Sunday, 3 January 2021

Fort Massacre (1958)

Director: Joseph M. Newman
Writers: Martin M. Goldsmith
Stars: Joel McCrea, Forrest Tucker, Susan Cabot, John Russell and George N. Neise

Fort Massacre is an odd movie in a lot of ways, not least because it’s well worth seeking out but it’s frustrating to watch. There’s a lot that’s wrong with it, but it takes root in your brain and stays with you, because it also does quite a lot very right indeed. The lead is Joel McCrea, playing very much against type as the story’s bad guy, though oddly he’s also one of the good guys; the explanation of that sentence would count as a good synopsis of the film. There are other easily recognisable character actors here too, like Forrest Tucker and a very young Denver Pyle, but I’m watching for John Russell, who would have been a hundred years old on 3rd January, 2021 and he’s arguably the best thing about the film. He’s one of four highlighted co-stars and he’s the only one with a story arc, as his character is just as important to this story as McCrea’s, important enough that he literally gets the last word. His story arc both goes in the right direction and in the direction of right, making him our moral compass in a complex situation.

As you might imagine, this is a western, set entirely in the deserts of the southwest, and we begin on 28th July, 1879. Capt. Cole had command of C Troop, Second Regiment, Sixth Cavalry, but Capt. Cole is dead, along with half his men, after the troop was attacked by seventy Apache braves. His lieutenant survived but was seriously injured and he dies shortly into the film, having done nothing but fall off his horse, another corpse to bury. That leaves Sgt. Vinson in charge, as the only officer left alive. They’re somewhere in the southwestern corner of New Mexico and he figures that means about a hundred miles or so east of Fort Crain and safety. Their first task is to find the regiment’s main column that’s escorting a wagon train. It’s probably fair to say at this point that they never do, because this isn’t that sort of story. As expansive as the desert is, this really isn’t about what’s out there, whatever that may be, as this is a psychological western and the real story takes place inside the heads of Sgt. Vinson and Pvt. Robert W. Travis.

Initially, it seems like the sergeant’s the right man to lead these dozen or so men to safety, the troop hardly being a grand example of the U.S. cavalry. Pendleton is mildly wounded but he plays it up all he can, unable to do anything because of a graze on his arm. McGurney is a bigoted Irishman in it for whatever he can get. Others want out of the army as soon as they can get to Fort Crain, as they don’t want to give their lives for “dirt farmers”. Many openly question orders as a matter of routine. Mutiny always seems to be five minutes away throughout the movie. Some are good men. Collins is the can do soldier when it comes to the dirty jobs, like digging a grave for the lieutenant. Travis seems like a good soldier, as he steadfastly follows orders without displaying any thoughts of his own. The Pawnee guide is treated well by the script too, especially in the face of McGurney cheerfully calling him a low down dirty heathen. Of all these men, the only one willing to make any decisions, even the only decision remotely viable, is Sgt. Vinson.

The catch is that those decisions aren’t always popular. The first, after deciding to head west to Fort Crain, is to take the water hole up ahead, even though the Apaches already there outnumber them four to one. They need the water, so it’s the only decision that a decision maker can make, but the men don’t want to fight. Fortunately for them, even if the Pawnee riding with the troop is seen as a good man, these aren’t particularly worthy Apaches. One scout fails to notice Vinson crouching up ahead ready to dive onto him, then loses to him in poor hand to hand combat. He’s even wearing underwear that doesn’t remotely look like a breechcloth. After Pendleton triggers a battle by stupidly shooting a rattlesnake, so making the enemy aware of their presence, these Apaches almost trip over each other trying to get to the soldiers. The fight choreography is non-existent and there’s at least one moment where an Apache leaps into the frame, stumbles and waits patiently for a soldier to shoot him down.

