Monday, October 14, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Fort Defiance (1951)

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.

Some disreputable town types led by Dave Parker (Craig Woods) learn of Johnny's wartime behavior and decide his death isn't enough to pay for his misdeeds, they'll string up innocent Ned as well -- which will also conveniently let Dave take over Ned's ranch. Ben and Ned manage to escape into Indian territory, where they very unexpectedly meet up with someone else on the run -- Johnny (Dane Clark). Turns out his death had been slightly exaggerated.

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.

This was one of Graves' very first movies, and he's excellent as the blind man, conveying a winning personality who draws others to him without pitying his blindness. He's determined to do as much as he can on his own, whether it's saddling an ornery horse or clinging to a horse's tail as the group escapes up the side of a mountain.

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.

The third man in the trio is the wise-cracking, cynical Johnny, who became a bank robber after the war. Johnny delights in calling Ben "Mr. Only Survivor" but is softhearted enough to make sure he stays alive, if only for Ned's sake. Clark also movingly conveys Johnny's pain when he realizes Ned no longer has a need for him and that he's been replaced, in essence, by the upstanding Ben. His final scenes, in which he redeems himself by honorably making a secure new life possible for Ned and Ben, are truly excellent.

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.

FORT DEFIANCE was shot by the great 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.


Blogger john knight said...

Lovely review of this generally unheralded Western Laura. Its one of those "comfort movies" that I love to return to every once in a while.
Another interesting Peter Graves Western (also out as an MOD) with
"Fort" in the title is FORT YUMA.
This one sees Peter play a much darker character. Its one of a series
of Fifties Westerns that has basically a racist lead character
The latter title is of course a Sixties Western but its very much a Fifties Western in spirit. In the
two aforementioned films John Payne's bitter scout and Audie Murphy's platoon leader feel betrayed when they find the woman that they fancy is of mixed race.
In FORT YUMA however Peter Graves Indian hating cavalry officer is more than happy to carry on a behind closed doors affair with Apache woman Joan Taylor. In this film the characters are finally forced to examine their previous attitudes,especially Joan Vohs
kindly missionary who finally is forced to kill. FOLRT YUMA is a very powerful film and Graves is excellent in an offbeat role. There is quiet an interesting bit on imdb on the censorship troubles that this film encountered; the killings had to be reduced from 24 to 10.
It still remains a fast and furious film and the MGM MOD has great picture quality.

5:43 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

John, thanks so much, I really enjoyed this movie and hope others will check it out. It was quite different and provided some wonderful entertainment.

Thanks so much for the feedback on FORT YUMA, which I'm unfamiliar with. I'll put that one in my ClassicFlix queue! It sounds very interesting.

Best wishes,

9:08 PM  

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