Friday, August 16, 2013

Tonight's Movie: The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957)

Take APACHE DRUMS (1951), cross it with WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951), add in Audie Murphy, and the result is THE GUNS OF FORT PETTICOAT (1957).

Murphy plays Lt. Frank Hewitt, a Texan serving the Union Army in the West during the Civil War. Hewitt deserts after his commanding officer leads an Indian massacre, then heads for his hometown to warn the citizens the Indians are on the warpath, looking for retribution.

Most of the men are off fighting in the war, so Hewitt organizes the women into a regiment, assisted by Hannah Lacey (Hope Emerson, who also played a key role in WESTWARD THE WOMEN). He drills the ladies on shooting and fighting and prepares them to take a stand at an adobe mission church; then the group tensely awaits the inevitable Indian attack.

The church, as it happens, appears to be the very same Old Tucson church where the townspeople awaited the Indian attack in APACHE DRUMS.

The women Hewitt works with include Anne (Kathryn Grant, who became Mrs. Bing Crosby that year), who resents Hewitt fighting for the Union; Mary (Jeff Donnell), who is secretly pregnant by the no-good Emmett (Sean McClory); Cora (Jeanette Nolan), a religious woman initially reluctant to take up arms; Stella (Patricia Livingston), Hewitt's old flame; and actresses Ernestine Wade, Peggy Maley, and Isobel Elsom.

James Griffith, Ray Teal, and Nestor Paiva play small roles as some very slimy, casually murderous crooks, while John Dierkes is a storekeeper. Kim Charney of SUDDENLY (1954) plays Stella's young brother-in-law.

While I didn't think THE GUNS OF FORT PETTICOAT was quite as good as APACHE DRUMS, and certainly not in a league with the superb WESTWARD THE WOMEN, it's enjoyable entertainment with an engaging premise. I find Murphy consistently compelling in his Westerns and have become quite a fan this year. The various women characters are well delineated, and it's interesting to see disparate types come together due to an urgent common goal. As indicated above, the movie covers familiar territory, but Western fans will find this fresh spin on familiar themes worth seeing.

This Columbia film's production quality is variable. I really liked the opening credits, with vivid Universal-style red and blue lettering and jaunty music. Some of the opening shots, however, were confusing, switching back and forth from the Old Tucson desert area to a couple shots of mountains and pine trees. The shots of Murphy at the fort in the opening scenes are very low budget, with Murphy appearing to get off his horse in a soundstage and phony-looking backgrounds outside the office window.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the film was shot outdoors in Tucson, against scenery which will look quite familiar to any fan of THE HIGH CHAPARRAL.

This 82-minute movie was directed by George Marshall from a screenplay by Walter Doniger, based on a story by C. William Harrison. It was filmed in Technicolor by the great Ray Rennahan.

THE GUNS OF FORT PETTICOAT had a release on VHS but does not appear to have made it to DVD, other than a Region 2 release in Europe.

I saw the movie thanks to recording it from Turner Classic Movies some time ago. According to Robert Osborne's introduction, this was the only film Murphy coproduced, along with Harry Joe Brown, who was known for his longtime collaboration with Randolph Scott.

THE GUNS OF FORT PETTICOAT will air on Encore Westerns October 4, 14, and 15, 2013.

Previous reviews of Audie Murphy films: SIERRA (1950), GUNSMOKE (1953), RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO (1954), NIGHT PASSAGE (1957), and NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959).


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