When movie lovers (and the CrazyFilmGuy) think of the Western, we usually point toward the classic films of director John Ford like MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) or THE SEARCHERS (1956) or the psychological westerns that director Anthony Mann made with Jimmy Stewart such as THE NAKED SPUR (1953) or THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955). Or we get misty-eyed over Sam Peckinpah's code of honor films in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962) or THE WILD BUNCH (1969). And let's not forget Mr. Clint Eastwood who has owned the western from his early films with director Sergio Leone as the Man With No Name thru UNFORGIVEN (1992).
But like most genres, not every western ever made is a classic. Many are B films with lesser stars and a smaller budget. Some are good and some downright stinkers. But they still deserve a chance and so when the CrazyFilmGuy saw the title TOMAHAWK TRAIL (1957) on his television recently, he decided to give it a viewing or two since he had never heard of the film before.
As the title hints at, TOMAHAWK TRAIL has Indians in it as well as a U.S. Cavalry patrol. But it is at best a B Western with few notable stars except for the unsung Chuck Conners in the lead and a very young Harry Dean Stanton (going by the name of Dean Stanton early in his career). It does have some production value in its Kanab, Utah locations (which John Ford also liked to shoot in) and a fort that will be used by the Cavalry patrol. But TOMAHAWK cannot hide its budgetary limitations. Although TOMAHAWK TRAIL is a feature film, its running time is a short 60 minutes, about the length of watching an episode (with commercials) of Chuck Conners TV show a year later called THE RIFLEMAN (1958 to 1963).
TOMAHAWK TRAIL'S plot has some familiar elements. A wagon train full of U.S. Cavalry headed for Fort Bowie are attacked by a party of Apache Indians. The wagon train is led by Lieutenant Jonathan Davenport (George Neise), a replacement for a recently fallen commander, fresh from West Point and full of ideas but out of his league in the Wild West. Davenport is at odds with Sergeant Wade McCoy (Chuck Conners), his subordinate but with much more experience in fighting the Indians. McCoy tries to show Davenport the right way to fight the Apaches and survive but Davenport will have none of it. But after the heat takes its toll on the West Point graduate Davenport and then Indians steal the Cavalry's horses, McCoy has to take over as commander, against Davenport's threats of a court martial for McCoy.
Without horses, the patrol come across and surprise the Apache war party and rescue Ellen Carter (Susan Cummings), daughter of an Army officer who was kidnapped a few months earlier from Fort Laramie and Tula (Lisa Montell), daughter of the Apache Chief Victorio (who we only see from afar and never in close up). McCoy manages to keep the lost patrol together despite repeated skirmishes with the Apaches as well as dissension from the insufferable Davenport and his lackey Private Miller (Harry Dean Stanton). There's even an attempted rape of Tula by Private Barrow (Robert Knapp).
McCoy and his ragtag party finally arrive at Fort Bowie. At first, it appears to be abandoned. As they enter the fort, they see the bodies of soldiers, decimated by an earlier Apache attack. McCoy has his men collect weapons from the dead soldiers and strengthen Bowie's fortifications as they prepare for the inevitable raid by the Apaches. But McCoy has an ace up his sleeve -- the Apache leader's daughter Tula. His only hope for the troop to survive is to use her as a bargaining chip. But will Tula be willing to save her captors?
TOMAHAWK TRAIL wants to tread in John Ford territory but veteran Western director Lesley Selander and screenwriter David Chandler are limited by their budget, story, and actors. Whether the budget couldn't afford too many horses or writer Chandler purposefully chose to do this, the Apaches stealing the Cavalry's horses early in the film, causing the Cavalry to now walk to their destination is unintentionally humorous. Story points move quickly in this film too. In one scene, Ellen confides to McCoy she is a peaceful person amongst all the fighting. In the very next scene, Ellen is attacked by Private Macy (Frederick Ford) and accidentally kills him with a hammer defending herself. Talk about a quick change in attitude. We never get to meet the Apache Chief Victorio. He's only shown from a distance. Apparently, the production couldn't afford to pay an actor to play Victorio in close ups or speak a few lines of dialogue. We hear about him and but only see him in a long shot at the film's end.
Chuck Conners is likable as the lead Sgt. McCoy and would appear in countless westerns but he's not John Wayne except maybe in height and collegiate football career. In a Ford film, the Cavalry would be a colorful mix of Irish, Texans, and ex-Confederates but TOMAHAWK'S soldiers are mostly vanilla. John Smith as McCoy's best friend Private Reynolds provides a few dashes of humor and Eddie Little Sky as the Indian scout Johnny Dogwood is a rare positive Native American character even if Eddie's acting range is limited. George Neise's Lt. Davenport is too over the top and almost unbelievable at times in his feverish performance. Susan Cummings as Ellen Carter is neither particularly pretty or memorable. And young Harry Dean Stanton shows his inexperience as Private Miller but it's just the start of a long career for Stanton who would improve over the years in films like ALIEN (1979) and PARIS, TEXAS (1984). TOMAHAWK is Stanton's first talking film role.
But like many B movies, TOMAHAWK TRAIL has its moments. Director Selander makes good use of the Kanab, Utah locations especially the fort (Selander would direct 5 films in 1957 beside TOMAHAWK TRAIL including REVOLT AT FORT LARAMIE, using the same Kanab Fort location and casting actor Stanton again). The troop's discovery of the massacre is well staged and the siege of the fort by the Apaches with flaming arrows is impressive. The production may have skimped on the horses but it makes up for it with some excellent stunts during the attack. TOMAHAWK also shows the seamier side of the army as not one but two different soldiers try to rape the women. These soldiers are not the honorable men from Ford's FORT APACHE (1948) or RIO GRANDE (1950). Underpaid, hungry, hot, forced to walk, and fighting against Indians and bugs, the lure of two pretty women is too much for a few privates. But the film gives the lusty Private Macy his comeuppance and Private Barrow apologizes to McCoy before the finale.
TOMAHAWK TRAIL is a quick appetizer for western film buff''s pallet. It's a standard Cavalry Western that is not glorified or revered by critics or movie fans. But it follows all the basic conventions of the Western and despite it's budget limitations, it offers some interesting riffs on a familiar story.