After the box-office success of House of Wax (1953), Warner Bros. was quick to strike again in Natural Vision three-dimensions, this time offering a picture in the great outdoors and switching genres from horror to a western. They even tried to entice director Andre de Toth to helm The Charge at Feather River (1953), hoping for that same magic, but he was already committed to The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953); and so it fell to Gordon Douglas, who was about a year away from unleashing the giant bug movie to end all giant bug movies, THEM! (1954).
And Douglas did a pretty good job with the assignment, too, telling the tale of the Guardhouse Brigade -- sort of an early, proto-version of The Dirty Dozen (1967), where frontier scout Miles Archer (Madison) is recruited by the cavalry to turn a ragtag group of prisoners (-- that's chock full of some notable character actors --) into a feasible fighting unit to rescue the McKeever sisters (Wescott, Miles), who were kidnapped by the Cheyenne almost five years ago but have been recently spotted as the Indians are on the move and on the warpath, having been prodded into conflict by the encroachment of the railroad onto their sacred lands.
From there the film holds a few surprises up its sleeve as the covert action plays out, most notably the fact that one of those sisters, destined to marry the chief, doesn’t want to be rescued and does her best to sabotage all efforts to escape, including dumping all of their water and releasing the horses. The film is also infamous for coining The Wilhelm Scream, a death rattle that has been heard for decades since it was first yelped, again and again and again, whenever someone met an untimely demise. This, of course, has been traced back even further to the film, Distant Drums (1951), and if you still have no idea what I’m talking about click on this handy link and I will gladly clue you all in.
And on top of being some pretty solid cinema sagebrush, along with The Wilhelm Scream, The Charge at Feather River also holds the distinction of including one of my all time favorite uses of 3-D in film -- both for its audaciousness and downright goofiness. To set the stage for this incident, we have to catch up with Sgt. Charlie Baker (Lovejoy) and Pvt. Ryan (Brodie), who’ve set out on foot to try and bring back help for the rest of the group, currently out of water and low on ammo, holed up on a ridge.
Things get a bit dicey when they come upon a war party and must take cover to avoid detection. But as the two men, who have some bad blood brewing over some suspected infidelity with one of their wives, silently watch and wait for them to clear off so they can move on...
A rattlesnake takes that opportunity to slither out of the rocks and gets the drop on them.
And while it rattles menacingly and threatens to strike...
Unable to take any action with their pistols lest they alert the Indians...
Baker is forced to, well, improvise a solution:
That’s right, Baker horks up a big old glob of tobacco juice at the reptile. And not only does he do this once, he does this twice as his aim was a bit off on the first salvo.
Of course, to simulate this, Lovejoy spewed his makeshift mortar fire right into the camera, landing a cud of Virginia’s soggy finest right into the viewing audience's’ lap. Neat. Or gross, I guess, depending on how you close you were sitting I’d wager.
Anyhoo, cinematically speaking, Baker’s gooey gambit paid off and the rattler retreated, allowing them to press on, setting the stage for that final charge the film’s title promised.
Even without the 3-D, The Wilhelm, or the tobacco spit THAT WAS COMING RIGHT FOR US!, TWICE!, The Charge at Feather River is still pretty entertaining. But when you add all those ingredients back in, the film moves from pretty entertaining to downright historical. And no, that is not a typo.
Other Points of Interest:
The Charge at Feather River (1953) Warner Bros. Pictures / P: David Weisbart / D: Gordon Douglas / W: James R. Webb / C: J. Peverell Marley / E: Folmar Blangsted / M: Max Steiner / S: Guy Madison, Vera Miles, Frank Lovejoy, Helen Westcott, Steve Brodie, Neville Brand