A funny thing happened on the way to the DVD player: In response to a press release from Sony about upcoming Choice Collection titles, I requested a movie called Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953) while my colleague Paul Mavis requested one called Apache Ambush (1955). However, when Paul opened his shrink-wrapped copy of Apache Ambush, the disc inside was actually Ambush at Tomahawk Gap and, sure enough, a week or so later when my shrink-wrapped copy of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap arrived, the DVD inside it was Apache Ambush. The reason I point this out is to remark with some amazement that, apparently, such titles truly are manufactured-on-demand, one at a time. Clearly whoever packaged these screeners up saw the word "Ambush" in these similar titles and got them mixed-up.
It all worked out in the end anyway, as Apache Ambush turns out to be a nifty, action-packed B-Western with an unusually good (and very usual) cast. It also gets this reviewer one movie closer toward a complete collection of the Cinema du Fred F. Sears, a second features director for whom I've developed a genuine admiration, and whose modest B pictures are finding a new life on DVD.
As for Apache Ambush, it's given a strong enhanced widescreen transfer approximating its original 1.85:1 screen shape.
April 14, 1865. The Civil War has ended, and President Abraham Lincoln (James Griffith, cast against type) summons Apache Indian fighter-turned-Union scout James Kingston (Bill Williams) and his friend, Texas-born but now Union Sgt. Tom O'Roarke (Ray Teal) to the White House. Ol' Abe is concerned about beef shortages and high prices in the north, and charges Kingston with the task of seeing thousands of head of cattle stuck in Texas on a safe journey to Abilene, Kansas, some 1,000 miles away and through hostile Apache Indian territory. Wanting the operation to go smoothly, he also assigns former Confederate Major "Tex" McGuire (Don C. Harvey) to accompany them. Lincoln bids the men good luck saying that while he'd like to stay and chat, "I promised to visit Ford's Theatre later this evening."
Kingston and O'Roarke join a wagon train bound for San Arturo where other characters are introduced. General store owner Hank Calvin (Ray "Crash" Corrigan) has hidden a big wad of cash and a hundred-odd Henry repeating rifles in the false bottom of his wagon. While Calvin is busy chatting with bitter ex-Confederate soldier Lee Parker (Richard Jaeckel), whose arm was amputated while he was a prisoner-of-war, Calvin's would-be Mexican girlfriend Rosita (Movita) finds the guns and the cash, pocketing the latter and stealing off into the desert.
She turns out to be spying on the wagon train on behalf of Joaquin Jironza (Alex Montoya), who hopes by stirring up old rivalries between the north and south his small army of Mexican guerillas and Apache Indians can take back Texas and New Mexico. They raid the wagon train but are beaten off by the repeating rifles. However, once in San Arturo, Kingston finds that the rifles have mysteriously disappeared and might easily fall into the wrong hands.
Apache Ambush is typical of the fast-paced Bs Fred F. Sears and others cranked out for Columbia during the 1950s. While few of these films could be considered lost classics, many are extremely well made for their budget level and this is no exception. Like other Sears-directed second features, Apache Ambush integrates a good deal of stock footage (Civil War battle scenes, the establishing shots of San Arturo) into the new material. Corner-cutting Columbia became rather expert in this practice; the clever editing between the stock footage wagon train and the new footage is such that I doubt more than two wagons were needed for filming the new scenes.
Apache Ambush's cast almost dazzles. Williams, the husband of Barbara Hale and father of William Katt (Williams's real name was Herman Katt), is best remembered as the title character on TV's The Adventures of Kit Carson, but he enjoyed a long and varied career in TV and films. Jaeckel, of course, was a major supporting actor for decades (most memorably in Sometimes a Great Notion, 1971), but often stuck in young hothead roles like this one. (He has one unintentionally funny line. Pointing to the empty shirtsleeve where his arm should be, he bitterly insists, "They didn't have to take this arm. They could've saved it. YANK-ees!" Each time he brings up the missing arm and Union soldiers, it's always with that strange emphasis on "Yank," as if his captors literally yanked it off.)
The real surprises are in the supporting cast. Movita gained fame playing South Seas islander Tehani in the Clark Gable-Charles Laughton Mutiny on the Bounty and then in a strange twist wound up marrying Marlon Brando in 1960. But Brando then began a relationship with Tarita Teriipia while he was playing Gable's role in the 1962 remake of Bounty. In between Movita had roles in several major John Ford pictures, notably The Hurricane (1937), and Fort Apache (1946), but otherwise made few films, this being her last movie. Years later she turned up on the TV series Knots Landing during 1987-89, but seems to have retired to Mexico soon after. At last report, Movita is 95 years old but still with us.
Also in the cast, barely, is Tex Ritter, the iconic cowboy and country music singer (and father of actor John). I've a sneaking suspicion Ritter might have originally cast in Don C. Harvey's role - the two actors even resemble one another - but that for some reason Ritter wasn't available when shooting began. (Harvey, despite being a co-lead, is billed eighth.) Instead, though prominently billed Ritter is barely in the film as Traeger, apparently Calvin's business partner in San Arturo, though his appearance is so fleeting it's hard to tell for sure. He certainly doesn't get the chance to sing. Ritter had starred or co-starred in B-Westerns from the 1930s through 1945, but this was his only on-screen appearance in a fifties movie. His next film role wasn't until 1966's Girl from Tobacco Road. (On the other hand, reader Sergei Hasenecz suggests that for Ritter his small role may just have been as a lark.)
Ray "Crash" Corrigan had been a busy cowboy star, stuntman, and gorilla-suit actor, but by the '50s was concentrating his energies on Corriganville, the Western backlot set/amusement park he co-founded. Apache Ambush was one of Corrigan's few substantial film roles after the mid 1940s, at least in human form.
Indeed, Apache Ambush is full of little surprises. George Chandler, familiar in genial uncle and wide-eyed store clerk-type roles, turns up here as a grizzled outlaw. Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger, has a tiny uncredited part as one of Jironza's henchmen, which would make sense had this been filmed a couple of years earlier, soon after Moore was fired from the Lone Ranger TV series in a salary dispute. But he was back on that show by 1954, so what is he doing here?
Video & Audio
Apache Ambush, in black and white and composed for 1.85:1 widescreen cropping, gets an enhanced widescreen transfer that, typical of Sony's Choice Collection titles, is top-notch and essentially flawless. The image quality is excellent, with rich blacks, good detail and contrast throughout. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. There are no menu screens; the movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
A fun, action-packed film fans of B-Westerns should enjoy, Apache Ambush is heartily 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.