Westerns and lazy Sunday afternoons seem to go together somehow, and today I watched a very good Universal Western, TOMAHAWK, starring Van Heflin and Yvonne DeCarlo.
I tend to think of Randolph Scott films as "movie comfort food," and if Scott's Westerns are the main course, Universal Westerns of the '50s must be the dessert -- the bright colors leap off the screen, and the supporting casts are jammed with familiar faces, including some of the best character actors in the business. Beginning to watch a Universal Western seems a bit akin to opening a box of favorite candy.
TOMAHAWK was just released in an exquisitely lovely print as part of the Universal Vault Series, available exclusively from Amazon. The movie would be worth watching if only for its many visual pleasures, but happily it's also got a well-acted, substantial story, notable for its even-handed treatment of Indians.
Van Heflin plays scout Jim Bridger, who tries to mediate a land dispute between the U.S. Cavalry and the Sioux Indians. Col. Carrington (Preston Foster) and Chief Red Cloud (John War Eagle) are honorable men, but their attempts to resolve matters peacefully are complicated by bloodthirsty types such as Lt. Dancy (Alex Nicol) and Captain Fetterman (Arthur Space).
On the personal front, Bridger is maligned by some prejudiced members of the cavalry for traveling with a mysterious Cheyenne Indian girl, Monahseetah (Susan Cabot). Bridger's life is further complicated by a traveling showgirl, Julie Madden (Yvonne DeCarlo), who is attracted to him but assumes Monahseetah is his wife.
TOMAHAWK is a solid, well-made film which is consistently interesting. I found the opening and closing narration a bit overbearing, but that was my only substantive complaint. Van Heflin is on screen a majority of the time, and as I've said in the past, he could make reading the phone book interesting. He gives a charismatic performance as the knowledgeable scout with a tragic past. I particularly enjoyed watching the body language and interactions between Bridger and Monahseetah and trying to puzzle out their relationship.
DeCarlo is beautiful and sympathetic as a woman who overcomes prejudice to become friends with Monahseetah. I found it realistic that there are no pat resolutions offered regarding the relationship between Bridger and Julie.
As is typical of Universal Westerns, the cast is packed with interesting people. I particularly appreciated a favorite character actress, Ann Doran, in a small role as Col. Carrington's kindly wife. Rock Hudson, then an up-and-coming young actor, is one of the cavalry members. Jack Oakie is good in a low-key role as Bridger's sidekick, and Tom Tully also has some nice moments as the actor traveling with Julie. I never did manage to spot Regis Toomey!
TOMAHAWK runs a fast-paced 82 minutes and was directed by George Sherman. It was strikingly shot in Technicolor by Charles P. Boyle on location in the Black Hills. Except for a couple brief soundstage inserts, most of the exterior scenes appear to have been done in the great outdoors. There are some shots of the Indians lined up under cloud-filled skies which are truly breathtaking.
The movie was previously released on VHS as part of the Universal Western Collection.
It's also had multiple releases on Region 2 DVDs. The title in the UK, incidentally, was BATTLE OF POWDER RIVER.
I couldn't help comparing TOMAHAWK to FORT BOWIE (1958), a Ben Johnson Western which I saw earlier this year. FORT BOWIE had many of the same types of characters, including a wise leading man, an honorable fort commander, and a prejudiced officer who's only too happy to massacre Indians. However, FORT BOWIE was well-nigh unwatchable due to a terrible script, bad acting, and low production values, as well as an unseemly willingness to wallow in violence.
I appreciate TOMAHAWK's strong production values, forthright but non-gruesome storytelling, and quality acting all the more when I remember FORT BOWIE. TOMAHAWK is recommended for those who enjoy well-made Westerns.
Update: This film is now also available in a 10-film Westerns collection which is a great value.