We might be used to westerns that frame Indians as the bad guys, but this one doesn’t do that. These Apaches are just an obstacle sitting in the way of the cavalrymen whom we’re expected to see as the good guys—no different from the mountains or the desert, except for the fact that they carry loaded rifles. We’re given no opportunity to get to know any of them and only one is even given a name—Moving Cloud—and dialogue, though none of it is either in English or subtitled. Even then, he’s only briefly in the picture, just long enough to haggle with a couple of traders at their wagon, before being captured, killing the Pawnee in a one on one fight and riding off into the desert. It’s clear, even early on, who the bad guy is supposed to be, even if we don’t buy into it initially, and that’s Sgt. Vinson. His men don’t just grumble about his decisions, they actively question his state of mind. “He’s worse than a fool,” one suggests. “He’s a madman.” And it all goes consistently downhill from there.

The script, by Martin M. Goldsmith, most noted for adapting his own novel into the B movie classic, Detour, in 1945 and for writing a couple of episodes of The Twilight Zone, is primarily concerned with the burden of command and what happens when it’s given to someone of dubious sanity. The men are there to add to that burden in two ways. Firstly, they keep dying and every new death is a fresh pocket watch to sit inside Vinson’s shirt, awaiting delivery to the man’s family. Secondly, they overtly question his orders so much that it becomes constant background, isolating the sergeant from them. It’s also a habit. When the title shows up, it’s because he wants to stop at a cliffside dwelling for an hour. “All right, we’ll build our own fort,” one of his men suggests. “Fort Massacre.” This is especially telling as the very first complaint we hear at the start of the film comes because Vinson doesn’t want to stop for an hour. It’s clear that, in their eyes, whatever he decides is going to be wrong, even if it’s what they asked for five minutes earlier.

It’s presumably because Travis isn’t part of those group grumbles and near mutinies that Vinson initially befriends him, looking for company in this tough situation, but the sergeant finds a lot more in the private. He’s an educated man but he plays the everyman, our avatar in the film as much as our moral compass. He’s thirty, he says, but at twenty-nine he was a bum and before that he was a baby. He uses his wit not to answer questions or offer solutions, but to consistently evade both. His biggest problem is that he never makes decisions, a problem that has only manifested in his life thus far by keeping him aimless, but which here is clearly a counter to the sergeant. Vinson berates Travis for not making decisions, suggesting that it’s making decisions that takes guts, far more than just killing a bunch of Apaches, but, at the same time, he clearly yearns to be in Travis’s position, where he could just follow orders and not have to make decisions. Potential aside, Travis is what Vinson despises the most but also most wants to be right now.

No wonder that Vinson’s a tormented man! It doesn’t help that he’s also a biased man, whose wife was raped and killed by Indians, having proven to be a better “man” than he for having the guts to kill their two children first. The men don’t know the whole story, which he tells to Travis, but they know enough to question his decisions from the perspective that he’s letting his hate drive him. During the waterhole battle, he shoots down an Apache who has run out of arrows and so stands awaiting death. The men who see this are shocked by his inhumanity and, while he justifies it, they don’t buy into his justification. Eventually, of course, the script is inevitably manouevered to the point where Vinson goes too far and Travis is there to call him on it, if only he can make a decision to do so. For all the build towards it, this eventuality is a quick scene, so quick that we don’t quite take in the enormity of it all then and there. By the time we do, the end credits are rolling and the film is over.

I liked a lot of this. I’m not used to McCrea playing the bad guy, even if he’s also the good guy in some ways, but he does it well. It’s not just the stripes that are heavy, it’s those watches too and his own feelings. It isn’t just hate, as it’s a lot more complex than that, but it manifests as hate and it leads him down a time-honoured path that goes all the way back to Poe, if not earlier; it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find that Shakespeare wrote this story in a different form. While I know so many of these actors from westerns, even if I’ve never seen Tucker in F Troop or Russell in Lawman, two popular western TV shows in the fifties and sixties, it’s good to see them again. Tucker is as unlikeable here as Denver Pyle is likeable, but they’re both excellent in their respective roles. I liked it working around an obviously low budget by staying in the desert throughout; we never reach a town, let alone a fort, and nothing comes close except for the abandoned cliff dwelling. And I especially liked the psychological approach of the script.

