A modest but interesting Western, Fort Massacre (1958) makes intelligent use of its limited budget (probably around $400,000-$500,000). Its story is taut and character-driven, and limited to about a dozen parts, mostly U.S. Cavalry trying to reach a distant rendezvous after barely surviving an attack by Apaches. The film stars Joel McCrea in one of his later-career roles while, conversely, this was the very first production of The Mirisch Company, soon to be the biggest and most successful outfit associated with United Artists (and whose credits include Some Like It Hot, The Magnificent Seven, West Side Story, The Great Escape, etc.).
Part of MGM's "Limited Edition Collection" line of DVD-Rs, Fort Massacre is presented in its original CinemaScope aspect ratio, 16:9 enhanced for widescreen TVs. A 4:3 letterboxed trailer is tossed in as an extra feature.
An Apache attack kills most of the Sixth Cavalry's "C" Troop in southwestern New Mexico Territory. Their captain dead, Sergeant Vinson (McCrea) reluctantly takes command of the dozen or so survivors, which include inexperienced Pvt. Travis (John Russell, very good here), sardonic Irishman Pvt. McGurney (Forrest Tucker, with surprisingly authentic brogue), cowardly Pvt. Pendleton (George N. Neise), journeyman Pvt. Collins (Denver Pyle), and "Pawnee" (Anthony Caruso), their Indian scout.
The first third of the film traces their desperate efforts to reach a watering hole heavily guarded by Apache, which plays out almost like the reverse perspective of Seven Samurai, with the soldiers like the Japanese brigands in Kurosawa's film high up on a ridge looking down, while like the Japanese rice farmers the Apache try to defend their position. Later on the dwindling number of soldiers are simply trying to safely reach their fellow Cavalrymen, eventually making a stand at the ruins of a Navajo (?) cliff dwelling, the "Fort Massacre" of the title, where they also encounter an old Paiute (Francis J. McDonald) and his granddaughter (Susan Cabot).
McCrea's character somewhat resembles Ethan Edwards - John Wayne's role in John Ford's famous The Searchers (1956). In that film Ethan Edwards is consumed with hate and vengeance after Comanches murder his brother's family. (Mild Spoilers) In Fort Massacre, McCrea's character can't contain his similar hated for Apaches that raped and murdered his wife, who before dying shot their two children lest they be taken. Early on Vinson shoots one defeated Apache warrior in cold blood, and this bloodlust boils up uncontrollably as his defenses weaken and troops dwindle.
This is clear to Vinson's men, several of whom believe their sergeant mad and unfit for command, but screenwriter Martin Goldsmith (Detour, The Narrow Margin) is intriguingly ambiguous about Vinson's strategic choices. He may murder Apaches with impunity, but who's to say that last stand they make would have ended any less disastrously had they made a run for it, as several soldiers had suggested?
The film seems to have been tailor-made for McCrea; it plays to his strengths as an actor. A star from the late-1920s, despite roles in films like Bird of Paradise, The Most Dangerous Game, and Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, he's best-remembered today for his comedies, particularly Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, and The More the Merrier, but after 1946 he switched with one exception exclusively to Westerns, a genre with which he felt most comfortable, culminating in Sam Peckinpah's superb Ride the High Country (1962), in which McCrea gives a truly unforgettable performance.
His range was limited - regardless of genre or the role he tended to play his characters the same way: reflective, generally humorless, often irritable - an unlikely combo for stardom. He was almost a non-actor, which was part of his appeal: no one of his generation was more genuine. He came across not so much as an actor in the movies but someone who had wandered onto the set, the same quality real-life cowboys-turned-actor Ben Johnson and veteran stuntman Richard Farnsworth had in their later film roles.
Like Goldsmith's Detour and The Narrow Margin, sticking to the protagonists, keeping them in close quarters and under constant threat, is also a good way to keep production costs down. Fort Massacre has little fat and Goldsmith uses the time between shootouts to flesh out even the minor characters. Some, like Tucker's Irishman, may be clichéd, but they interact well and come off as authentic comrades in arms. (Spoilers) When Pawnee is killed and McGurney mourns him with, "He may have been a heathen, but I dearly loved that man," its emotional impact is surprising.
Video & Audio
Part of MGM's movie on demand program - billed under the "Limited Edition Collection" banner - Fort Massacre is a DVD-R presented in its original 2.35:1 original aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement. The image is a little soft and the Color by De Luxe has that garish early-Cinemascope look, and I noticed some edge enhancement here and there, but overall it's a decent transfer. The mono audio is adequate. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options. As usual, this comes with no-frills menu screens (having only a "Play Movie" options) and chapter stops every 10 minutes.
The lone supplement is a 4:3 letterboxed trailer, in fairly ragged shape but watchable.
An above average high-end B-Western (almost but not quite a "nervous A"), Fort Massacre has a good script and the always fine Joel McCrea to its credit. The latter's presence was enough for me to request it, and I wasn't disappointed. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.