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