Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Where the Stageline Ends :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Harold Kress' Apache War Smoke (1952)
When the latest stage reaches a remote station in the New Mexico territory for a fresh set of horses, the manager (Horton) won't let them leave and asks all the passengers to unload and make themselves comfortable for awhile. Seems the Apaches have been stirred up and all the smoke signals indicate a war party will be attacking soon. To add more fuel to this already highly volatile situation, another traveler shows up seeking refuge; a notorious bandit by the name of Peso Herrera (Roland). But the wary manager, knowing Peso is probably more interested in the army payroll locked up in the stage's strong box, won't let him enter the fortified compound unless he surrenders his guns first.
And we don't have long to meet and greet all of our other trapped players before the Apaches start probing their defenses. Then, another rider barely makes it in, who reveals the Indians are on the prod because some no-goodnik killed several tribal elders and ran off with their prized valuables. (And, hey, didn't Peso just give one of the female passengers an Indian bracelet?) He also says the offended war party have tracked the culprit to this very station and are willing to let the others go if they turn the killer over to them. And as all eyes turn on Peso, circumstantial evidence or not, survival instincts start getting the better of everybody with each renewed attack. And as things fragment further, the manager calls for a vote on whether to kick Peso out, a certain death-sentence, or hold out in hope of promised reinforcements to break the siege. You'd think it would be a landslide but when the hands are counted, its up to our hero to cast the deciding vote...
From the early 1920's to the mid-'50s author Ernest Haycox had a pretty fruitful career writing Two-Fisted Oaters, whether it be a self-contained novel or a serialized novella in the likes of Colliers or The Saturday Evening Post. Eventually, several of those frontier fables were adapted to the big screen, most famously when Haycox's Stage to Lordsburg became John Ford's seminal sagebrush standard, Stagecoach, where a cast of disparate and desperate characters face a tempest without (hostile Indians) and crisis within (class prejudice, which Ford gleefully took the hide off- and exposed the hypocrisy of). That same year, Trouble Shooter begat Cecill B. DeMille's all-star epic Union Pacific; and later, more stories were turned into vehicles for the likes of Randolph Scott (Abilene Town) and Errol Flynn (Montana).
Apache War Smoke was also based on a Haycox story, Stage Station, that had already been adapted once before by Richard Thorpe as Apache Trail ten years prior. Both films cover a lot of similar thematic ground as Stagecoach, only more stationary, but add a familial element to the proceedings. But while Thrope's film centers on two feuding brothers, one the station manager (William Lundigan), the other a notorious outlaw (Llyod Nolan), for Apache War Smoke screenwriter Jerry Davis and director Harold Kress tweak the dynamic a bit, making the station manager, Tom, the estranged, illegitimate son of the Mexican bandito, Peso, who may or may not be the root cause of all that Indian trouble, adding another dynamic element as Tom must decide on what to do next. For Tom really doesn't like his father, and it would've been easy enough to just chuck him over the wall.
This was a rare directorial outing for Kress, who would go on to much acclaim as an Oscar-winning film editor for many a Hollywood epic (How the West Was Won, King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told) and as Irwin Allen's go to guy to patch-up his disaster flicks (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and The Swarm.) Here, Kress puts in a steady enough effort, a solid B-western, action-wise, that is ably kept afloat by the cast, which is rounded out with many familiar sagebrush stalwarts in supporting roles (Henry Morgan, Hank Warden and Emmett Lynn), and it took me half the movie to realize Luis was played by Robert "Bobbie" Blake.
Apache War Smoke was also Robert Horton's big screen debut, and though he always appeared to have a cob up his ass over something in every role I've seen him in (from this to The Green Slime), to the actor's credit, he pulls this constant obstruction off really, really well and almost makes his asshole-ishness likeable. And Gilbert Roland remains an enigma to me. For only Roland could get away with the swinging-cock(sure) machismo of Peso and make all that swaggering and posturing endearingly roguish when anyone else would have every handy projectile in your house flying at the screen followed by some industrial strength Pine Sol to disinfect your entire entertainment system to remove the oily stench. And I knew my gal Glenda Farrell had to be more than just an old pioneer-marm, who has plenty of saloon hall secrets of her own. As for filling out the corners of the prerequisite love-triangle for our besieged station manager, we have Nancy, a tom-boy army brat with an inferiority complex (Ruick) and Lorainne, an old flame of the prim and proper lady variety (Tiernan), who basically disappears whenever the shit hits the fan only to reappear to drive a wedge between the other two whenever Nancy, the obvious right choice, makes any headway during the lulls.
Again, Kress does better in the aggressive action set-pieces than the passive melodrama. The battle sequences are the true highlights, and the scene where Roland deftly gets the drop on Lynn and Morgan and the silent stare-down/war of nerves that follows as Peso makes his play for the gold shipment is worth the price of a rental alone.
Now, despite its passive/aggressive nature, Apache War Smoke also deserves some props for its forward thinking in some aspects. There easily could've been a derogatory racial element involved, that could've horribly dated the picture, but ethnicity is just a mere coincidence in the territories and Kress wisely ignores it (-- though some could argue that Roland comes off too clownish and stereotypical but I still insist he has the chutzpah to pull it off). No one raises a stink when young Luis, who is half-Mexican and half-Indian makes known his crush for Nancy. Sure the others rib him over this, but no one is frothingly aghast over it. And I love how all the women, especially Ruick and Farrell, pitch in during the fighting, and how Ruick proves Horton's perfect fit for frontier life and gets both the last word and puts her man in his place when he tries to re-establish proper gender roles once the shooting stops. And, once again, the "bad guy" proves infinitely more charismatic than the hero. (Notions that both Boetticher and Leone would pick up and runaway with a few years later). I also appreciated how the true culprit behind the massacre wasn't any of the usual suspects (-- the bandit or the overly worried about what's in the strong-box stageline manager), and the final reveal may seem a bit of a cheat but it makes perfect sense if you take a step back and think about it again. One of the many reasons why Apache War Smoke is well worth your time.
Apache War Smoke (1952) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: Hayes Goetz / D: Harold Kress / W: Jerry Davis, Ernest Haycox / C: John Alton / E: Newell P. Kimlin / M: Alberto Colombo / S: Gilbert Roland, Glenda Farrell, Robert Horton, Barbara Ruick, Patricia Tiernan, Harry Morgan, Robert Blake