Sunday, May 03, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Arrow in the Dust (1954) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

ARROW IN THE DUST (1954) is a very satisfying Sterling Hayden Western which was just released by the Warner Archive.

When I reviewed this film three years ago it was a pan and scan VHS tape I'd recorded off TV. What a pleasure to have a nice widescreen copy of this film thanks to the Warner Archive! I liked the movie even more the second time around.

Sterling Hayden plays Bart Laish, a one-time West Pointer who has become a cavalry deserter. While on the run he comes across the remains of a cavalry unit massacred by Indians; the lone survivor is Bart's cousin, Major Andy Pepperis (Carleton Young). The dying Andy pleads with Bart to save a wagon train further up the trail which is likely to be attacked by the Indians.

The initially reluctant Bart, being a good man at heart, has a crisis of conscience and agrees to Andy's request. Bart decides the most effective way to save the train will be to impersonate his cousin and take command of the troops accompanying the wagon train.

A savvy Indian scout (Tom Tully) who knew the real Andy is on to Bart's charade, and an army corporal (Jimmy Wakely), given to singing a tune called "Wandering Stranger," may also know the truth. They keep silent as Bart clearly knows what he's doing, taking firm command while using his military training and frontier skills to save the train. It may also prove to be a transformative experience for Bart personally.

I think it helped this time that I knew the movie's flaws going in; for instance, there's not much back story for why Bart starts out as a deserter, and I also would have appreciated more development of his romance with a doctor's daughter, the independent Christella (Coleen Gray, later Hayden's costar in THE KILLING). I'm a fan of short movies but this 79-minute film might have benefited from another five or ten minutes to flesh out the lead characters.

The other main drawback is the film giving "day for night" shooting a whole new meaning, as it's broad daylight, yet we're told it's after midnight! And it must be said that some of the stock footage looks pretty poor.

With a list of the movie's flaws out of the way, what's left is something really quite enjoyable, directed by the terrific Lesley Selander, who can always be counted on to turn out a solid Western.

Hayden is excellent in the leading role as a man torn between self-preservation and honor. The fact that he's been a deserter and a loner is interesting, because he plays a man who is clearly comfortable taking charge and making difficult decisions, weighing which choices have the best chance to save the most lives. Hayden's character and performance are a big part of what makes the movie so enjoyable.

The great character actor Tom Tully is also especially good as the tough scout who's on to Bart's charade. Those who are more familiar with Tully in gentler roles, such as the kindly, slightly awkward uncle in I'LL BE SEEING YOU (1944), may not recognize him at first, as almost the first thing his grizzled character does is draw a knife on Bart. Satisfied with Bart's response, he casually slips the knife into the back of his shirt -- clearly a dangerous man who has probably killed more people than we want to know!

Former Monogram "B" star Jimmy Wakely is a wonderful addition, crooning a haunting song which suggests he may know more about Bart's background than he's letting on. Except for a cameo as himself in THE MARSHAL'S DAUGHTER (1953), Wakely had been offscreen for half a decade before this film, and it was his last feature film. It was a great part to go out on.

Coleen Gray is fine as the spunky young woman who drives her own wagon and tends the wounded. As mentioned, I would have liked her having more to do, but within the confines of the role she's fine. I shared more thoughts on Gray in my 2012 review.

Among the supporting cast, standouts include Keith Larsen as the man who becomes Bart's second-in-command, while Lee Van Cleef can't be missed as a villain who briefly gets in Bart's way.

The screenplay by Don Martin was from a novel by L.L. Foreman. The movie was filmed in Technicolor by Ellis Carter. Speaking of which, I adore the multicolored Technicolor logo which is part of the movie's poster, as seen on the DVD cover above.

As mentioned previously, some of the stock or second unit footage doesn't look very good -- a couple stock shots are almost orange! -- but I believe that may be an inherent flaw in the original source material rather than the DVD. For the most part the DVD looks very sharp, and the widescreen print is a real step up for those of us who have previously only had access to a pan and scan. There are no extras.

Western fans, and fans of Sterling Hayden, will want to add ARROW IN THE DUST to their collections. I'm sure I'll be revisiting it from time to time in the years to come. Recommended.

June 2015 Update: For more on this film, please visit Toby's review at 50 Westerns From the 50s.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the WBShop.


Blogger Kristina Dijan said...

This looks great, looking forward to catching it on TCM this month. Too bad Gray didn't have more meat in her role to match Hayden's complex character.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Kristina! Hopefully when TCM shows it, it will be the widescreen version. Hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Best wishes,

5:10 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Very good and helpful review, Laura. I've also only seen this as a p&s off air. You have made me want this all the more. My first batch is arriving this week(hopefully) - Think this might need to be in the next batch!

12:56 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, so glad I could share this review and that you found it helpful. Hope you will get to order it soon!

Always exciting when the Warner Archive releases a big batch of Westerns! I should have more reviewing soon.

Best wishes,

12:37 AM  
Blogger john knight said...

Hi Laura,

I watched this last night as I am trying to get through my
ever expanding flood of great Warner Archive releases.
I agree it's wonderful to see this film in widescreen.
I totally agree about the "orange" stock shots towards
the end of the film.
I think the widescreen restoration makes the stock footage look
even more flaky.
I must say this minor complaint did not spoil my enjoyment
of this vastly entertaining little Western.
I may be wrong but I believe that the stock footage towards
the end of the film was lifted from NEW MEXICO a very interesting
Western starring Lew Ayres.
Sadly I don't believe NEW MEXICO exists in its original color

3:29 AM  

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