Western RoundUp: Hidden Gems, Vol. 3

Western RoundUp: Hidden Gems, Vol. 3

It’s time for another look at some Western “Hidden Gems”!

These are relatively lesser-known yet entertaining movies that deserve a look from fans of the Western genre. I’ve found both of these films, which share a cavalry theme, worth multiple watches. Happily, they’re both available on DVD.

Ambush (Sam Wood, 1949)

Ambush is a very good yet rather overlooked Robert Taylor Western. Taylor made better-known Westerns at his longtime studio, MGM, including the highly regarded Devil’s Doorway (1950) and Westward the Women (1951), but I also find Ambush to be quite enjoyable.

The screenplay by Marguerite Roberts is based on a novel by Luke Short, whose writing inspired a number of excellent movie Westerns. Indeed, three of the four titles in my column on “Noir-Tinged Westerns” were based on works by Short.

Arlene Dahl and John Hodiak in Ambush (1949)
Arlene Dahl and John Hodiak in Ambush (1949)

Taylor, an avid outdoorsman off the screen, is completely at home as Ward Kinsman, a civilian Cavalry scout in Arizona Territory. He’s asked by the fort commandant (Leon Ames) to rescue a woman kidnapped by an Indian tribe headed by Diablito (Charles Stevens).

Kinsman is dubious about pulling off a successful rescue mission but encouraged to move forward due to his attraction to the missing woman’s beautiful sister, Ann (Arlene Dahl). Ann is being romanced by Capt. Ben Lorrison (John Hodiak) but is clearly more interested in Kinsman.

Robert Taylor and Alrene Dahl in Ambush (1949)
Robert Taylor and Alrene Dahl in Ambush (1949)

As with so many Westerns, this Cavalry film has familiar themes, but it’s the unique spins of the filmmakers which give it interest, and in this case, it’s a very polished production.

Viewer attention is captured from the opening seconds, with Indian drums beating while Leo the Lion roars in the traditional MGM opening. That’s followed by complete silence as we’re shown the tragic aftermath of an Indian attack; we next see Indians riding away as the movie title zooms onto the screen. It’s an exciting and highly effective way to begin the movie.

Another plus is that the film has extensive location work in Arizona and New Mexico, filmed in black and white by Harold Lipstein; additional scenes were filmed at Southern California’s Corriganville movie ranch. There are moments that are clearly back projections cut into location scenes, but all in all, it’s a very good-looking movie.

Robert Taylor in Ambush (1949)
Robert Taylor in Ambush (1949)

Taylor is tops as the rugged Kinsman, and John McIntire also deserves particular notice as a grizzled scout. McIntire was a real chameleon; it’s almost hard to believe the bearded, tough scout seen here is played by the same actor who was the quiet, elderly detective with vision problems in the previous year’s Scene of the Crime (1949).

I like Hodiak a great deal although his character here is admittedly mostly an annoying foil for Robert Taylor. Don Taylor and Jean Hagen add interest in a rather unusual subplot about an officer in love with a married, abused wife.

Available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Escort West (Francis D. Lyon, 1958)

John Wayne‘s Batjac Productions produced a few films which didn’t star Wayne. The best — and best-known — of the non-Wayne Batjac films is Seven Men From Now (1956), starring Randolph Scott and directed by Budd Boetticher.

Escort West is another non-Wayne Batjac Production, released via United Artists, starring Victor Mature. Mature’s Romina Productions co-produced the film.

Victor Mature in Escort West (1958)
Victor Mature in Escort West (1958)

While Escort West isn’t a classic on the level of Seven Men From Now, it’s one of those “darn good Westerns” I so enjoy. It’s a relatively low-budget film, shot on Southern California locations, but it provides a solidly entertaining, fast-paced 75 minutes.

Mature is very likable as Ben Lassiter, a widowed Confederate veteran headed to Oregon Territory with his young daughter Abbey (Reba Waters) in 1865.

In Nevada, Ben rescues sisters Beth (Elaine Stewart) and Martha (Faith Domergue), along with an elderly black man, Nelson (Rex Ingram), who are all survivors of a wagon train ambush.

The film utilizes the classic Western theme of travelers banding together against dangerous outside forces, in this case, both Indians and renegade soldiers.

Victor Mature, Faith Domergue, Elaine Stewart, and Reba Waters in Escort West (1958)
Victor Mature, Faith Domergue, Elaine Stewart, and Reba Waters in Escort West (1958)

Actor Leo Gordon, who plays a Cavalry trooper who is one of the villains, co-wrote the script with Fred Hartsook. I don’t consider the fact that their storyline is familiar to be negative; to the contrary, that’s what makes this film “Western movie comfort food.”

The film has a marvelous cast of familiar faces, with Ken Curtis of TV’s Gunsmoke joining Gordon as a villain; Harry Carey Jr. and Noah Beery Jr. are Cavalry soldiers on the side of the good guys.

Domergue, who was memorable as the villainess in the Audie Murphy Western The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), plays an emotionally disturbed woman, which seems to have been something of a specialty for the actress; she was especially memorable in 1951’s Where Danger Lives with Robert Mitchum.

Stewart, who would appear in Murphy and James Stewart‘s Night Passage (1957) a few years later, is appealing as the calmer, more dependable sister – though viewers should be forewarned she has noticeably odd, inconsistent eyebrow makeup. (What were they thinking?)

Victor Mature and Rex Ingram in Escort West (1958)
Victor Mature and Rex Ingram in Escort West (1958)

Rex Ingram is excellent in his scenes, lending the film considerable gravitas, and Waters is good as Mature’s brave young daughter. The supporting cast is rounded out by Slim Pickens, Roy Barcroft, William Ching, and John Hubbard.

