Saturday, July 02, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Escort West (1958)

ESCORT WEST is a solidly entertaining Western, made with a cast of pros by John Wayne's Batjac Productions.

It's Nevada in 1865, and widowed former Confederate soldier Ben Lassiter (Victor Mature) is heading for Oregon Territory with his young daughter Abbey (Reba Waters).

Along the way Ben rescues the survivors of a wagon train ambush, Beth Drury (Elaine Stewart) and her sister Martha (Faith Domergue), as well as an elderly black man, Nelson (Rex Ingram). Ben and his small group struggle through the wilderness, where they must confront both hostile renegade soldiers and Modoc Indians.

It's a good film with a likeable lead performance by Victor Mature. It's a story that's been told many times; Richard Widmark's THE LAST WAGON (1956), where he escorts teenage wagon train survivors to safety, is fairly similar although filmed in more spectacular locations. The fact that it's a familiar type of story isn't a strike against the movie; rather, it's appealing movie comfort food, made with just the kinds of faces one likes to see in a Western.

Among those faces are Harry Carey Jr. and Noah Beery Jr. as good soldiers, while Ken Curtis and Leo Gordon are the baddies. Gordon, in fact, cowrote the script, along with Fred Hartsook, from a story by Steve Hayes.

Elaine Stewart, who passed away a few days ago, is appealing as the good sister, although I have to admit I was a bit distracted by her very thick painted-on eyebrows, which I could swear got thinner in some shots. It was kind of strange how unnatural they looked. Other than that minor issue, I liked her quite well. Domergue is saddled with being a hysterical drama queen, and she's fine within the limited confines of the role.

Reba Waters does a good job as Mature's brave young daughter. She's cute without being cloying. I did wish the screenwriters hadn't used the crutch of having her innocently reveal important information to the bad guys, but I guess it was the most expeditious way to move the story forward.

The filming was apparently all done on Southern California locations, but the movie nonetheless feels fairly authentic thanks to extensive shooting outdoors, rather than on soundstages. Fortunately it wasn't as obvious that the film was partially shot in Chatsworth as it was in THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (1953), where I found the Southern California locations very distracting. The black and white CinemaScope cinematography was by William H. Clothier, whose credits included TRACK OF THE CAT (1954), SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956), and many later John Wayne films.

The film was directed by Francis D. Lyon. It runs 75 minutes. The supporting cast also includes Claire Du Brey, Syd Saylor, Slim Pickens, William Ching, John Hubbard, Roy Barcroft, and Chuck Hayward.

I recorded the film from Encore Westerns, which unfortunately shows virtually all movies in pan and scan. Fortunately the incorrect screen ratio wasn't terribly noticeable with this particular film.

ESCORT WEST is available on DVD; according to an Amazon review the disc has the widescreen version on one side and fullscreen on the reverse. It's also had a release on VHS.


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