- Directed by Joseph M. Newman
- May 1, 1958
A cavalry troop finds their situation going from bad to worse as they flee pursuing Native Americans.
When I first saw Fort Massacre a few years back I honestly thought I had missed a good chunk of the film but turns out I had actually caught it close to the beginning. The story drops you in the middle of this unit’s turd of a situation and goes from there. These men have been ambushed and their commanding officer is near death and dies shortly after the start.
They are in dire straits and it’s clearly on the way to getting worse. They are low on water and dealing with injuries. And worse yet the enemy that handed their asses to them is very close behind. In short order they establish the situation in this film which is an environment of desperation where slowly the veneer of civilization goes away and their true selves come out.
Sgt. Vinson (Joel McCrea) is inexperienced but worse driven by anger and bigotry. Vinson is not necessarily focusing on what is best for the unit but rather on getting back at all Native Americans who in his view are all responsible for the death of his wife and child.
Pvt. Travis (John Russell) is the opposite of Vinson. Travis is not married to the military and is rather just trying to find his spot in the world. He is not an angry man like Vinson but rather a cynic.
For the era this is an unusually dark Cavalry Western. While there were more serious efforts, as a general rule the Westerns of the time were about the myth of the West and not about as they say deconstructing that myth. I’m not calling this a revisionist Western. I guess I am calling it a more realistic Western. These are normal people caught up in a terrible situation and their own issues and personal demons start coming into play as they struggle to survive. The racist. The defeatist. The opportunist. The selfish man. Aspects which one could keep hidden in more comfortable or civilized times come to the surface.
Tensions build from the start. The narrative takes on a fatalistic tone as many of the characters come to believe that death is eminent. For a film from the mid-50s this is incredibly downbeat! I was rather shocked but enjoyed a film with modern sensibilities done in the past.
Obviously Fort Massacre is not a fun adventure at all. This was a serious effort. There were a few light moments but nothing out of place with the overall tone. They were just characters trying to find some humor in this serious situation. The closest we come to a comedic sidekick is the Old Piute Man (Francis McDonald) but even he is serious. His antics come off more as trying to make it through the whole situation without getting injured by the cavalry or their Native American pursuers.
Creepily we have the Old Piute Man willing to trade the sexual favors of his granddaughter (Susan Cabot) with the cavalry officers that he encounters for whatever trinkets they will give him. That’s rather disturbing. Especially so for the mid-50s.
Fort Massacre is exciting as well as being good drama. The script is tight and lacks fluff which if it had any would blunt the impact of the story they are telling. That lack of fluff could be because this was on the lower budget side. It forced the creators to make tough choices and resulted in a fine story. There is only about 80 minutes to this film.
Fort Massacre is an unusual yet very good entry among older Hollywood Westerns. It is a much more serious take on the Western genre from the time and I highly recommend it!