Fort Massacre (1958)

Dir: Joseph M. Newman - Cast: Joel McCrea (Sgt. Vinson), Forrest Tucker (Pvt. McGurney), John Russell (Pvt. Travis), Anthony Caruso (Pawnee), Francis McDonald (Old Piute Man), Susan Cabot (Piute Girl)

Although it’s a minor production, shot on a reduced budget, this is one of the better ‘Indian westerns’ from the Fifties. It tells the familiar story of a small group of survivors who must try to get back to their outpost after an Indian attack. But if the premise is familiar, the execution is thoughtful and uncommon. The film is set in the last decade of the 19th Century, when the Apaches were fighting a desperate war in order to survive. The war has marked those who were involved in it - red or white - for life.

The soldiers have lost their Captain during the attack, and the highest person in rank, who now becomes their new leader, sergeant Vinson, is an Indian hater and a stubborn, inflexible person to boot:

"Do you think the Apaches are still following us, Serg?"
“I don't think, I follow orders, like a dog."

Actually the men think their new leader is not just stubborn, but downright insane. In various situations Vinson seems to look for a confrontation with the Apaches instead of avoiding them, as if he wants to kill as many warriors as possible. He first forces the men - who are outnumbered four to one - to ambush a group of fifty Apaches who are at a waterhole and subsequently he takes a shortcut to the fort which will lead them through hostile Indian territory. The men know that the sergeant’s family was slaughtered by Apaches and one of them, a new recruit who’s also a college graduate (functioning as the movie’s conscience) has witnessed that Vinson killed the last Apache at the waterhole in cold blood, after the warrior had raised his hands in order to surrender ...

Characterizations are a little clich├ęd (the Indian hater, the coward, the Indian scout, the stoic philosopher, etc.) and the script is also a bit too verbose for its own good, but the film is well-acted (especially by John Russell as the college graduate) and some of the conversations offer insight in the characters’ motivations and psychology. We know the sergeant has some good reasons to hate the Apaches, but only relatively late into the movie we learn what really happened on that fatal day, and how his wife and children died. It’s a pretty bleak and shocking story and I won’t give any more details about it in this place.

Joel McCrea
The character of Joel McCrea’s Indian hating sergeant is no doubt an echo of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, but he’s an even more extreme character: he cannot be redeemed without betraying the film’s premise, so he will not reach the end of the movie. McCrea turns in one of his best performances as the emotionally crippled man; he had a limited acting range and was even called a non-actor by some, but his minimal acting style serves the movie and the character very well. He reminded me a little of William Holden in The Wild Bunch, and oddly enough he even sounded like him (I’m talking about his voice now, not about his lines; even though he’s a doomed person, there’s no similarity to Holden’s gang leader Pike).

The film  eventually falls a little between two stools: they tried to make an 'adult' western (that's why it's so talky) and a real action movie at the same time. And then there’s this finale, set in a sort pueblo or cliff dwelling (the ‘fort massacre’ from the title) in which the soldiers, still under attack, entrench themselves; the sequence is marred by the introduction of two new characters, an elderly Piute and his grand daughter (who has adopted the Christian faith). Their introduction was probably meant to mitigate the movie’s pessimistic message (and to illustrate the plight of the red man), but it feels forced and the effect is almost counterproductive. But a labored finale doesn’t make a bad movie and the strong points easily outshine the shortcomings. Robert Aldrich and Alan Sharp must have had this movie in mind while developing Ulzana’s Raid (1972).