Fort Dobbs (1958) & Yellowstone Kelly (1959)



The lead actor of these two movies, Clint Walker, had become a star thanks to the TV-series Cheyenne, aired between 1955 and 1963. The show was the first hour-long western with continuing characters to last more than one season; it was also the first series to be made by a major Hollywood studio, Warner Brothers. The movies were a result of a conflict Walker had with the studio. Walker felt unhappy with the contract that paid him a mere $150 a week and had discovered that Warner had turned down some interesting features he could have done (1). Between 1958 and 1961 Walker would appear in three movies produced by Warner, all three westerns, all three directed by Gordon Douglas, two of them (co-)written by Burt Kennedy (2).

There's no doubt Warner Brothers wanted to capitalize on Walker's popularity and his image of a westerner with a good understanding of the red man. His character from the TV series, Cheyenne Bodie, had lived with the Cheyenne Indians after they had killed his parents. As an adult he had left the tribe and become a loner, a man living between the worlds of the red and white man. Both Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly were 'Indian westerns'. Neither of the two movies was particularly successful; like some have said, they illustrate the idea that people didn't want to pay for something they could watch for free at home.


FORT DOBBS (1958)

In Fort Dobbs Walker is Gar Davis, a man on the run for the law: he has shot a man who had been dallying with his wife and the sheriff and his posse are hot on his trail. He manages to shake them off by changing clothes with a man who was killed by Indians on the warpath, and pushing the dead body over a cliff. Like Randolph Scott in Comanche Station (1960), Davis recues a white woman (Virginia Mayo) from the Comanche and feels it's his obligation to bring her to safety - the Fort Dobbs from the title (not knowing that the fort has been attacked by the Comanche).

Fort Dobbs is leisurely paced, but easy to enjoy. For a fifties western, the Indians are rather anonymous, their hostilities mainly serving as a background for the interplay between the main characters. The script is strongly reminiscent of Kennedy's work for the duo Boetticher-Scott, but also bears some similarities to the John Wayne western Hondo.  Mayo lives - with her husband and young son - in a remote farm near Indian territory and when Walker arrives at her place, she's waiting for her husband to return from a business trip. Of course we immediately understand who this husband is, and why he won't ever come back. The film is cleverly plotted, but most twists and turns are predictable; when shady arms-dealer Brian Keith shows his repeating rifles, we know they will play a key role in the defense of the fort and Walker's redemption. The action is sparse but intense, and there's a great scene with Mayo and her son arriving in the fort, suddenly realizing that all soldiers have been slaughtered, a harrowing moment of shock and fear.

With his majestic appearance - he stood 6 feet 6 (1.98 m) with a 48 inch chest - Walker even seems to dwarf his horse. He made a fine cowboy but his acting range was limited; he was a gentle giant, lacking the features of a man like Randolph Scott, branded by nature, scarred for life. Mayo isn't bad as the frontierswoman caught in a stressful situation, and she has a memorable scene after Walker has saved her from drowning:  waking up, watching Walking polishing his rifle with a bare chest, she suddenly realizes that she's naked under her blanket, so Walker must have taken off her clothes after getting her out of the water. The scene is both funny and sexy, but it's also virtually the only moment in which the romance between the two characters seems to work. Brian Keith has no trouble stealing the movie as the gunrunner dreaming about making a fortune by selling his Henry repeating Rifles - the rifle that won the West - to no matter who.


YELLOWSTONE KELLY (1959)

Walker's character in this movie is more closely modeled after the character from the TV-series, a wanderer between the worlds of the white and the red man (even the name of the character seems to echo Cheyenne Bodie): he's a fur trapper living on Sioux land (with their permission) and also a bit of a doctor. As such, he's asked to save the life of a female Arapaho prisoner. Both a young warrior and the tribe's chief Gall (John Russell) are interested in her, but she rejects both men. After her recovery she manages to escape from the Sioux village and seeks refuge in Kelly's cabin. The Sioux want the beautiful woman back, and there's also the army, out for revenge for the events at Little Big Horn. It's up to our fur trapper to solve all these problems.

Apparently this movie was supposed to be directed by John Ford and star John Wayne, but they decided to do The Horse Soldiers instead. Kennedy's script was based on a novel by Heck Allen about a real-life person called Yellowstone Luther Kelly, an American soldier, scout, hunter and adventurer. Russell's character Gall is historic too (Gall was one of the war chief's leading the Sioux at Little Big Horn), but no real effort at authenticity is made, it all feels very Hollywood, very fifties, with a more sympathetic portrayal of the Native American culture and an interracial love affair to sugar the message. You don't know what Ford would've done with the material, but Yellowstone Kelly is quite enjoyable. Doulas builds up the tension adequately and handles the action - as usual - quite well. 

The movie also stars Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, who had become a well-known face (and forelock) thanks to his role in the TV-series 77 Sunset Strip ("Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb!"). He's a tenderfoot who wants to become a trapper and therefore asks Walker to become his mentor; some early scenes with the two men seem to suggest a homosexual relationship, but the young man loses his head over the Arapaho woman as soon as he sets eyes on her. He's not the only one, actually all men in the movie seem to fall for her clear blue eyes (that's how Indians looked like in the fifties). Well, I would have fallen for her too ... 



Notes:

(2) The third movie, Gold of the Seven Saints, is different in style. It stars a young Roger Moore alongside Clint Walker and was not scripted by Burt Kennedy. It will be discussed on another occasion. 

 

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