There’s a great story, spectacular photography, and some real suspense in this Fifties western filmed in Death Valley, California. The year is 1863 and the Fort Bravo of the title is an Army stockade in the Arizona desert. It’s being used as a prison camp for captured Confederate soldiers.
Plot. William Holden is captain of the fort's troop and second in command. We first see him riding in with an escaped prisoner, who is on foot and at the end of a rope. Holden is a cold man and carries out his duties with a machine-like authority. Besides enduring the contempt of the prisoners, he has Mescalero Indians to worry about. They burn supply wagons and torture the drivers before leaving them to die under the desert sun.
Holden’s reserve begins to melt when Eleanor Parker arrives at the fort to attend the wedding of the Colonel’s daughter. Little does he know that she’s there to help a Confederate captain (John Forsythe) make an escape. Parker does some heavy flirting with Holden, who in a matter of days begins putting the pressure on her to marry him. But when she disappears with Forsythe and two other prisoners, Holden discovers he’s been fooled.
|Eleanor Parker, John Forsythe|
The escaped prisoners don’t get far. Holden and a lieutenant catch up with them, and all head back to the fort. But before long, they are surrounded by more Mescaleros than you can count. Pinned down in a shallow depression, they withstand wave after wave of attacks by the Indians.
The prisoners are given arms, and fight side by side with Holden. But they can dodge arrows only for so long, as one by one the casualties accumulate. Eventually, the cavalry shows up to rescue them, and Forsythe’s character dies, leaving Holden and Parker to patch up.
Four stars. Cinematographer Robert Surtees gets credit for the fine look of this widescreen film shot in Ansco Color. The location photography is pretty breathtaking. The exterior scenes shot on the sound stage, however, are not much of a match. A fistfight in what looks like an amusement park water feature rings particularly false.
Director John Sturges, in an impressive Hollywood career, would go on to make some western classics, including Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). His work here is thoroughly professional, especially in the action sequences.
|William Demerast, John Forsythe, and William Campbell|
Holden and Parker are good together, especially in the earlier scenes as the chemistry begins to work between them. The script, however, is too often soapy and clichéd. You begin to hear the lines coming before someone speaks them.
In supporting roles are William Campbell and William Demarest as Confederate soldiers who escape with Forsythe. Campbell had a long career, mostly in TV, with a one-season series Cannonball (1958-59) in which he played a long-haul truck driver. Demerast was Uncle Charley in 215 episodes of the TV series My Three Sons (1965-1972). John Forsythe would go on to star in several TV series much better suited to his suavely polished persona, including Bachelor Father (1957-1962), Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981), and Dynasty (1981-1989).
Escape From Fort Bravo is currently available at netflix and amazon. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies, head on over to Todd Mason’s blog.
Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 38