Sunday, October 27, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Fort Dobbs (1958)

FORT DOBBS (1958) is a superior Warner Bros. Western starring Clint Walker and Virginia Mayo which provides a fine 93 minutes of entertainment.

Walker plays Gar Davis, a man on the run from the law who stumbles across a small ranch just in time to save Celia Gray (Mayo) and her son Chad (Richard Eyer) from a Comanche attack. Davis escorts the Grays through enemy territory to the ostensible safety of Fort Dobbs, but there are complications along the way, including a villainous gun runner (Brian Keith) and Celia's mistaken belief that Gar is responsible for her husband's death.

FORT DOBBS pulls together a number of familiar Western themes, starting with Walker as a mysterious yet honorable man with a past who commits himself to protecting a woman and her child despite the possible personal cost.

The concept of a couple uniting at least partly because of a child has played out in countless Westerns, from HONDO (1953) and THE LONE HAND (1953) to GUN DUEL IN DURANGO (1957) and ESCORT WEST (1958), to name just a few examples.

Like ESCORT WEST, FORT DOBBS also features the story of strangers uniting to survive in Indian territory, another frequent Western storyline; one recently viewed film with this plotline was APACHE TERRITORY (1958).

These tried-and-true Western themes are part of what makes the film so appealing, but the main reason it all works as well as it does is the quality of the cast and behind-the-scenes talent. The movie was directed by Gordon Douglas, a solid talent who had previously worked with Mayo on THE IRON MISTRESS (1952), SHE'S BACK ON BROADWAY (1953), and THE BIG LAND (1957).

The script was cowritten by Burt Kennedy, who was in the midst of working on the "Ranown Cycle" of Westerns with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott. Indeed, Brian Keith's slimy-yet-genial villain falls right in line with the types of characters played by Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, and Claude Akins in the Ranown films, while Walker is a less intense echo of Scott's honorable man with a difficult past.

The film was shot on location in Utah, in beautiful widescreen black and white, by William Clothier. Clothier's frequent collaborations with John Wayne included not only Wayne Westerns, but Wayne's Batjac productions of the Ranown film SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956) and the previously mentioned ESCORT WEST.

Add in a musical score by Max Steiner, and it's clear that FORT DOBBS is a quality production all the way.

This was Walker's first starring role in a feature film, and he's terrific as an imposing man of few words who has a lot going on inside. It's rather a shame his stardom came so late in the era of Westerns' popularity as he makes an excellent cowboy hero. He worked again with director Douglas on YELLOWSTONE KELLY (1959) and GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS (1961).

Mayo does fine work as the worn-down but brave frontierswoman. Her nerve sometimes gets her in trouble, but it also puts her in good stead when faced with the most trying days of her life. Mayo has a wonderful scene with absolutely no dialogue where she wakes up under a blanket and gradually realizes her wet clothes are all hanging on a line; her changing expressions as she realizes the stranger-hero has removed her clothes are priceless, yet his courtly behavior is such that she chooses to say nothing about it.

Richard Eyer, who plays Mayo's spunky young son, played a similar role in the recently seen CANYON RIVER (1956), where he was the widowed Marcia Henderson's little boy. According to internet sources, as an adult he taught elementary school in Bishop, California, a town we visit most summers on our way to camp in the Eastern High Sierras. He retired in 2006.

The small but fine cast also has a nice turn by Russ Conway as the sheriff on Gar's trail, a reasonable man willing to look at Gar in a new light as Gar's character reveals itself under difficult circumstances.

FORT DOBBS is available from the Warner Archive in a beautiful remastered widescreen print.

FORT DOBBS is recommended as quality Western entertainment.

3 Comments:

Blogger mel said...

Decades ago we had a copy of Fort Dobbs on 16mm film, and it soon became one of our favorite westerns.

I don't think it ever became a popular favorite with the general movie-going public, though - most people I have come across don't seem to be familiar with it.

Thanks for your enthusiastic take on this Clint Walker movie, Laura.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Not one I've sought out but will do now after reading your review. Virginia Mayo had a good spell in the 50s westerns.

4:01 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Mel, I loved hearing of the 16mm print you owned of this film and how much you enjoyed it. It's a special one and I'm looking forward to revisiting it in the future.

Vienna, I'd love to know what you think of it when you have the chance to see it.

Today I came across Toby's take on the movie a couple years ago at 50 Westerns and link it here for anyone who'd enjoy checking it out!

Best wishes,
Laura

4:18 PM  

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