An unusual choice for indie distributor Twilight Time to sublicense from 20th Century-Fox, Pony Soldier (1952) is a once popular, now all but forgotten "Northwestern" starring Tyrone Power. I don't recall ever seeing it on anyone's list of the Greatest Westerns or even the Greatest 1950s Westerns. With its strong emphasis on movie music, I suspect Twilight Time chose it primarily because of Alex North's original score, one he later cribbed or adapted cues from for later movie music he wrote for Spartacus (1960) and Cleopatra (1963).
Filmed in (three-strip) Technicolor, Pony Soldier was a hit in its day, earning $1.65 million in rentals, a lot of money back then, against a budget probably in the $750,000-$900,000 range.
Though the underrated Power is good and the film is reasonably colorful and entertaining, today Pony Soldier is memorable only for its thoroughly unreal depiction of Canadian geography. The movie takes place around the Saskatchewan-Montana border, an area known for its rolling sand dunes and boreal forests but played in the movie by locations in the Coconino National Forest near Sedona, Arizona, famous for its red sand and sandstone buttes, similar to those found in Monument Valley. In other words, it resembles Canada about as much as Eddie Deezen resembles John Wayne.
Adding to the curiosity, except for the usual isolated score and Julie Kirgo's liner notes, Twilight Time's Blu-ray is devoid of extra features while the video transfer, atypical for a Twilight Time release, is mildly disappointing. Fox's own Blu-rays (as well as their manufactured-on-demand DVD-Rs) have been wildly inconsistent. Here, the color matrixes are frequently out of alignment and/or the image is unusually soft or blurry, while at other times, often within the same scene, the picture quality is acceptable if no better than okay.
Inexperienced Canadian Mountie Duncan MacDonald (Power) of the North West Mounted Police, itself just three years old, arrives at Ft. Walsh, his new post, in a time of crisis. Cree Indians, led by Standing Bear (Stuart Randall), have left their reservation, crossing the border into Montana Territory to hunt buffalo. After several Cree are killed by "Long Knives" (U.S. Cavalrymen), war chief Konah (Cameron Mitchell) attacks a wagon train, killing all save for Emerald Neeley (Penny Edwards) and the wagon train's scout, Jess Calhoun (Robert Horton), whom the Cree take hostage.
Fat half-breed Natayo (Thomas Gomez), half-Blackfoot and half-white, and his equally fat Indian wife, Small Face (Muriel Landers) witness the siege and kidnapping, and the former sells this information to Ft. Walsh's Inspector Frazer (Howard Petrie), who assigns MacDonald to rescue the hostages or negotiate their safe return. "We get paid for this," MacDonald assures Emerald later, "Seventy-five cents a day." And in Canadian money, yet.
Most of the film's 82-minute running time is devoted to neophyte MacDonald's tense negotiations with Standing Bear, with predictable opposition from hothead Konah and the not-so-surprising revelation that Jess the scout is both an Indian-hating racist and a wanted fugitive besides.
Though hardly in the same class as Broken Arrow (1950) and other humanist fifties Westerns portraying Native Americans in a newfound, sympathetic light, Pony Soldier offers some like-minded, if modest touches here and there. In MacDonald's voice-over introduction, for instance, he explains that their depiction is authentic "with the exception that the Cree will speak English" in this film version. It's a clever way to get around a problem usually simply ignored in other Westerns. Further, MacDonald's dialogue when speaking English-translated Cree is subtly different, reflecting his inexperience with the language.
Another interesting idea has Natayo and later the Cree village frightened by an optical illusion, a mirage that in the latter scene appears to suspend a steamboat in the distant sky. Unfortunately, the landscape in which this appears looks nothing like southern central Canada, though the Navajo Indians playing the Cree are more authentically costumed. The movie ends with interesting modern footage of the real North West Mounted Police though, peculiarly, the narration here is not by Power but rather by an uncredited Michael Rennie.
In trying to fool audiences into thinking Arizona was Canada, something like karma struck the production. Ironically, the shoot was interrupted by constant snowstorms. Later, production was halted following the flash of an above-ground nuclear test in Nevada, some 300 miles away. (This means Thomas Gomez actually appeared in two "radiated" movies, this and the notorious The Conqueror, made four years later.)
Richard Boone is sometimes credited in cast lists but this may be an error. Reportedly, he was originally cast as Standing Bear but replaced by Stuart Randall after Boone fell ill with pneumonia. If he's in the finished film I didn't spot him nor does the IMDb identify his alleged part. Somebody else dubs Randall, resulting in a rather stiff delivery. In an early role, Cameron Mitchell is impressively unrecognizable as Konah, no small accomplishment given that actor's unusual, distinctive features.
Video & Audio
Obviously, Fox didn't go back to original black-and-white separations for the standard frame, Technicolor Pony Soldier, assuming they still exist at all. The image is unremarkable and frequently problematic, with unaligned matrixes and a distracting softness here and there. It's not terrible, but well below Twilight Time's usual high standard. The 1.0 DTS-MD Master Audio is okay but equally unremarkable.
This limited (3,000 units) edition's supplements are limited to Alex North's score presented as an isolated track, and Julie Kirgo's liner notes, which mainly pay tribute to Power rather than the film.
A peculiar choice for Limited Edition release, Pony Soldier is unexceptional but still worth a look, if only for star Tyrone Power and the film's goofy ideas about geography. Mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.