I sat down to watch Conquest of Cochise (1953) with some trepidation, having just seen another Sam Katzman-William Castle collaboration, the lackluster Charge of the Lancers (1954), only the night before. But in every way this is a significant improvement. The story is more compelling, the characters interesting, and it's both better directed and much more polished. While no classic of the genre, it is entertaining and overall slightly above average.
The movie reflects changing attitudes in the depictions of Native Americans and their political and personal relationships with U.S. Cavalrymen and both white and Hispanic settlers. Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow (1950) started the trend, prominently featuring Jeff Chandler as Cochise. Soon there were movies and TV shows in which the perspective occasionally shifted from Cowboys to Indians. Conquest of Cochise is one of these, still a B-Western, but a high-end one and better than most.
A "Sony Screen Classics by Request" title on DVD-R format, Conquest of Cochise is presented in its original 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio. (Though released in September 1953, it seems to have been shot in late 1952 or early '53, just as the widescreen revolution was getting underway.) Filmed in three-strip Technicolor, the transfer is a knockout, with primary colors all but popping off the screen. A trailer is also included.
As the U.S. negotiates the Gadsen Purchase of nearly 30,000 squares miles of land from Mexico, land that now comprises much of southern Arizona and New Mexico, there's concern Mexican families having to relocate further south will be subject to Apache and Comanche attacks. General Gadsen (Edward Hearn) - in reality Gadsen was America's ambassador to Mexico at the time - dispatches Major Burke (Robert Stack) to make peace with the Indians without souring the deal with Mexico in the process. In particular he'll have to deal with famous Apache Chief Cochise (John Hodiak).
In Tuscon, Burke discovers much tension between the rowdy Americans, led by shady opportunist Sam Maddock (Robert Griffin), and the traditional Mexican community. Burke sets up camp at the hacienda of Don Francisco De Cordova (Edward Colmans) just as Cochise himself appears at his doorstep, to ask Burke directly about his government's intensions. Burke and Cochise broker a peace agreement, but this doesn't sit well either with Maddock or Felipe (Rico Alaniz), Don Francisco's son-in-law, whose wife was killed during an Apache raid. For their part, many Comanche are opposed to the peace deal and discontentment runs high even in Cochise's own Apache tribe.
The best thing about Conquest of Cochise is Consuelo (Joy Page), Don Francisco's exotically beautiful daughter. Ladies man Burke assumes she'll melt in his arms, but she proves to be a lot tougher than her petite, outwardly reserved personality would suggest. Later she rejects Burke's advances outright, falling in love instead with Cochise, even after his men capture and hold her hostage. (Mild Spoilers): Like Broken Arrow, this burgeoning interracial romance is resolved in an unsatisfying manner almost mandated by early '50s conservative mores, but for the time this relationship is mildly daring in that it would exist at all.
Beautiful Joy Page was not famous but nevertheless immortalized for her supporting part in Casablanca (1942). Page was the young Bulgarian refugee trying to escape Casablanca with her husband. To achieve this, she's prepared to sacrifice her honor and sleep with Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) until Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) uncharacteristically sticks his neck out to help her. The stepdaughter of Jack L. Warner, Page retired not long after her husband was appointed head of Warner Bros. Television. Conquest of Cochise was just her fifth film in 10 years, and undoubtedly she was cast because of her previous pairing with Robert Stack for Budd Boetticher's The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951). Page may have been Casablanca's last surviving cast member when she died in 2008.
Both Page and Hodiak are quite good in their scenes together, he an unlikely but effective casting choice. When I first saw the poster for this (see the DVD cover art) I assumed Cochise was played by Michael Ansara, who later starred as Cochise on Broken Arrow, a 1956-58 television series.
The rest of the film is routine but well done, with much better coverage and more interesting camera angles than the Katzman-Castle Charge of the Lancers, made right after this. The exceptionally good Technicolor photography is by Henry Freulich, a veteran DP normally in the salt mines shooting B-Westerns and Three Stooges shorts. Much of the picture was shot around the overused Vasquez Rocks in the high desert north of Los Angeles, though from less familiar vantage points.
Video & Audio
Conquest of Cochise is great Technicolor eye candy, its full-frame transfer a stunner and a pleasure to watch. The region-free disc's English-only mono audio is also good. There are the usual chapter stops every ten minutes, and no alternate audio or subtitle options.
Included is a typically (for Katzman and Columbia) lurid trailer, which does a good job selling the picture.
A big step up from Charge of the Lancers, Conquest of Cochise is an entertaining, high-end B-movie riff of Broken Arrow and the transfer is terrific, so this is heartily Recommended for Western fans.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.