Although the locations are familiar from dozens of low-budget Westerns, the movie is helped by the fact that numerous scenes were filmed outdoors; the movie also does a better than average job mixing in soundstage “exteriors.”  The black and white CinemaScope cinematography was by William H. Clothier, who filmed Seven Men From Now and many other fine films, including Dragoon Wells Massacre (1957), which I recommended in my last column on Hidden Gems.

In short, Escort West is an ordinary Western elevated by top filmmaking talent, providing viewers with a very enjoyable experience.

Escort West is available on DVD from MGM.

For previous “Hidden Gems” recommendations, please visit Volume 1, posted here in January 2020, and Volume 2 from November 2020.

— 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.

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8 Responses to Western RoundUp: Hidden Gems, Vol. 3

  1. Jeanelle Kleveland says:

    Laura Grieve, I was pleased to see your article on Ambush. I have collected Robert Taylor memorabilia. He is from my hometown and we will be celebrating his 110th birthday this August. Thanks.

  2. John Knight says:

    Nice choices Laura.
    I hope eventually AMBUSH,DEVIL’S DOORWAY and WESTWARD THE WOMEN will be given the Blu Ray treatment by Warner Archive especially as their black & white restorations are so stunning these days.
    I note Kino Lorber seem to be releasing double bills of old United Artists titles and was thinking ESCORT WEST would make a great double bill with REBEL IN TOWN especially as both films have themes of veterans adjusting after the Civil War.

  3. Jerry Entract says:

    I fully support your inclusion of both these westerns as ‘hidden gems’, Laura.

    I recently (re)watched after many years “THREE COMRADES” (1938) and it is so easy to understand why Taylor became a major Hollywood star – he was excellent in it. Going forward a number of years to “AMBUSH” and Taylor is still at the top of his game. A big plus factor is the source material from the pen of Luke Short, whose work sourced many favourite westerns.
    Minor point I know, but I am interested in the fact that Taylor is a left-handed gun here, which he wasn’t usually. I tend to enjoy seeing this because of my complete fascination with Dale Robertson’s left-hand draw in the “WELLS FARGO” TV series while growing up! Oh well……

    Victor Mature was very underrated, I believe. In the right role he was terrific and “ESCORT WEST” is an underrated western. Not classic, as you so rightly say, just ‘darned good’ western.

  4. Amy Condit says:

    Wow! What an interesting post! I’ll be on the lookout for “Ambush” as I’d like to see more Robert Taylor films. I think I will watch “Escort West” tonight! I like solid dependable westerns! Just as Warner Brothers could churn out 65 minute crime films with fast-paced stories, stellar actors, & snappy dialogue, there are equally as many serviceable westerns with the same characteristics. Thanks for sharing your choices!

  5. Walter says:

    Laura, I enjoyed your good write-up on AMBUSH(filmed, 1949, released 1950) and ESCORT WEST(filmed 1958, released 1959). First of all, I’m a longtime fan of writer Luke Short(Frederick Dilley Glidden) and his books made for good source material for moviemakers. Short’s novel, is a crackerjack of a story and screenwriter Marguerite Roberts and director Sam Wood didn’t drift too far from Short’s prose. Short would have good female characters in his novels, as well as males. I think that Arlene Dahl and Jean Hagen did rather well in AMBUSH, especially Hagen.

    I would like to give writer Peter Dawson(Jonathan Hurff Glidden) a plug here. Yes, he was Luke Short’s brother. Dawson wrote a good short story titled “Long Gone,” which was first published in ZANE GREY’S WESTERN MAGAZINE(March, 1953). Dawson’s story is the source material for a favorite Western Movie, of mine. FACE OF A FUGITIVE(filmed 1958, released 1959) starring Fred MacMurray. I think it is a good one, well worth watching.

    I like Victor Mature and I think he was always good, especially if the movie was, as a whole. I agree with you that ESCORT WEST is a “Darn good Western.” Yes. it is low budget, but I think they did a good job of putting most of it up on the screen. This is a programmer filled with action and that is always good in a Western. This movie had such a solid cast, which is a plus. I’ve never seen Rex Ingram give a bad performance, and here, he is really good as the wounded cavalry trooper. I think this movie is well worth watching.

    Look forward to your next write-up.

  6. Laura Grieve says:

    Thank you all very much for your comments!

    Jeanelle, How wonderful your town will be celebrating Robert Taylor’s 110th birthday. I remember reading articles about his centennial celebration, hard to believe it’s been a decade already. One of my favorites!

    John, thank you! The Warner Archive has sure been doing some interesting Blu-ray releases, and not always the expected, i.e., CHAIN LIGHTNING (1950) coming out next month. I would love to see them release more Westerns on Blu-ray! Looking forward to reviewing ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO at my blog in the near future. I also agree, more double features from Kino Lorber would be terrific. Loved their Anthony Quinn Westerns set.

    Jerry, I’m delighted you like these films as well. Taylor and Mature are both soo good, including in these. (There are so many Westerns I’ve liked based on Luke Short stories!)

    Amy, thank you. I hope you’ll enjoy both AMBUSH and ESCORT WEST. It’s true, there are many relatively short and/or lesser-known Westerns which provide a lot of entertainment value.

    Walter, thank you as well! Love hearing the comparison to Short’s source material since I haven’t read it myself. Had no idea that Short’s brother was a writer, how interesting! I have a copy of FACE OF A FUGITIVE I haven’t yet seen. I hope more people will give AMBUSH and ESCORT WEST a try thanks to your added endorsement.

    Thanks again to you all for reading and for your comments!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    • Jerry Entract says:

      Laura, you really need to see “FACE OF A FUGITIVE”. I would even go so far as to say it was Fred’s best western. And that’s saying a lot!

  7. Laura Grieve says:

    Wow, that’s quite a compliment, Jerry!

    Thanks for that info.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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