Escape from Fort Bravo (MGM, 1953)
A Fordian cavalry Western
Since we are on the subject of cavalry Westerns at the moment, here’s one that I am inordinately fond of.
At first sight this is just a Civil War Western directed by John Sturges, and therefore solid, workmanlike and worth seeing. Sturges was capable, it is true, of pretty dire work (one thinks, for example, of the perfectly dreadful The Hallelujah Trail or the equally bad Sergeants 3) but he also made some quite splendid Westerns, especially my adored The Magnificent Seven, and Bad Day at Black Rock, if you count that as a Western (I do). Then you’ve got Gunfight at the OK Corral, Last Train from Gun Hill, and so on. Generally speaking, you’re OK with Sturges at the helm, and often well better than OK.
What elevates Escape from Fort Bravo to something more, indeed into a work of art, is the quite stunning photography by Robert Surtees. The Surteeses (if that’s the plural), father and son, were highly talented cinematographers, especially of Westerns. This was Surtees père’s finest Western work.
The location scenes are shot in ‘Anso Color’ in New Mexico (you can tell because it’s so beautiful) and in Death Valley, and what could be more suitable - for this pitiless, arid landscape is entirely appropriate to the brutal struggle for survival that takes place there. It was announced as a 3D project – 3D was all the rage in ’53 – though that didn’t happen in the end because the fad faded fast and by the time of Fort Bravo’s release, December ’53, it was already passé.
The screenplay was by Frank Fenton (Ride, Vaquero!), from a story by Phillip Rock and Michael Pate, which borrows a little from Fox’s Two Flags West of three years before, and tells of Confederate prisoners breaking out of a Union fort in Arizona and pursued by sardonic Captain Holden. The two sides are united in the face of an implacable common enemy, Mescalero Apaches. The Apaches are brave and skilled tacticians.
Michael Pate was an interesting person. He was Australian, only relocating to the US in the 1950s and going back there later to pursue his career. For some odd reason, as an actor in the US he cornered the market in Indian chiefs. He was Vittorio in Hondo the same year as Fort Bravo and went on to be Chief Four Horns, Watanka, Puma, Thin Elk, Sierra Charriba and heaven knows who all else. But he also wrote, and the story of Escape from Fort Bravo is both gripping and authentic.
One review I read (I’m afraid I forget where or whose) made the point that Pate’s character of Sierra Charriba was in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, whose storyline has Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners teaming up to battle Indians, which makes it a clear successor to Fort Bravo. The score, by Jeff Alexander, is particularly good, orchestral variations on the theme of Yellow Stripes, by Stan Jones (of Ghost Riders in the Sky fame), used by John Ford in Rio Grande three years before. The other principal song, Soothe My Lonely Heart, had music and lyrics by Alexander, and the sheet music was released commercially to tie in with the film. There’s the occasional quotation of Dixie when the Confederates are featuring. The music is one of the strong points of the film.
Holden is, as per usual, excellent as a tough martinet with a human face. Eleanor Parker, the southern spy who falls for him, and he for her, is very beautiful. What’s more, as reader Jean-Marie pointed out, “Parker handles a nice four barrel Sharps pepperbox, very close to a derringer.”
There is a daringly hinted-at gay relationship between the Southern officer, John Forsythe, and a lieutenant, John Lupton (he had to be gay as his hair is floppy and he writes poetry). William Demarest is fine as the crusty old Southern trooper who shows outstanding courage.
The ending is gripping, violent and moving. Not for Sturges or his writers the goody noble Indians of early-50s Westerns like Broken Arrow. These are sinister, menacing and hidden foes capable of great violence and great cunning.
The picture wasn’t that well received – surprisingly, in my view. Reviewer ‘HHT’ in The New York Times didn’t think much of the script: “Most of the characters, including the principals, are fuzzily defined. All of them, excepting Cart Benton Reid, as the commanding officer, seem inclined to mumble, which may be just as well. But the most exasperating paradox of this off-keel ‘class’ horse opera is the undercurrent of arch badinage flavoring the dialogue, from the lengthy, lovelorn sequences of Mr. Holden and Miss Parker to the bloodiest moments. The cast, consequently, seems confused throughout.” I don’t agree with that at all but there we are.
Other reviews have been much more positive. Leonard Maltin liked the picture, calling it "well-executed" and awarding it three stars. Brian Garfield said it was “much better than average.” The BFI Companion to the Western said, “What distinguishes it is Sturges’s bold and imaginative use of space and his dramatic handling of complex action sequences. The review added, “Sturges rises to the challenge magnificently.” I agree.
This is an excellent Western, tautly directed, very well acted and above all beautifully shot by a master photographer. The movie has a Fordian air to it – the cavalry environment, the dance, the deadly Indians, the songs, the arid terrain, the Stout/Hoch/Glennon/Clothier look of the picture. You need to see this one.
Probably Jean-Marie liked it because it served as an inspiration for the fifth title in the comic book series Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats), Les Déserteurs (1975).