However, I didn’t like a lot of this too. I found the disagreeable nature of most of the men overplayed, not by individual actors but by the script, which saw them more as a way to add pressure on Vinson than as individuals. That’s a minor complaint though, not remotely as objectionable as a host of less forgiveable faults. It was routine in 1958 for Native Americans to be played by people of other races, so I can’t single this one out for fault on that front, but it’s a particularly poor example of this trend. Larry Chance isn’t bad as Moving Cloud and Anthony Caruso is pretty decent as the Pawnee, but neither of them should have been given those roles. Susan Cabot, as talented an actress as she was, is far worse as an unnamed Paiute girl who gets too much screen time for no reason beyond adding a pretty girl to proceedings. She even has the audacity to suggest that she’s seventeen, which we don’t buy for one second (she was actually thirty-two). The nameless Apaches range from bad to worse and it’s hard not to cringe watching them.

But, if we focus in on the core of the story, the gradually changing dynamic between Sgt. Vinson and Pvt. Travis, we’re rewarded. I think Joel McCrea does a pretty good job as Vinson, but I don’t believe the real story arc is his. He just doesn’t change that much as a character; everything in him at the end is in him at the beginning and it’s the perception of that by his men that matters. They’re soldiers, so they’re trained to take orders and like them. This bunch don’t like his orders from the moment he takes command, the important thing being the line they won’t go beyond. And it’s John Russell as Travis, who sees that line. He happens to find himself in the right place at the right time and he does what he feels is the right thing, which is a big deal for the troop (and others too) but a bigger deal for him, as it’s the first decision he truly takes in the entire film, possibly the first decision he takes in his life. While I enjoyed McCrea play against type, I enjoyed Russell grow as a character to the point that matters even more.

John Russell was born on 3rd January, 1921 in Los Angeles, CA, so it’s hardly surprising that he became an actor. He’s a good choice for this role because he was also a soldier, having joined the U.S. Marine Corps during the Second World War. While he was initially rejected for being too tall—he was 6’ 3”, an inch taller than McCrea but an inch shorter than Forrest Tucker, not that you’d believe that by watching this—he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and served as an assistant intelligence officer at Guadalcanal, a service cut short by contracting malaria. His first picture as an actor was for 20th Century Fox in 1945, playing an uncredited guard in Ernst Lubitsch’s A Royal Scandal. Fox kept him in work, though it never gave him a break as a leading man. His first lead was for a different studio, Republic Pictures, in a Judy Canova movie, Oklahoma Annie in 1952. He made more films for more studios and even played the lead in an international adventure show on television called Soldiers of Fortune, which ran for two seasons.

While he appeared in quite the variety of films and TV shows, including a children’s science fiction show, Jason of Star Command, in which he replaced James Doohan, his go to genre was westerns. On television, he was primarily Marshal Dan Troop in Lawman, an ABC series that ran for four seasons and 156 episodes. Figuring that a lawman aged 37 had to be experienced, he soon added white streaks to his hair so as to teach the job to his nineteen year old deputy, making him not only a tough and by the book law officer but also a mentor training up the next generation. In film, he’s probably best known today for playing Nathan Burdette, “the knife poised at the throat of Rio Bravo”, as the poster would have it, in Howard Hawks’s film of that name. He’s the corrupt rancher who “owns the town” and besieges it when the law, in the form of John Wayne and Walter Brennan, arrest his brother Joe for murder. In later years, he appeared in three Clint Eastwood pictures, two of them westerns.

His career ran for over four decades, from fifteen films in the forties to five in the eighties, ending with Eastwood’s Pale Rider and a Sam Jones action flick called Under the Gun. He plays a villain in each of them, a corrupt martial in the former and an international arms smuggler in the latter. They weren’t a bad way to end a career, as Pale Rider was the highest grossing western of the eighties. I wonder if being seen as a hero and mentor on television prompted him to seek out villainous roles in film. He certainly played both equally well. His last role on television, suitably enough, saw him reprise his most famous role, playing Marshal Dan Troop one last time in an episode of The Fall Guy, alongside Roy Rogers and Trigger; Jock Mahoney reprising his own fifties television role as Yancy Derringer; and the Sons of the Pioneers. The synopsis of that episode looks like a cheesy B movie western, so it was likely dumb TV elevated by a classic cast. John Russell died in 1991, sixteen days after his seventieth birthday.

No comments: