Iverson Movie Ranch, which I wrote about in my column last month. Much of the movie was shot outdoors in territory which has become quite familiar to me, and it was fun to watch the backgrounds closely and recognize places I’ve been.
Unfortunately some very noticeable soundstage interiors are intercut with the outdoor filming, but that was par for the course in the era. Happily most of the film was shot outside, which gives the film a more authentic feel.
Brady, the younger brother of actor Lawrence Tierney, was a veteran of many Westerns, including some of my personal favorites such as The Gal Who Took the West (1949), Johnny Guitar (1954), and The Storm Rider (1957). He’s solid as the commanding Sergeant Blake, a natural leader who risks himself first, whether it’s going in alone to meet with Captain Prescott’s group or handing over his canteen to Williams.
Without a great deal of running time to work with, Eastwood sketches a character who begins with such deep resentment of Yankees that he would have killed Blake if not interrupted. Gradually he comes to realize that Captain Prescott’s wisdom is correct: They must measure the man, not the uniform. When Sergeant Blake gives Williams his canteen and tells him to hang on to it, he looks at Blake in a new way.
Dean’s character begins as a traumatized woman who initially shows courage, managing to warn the men of the Indians’ plans to steal the horses, but sadly it comes too late. Once physically recovered from her ordeal, she quickly flips to being something of a flirt, seemingly looking for a protector among the men.
When Williams asks Teresa if she wants to go to Texas with him but doesn’t propose marriage, she instead makes a move on Blake, clearly viewing him as a more dependable man. And if his reaction to her kiss is any indication, she might have success in landing him.
Dean was a former Miss California who played many bit parts in Lippert Productions, while Westerns such as this one gave her some of her biggest and best roles. Some years ago Dean shared career memories with Mike Fitzgerald for the Western Clippings site. In that interview she said, “I thought, at the time, Clint would be a star, but I never dreamed he’d become the superstar he is today.“
Dean didn’t care for her leading man, Brady, and said they had a feud, but rather intriguingly she shared fond memories of his brother Lawrence Tierney. Tierney was known in Hollywood as a “tough guy” who could be on the scary side offscreen, but she remembered him as “a very nice guy.”
In the supporting cast I particularly liked Gerstle as the Southern captain with a good head on his shoulders. The cast also includes Irving Bacon, William Vaughn, Ken Mayer, Keith Richards, John Damler, John Frederick, and Desmond Slattery.
The film was directed by Jodie Copelan, whose film career started with The Guilty (1947), a solid “B” suspense film starring Don Castle and Bonita Granville (as identical twins!). Copelan went back and forth from films to television, with his TV work including many episodes of The Gene Autry Show and The F.B.I.
Ambush at Cimarron Pass was written by Richard G. Taylor and John K. Butler, based on a story by Robert A. Reeds and Robert W. Woods. It was filmed in black and white Regalscope by John N. Nickolaus Jr.
I found Ambush at Cimarron Pass a relatively minor yet enjoyable Western which was worth a look. Eastwood fans will particularly want to check it out for insight into the early stages of his career.
Ambush at Cimarron Pass is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.