FORT DEFIANCE is an excellent Western examining the relationships of three very different men who unite in an attempt to stay alive.
It's just after the end of the Civil War, and Ben Shelby (Ben Johnson) arrives at the Triple T ranch looking to kill Johnny Tallon. Johnny's cowardly actions led to the battlefield death of Ben's brother; Ben was the battle's only survivor.
Instead of Johnny, Ben finds Johnny's good-natured, kind blind brother, Ned (Peter Graves), and grizzled old Uncle Charlie (George Cleveland). Ben hangs around working for grub, hoping that Johnny will show up; he never does, and Ben becomes fast friends with openhearted Ned and Charlie. When word comes Johnny is dead, Ben plans to head for home, but after considerable thought he instead writes a letter to his wife to meet him out West, and he proposes to Ned that they become ranching partners.
Ben reluctantly puts aside his plans to kill Johnny in order to focus on keeping himself and Ned alive, fighting off Parker's men on the one hand and warring Indians on the other.
FORT DEFIANCE combines a strong story with a very interesting study of three very different men. Ben is a man of few words, but he has deep loyalty, first to his dead brother and then to Ned. He and the sweet-natured Ned in effect become brothers, each replacing the brother the other lost. When there's shooting, it isn't Johnny's name which the sightless Ned calls out in an agony of concern, but Ben, who has become more important to Ned than his blood brother.
When Ned meets Julie (Tracey Roberts), a saloon girl who was run out of town and ends up in the midst of the Indian conflict, it's quite believable that Julie would quickly seize on the chance to build a new life with Ned, who doesn't care what she's been, only what they can have together.
One of the marks of a good movie for me is that I wonder what happens to the characters next and wish I could continue to follow their lives after "The End." FORT DEFIANCE was such a movie for me. It manages to successfully mix a rich and somewhat unusual story, imperfect and intriguing characters, and quite a bit of action to end up a winning Western.
It's interesting to realize how many Westerns Graves was in in the '50s. In addition to FORT DEFIANCE, he turned up in WICHITA (1955) and CANYON RIVER (1956), both seen in the past week, as well as ROBBERS' ROOST (1955), watched a few weeks ago. I also saw him recently as a federal agent in DEATH IN SMALL DOSES (1957).
Ben Johnson's work in this film was immediately preceded by John Ford's WAGON MASTER (1950) and RIO GRANDE (1950), and Dane Clark had recently made the UK film HIGHLY DANGEROUS (1950), reviewed here a few days ago.
This 82-minute film was directed by John Rawlins from a script by Louis Lantz. The supporting cast includes Iron Eyes Cody, Dennis Moore, and Dick Elliott.
Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), who faced the challenge of shooting the movie in the inexpensive Cinecolor process, which has strong reds, blues, and browns. Fortunately the movie was largely shot amidst reddish rocks in New Mexico so it turned out looking as well as a movie could shot in Cinecolor. The Cinecolor look can be seen in this clip of the opening scenes available at the Turner Classic Movies website.
There's a terrific collection of stills and posters from this film at Fangirl Ramblings, a site devoted to Peter Graves.
FORT DEFIANCE was a United Artists release which is available on a very nice DVD-R from MGM. It can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.
This was a week of great Western viewing which also included CANYON RIVER (1956), APACHE TERRITORY (1958), and WICHITA (1955). These previously seen movies have an excellent cross-section of '50s Western stars, George Montgomery, Rory Calhoun, and Joel McCrea. Happily, all of these films are available on "MOD" DVDs and are very much recommended for Western fans, or for those who'd like to start getting to know the '50s Western.