Starring in TV’s Cheyenne for seven seasons, Clint Walker shot to stardom as the burly hero of the long-running western. He never transitioned into a huge star in movies, but with a few exceptions (his supporting part in The Dirty Dozen among others) he was always quite at home in the western. Natural jump, right, TV to film? An underrated, exciting, well-made western, 1958’s Fort Dobbs, was one he made during his Cheyenne run.
Having killed a man in the small town of Largo, Gar Davis (Walker) heads off into the desert ahead of a posse. Comanches are on the warpath and killing anyone in their path though, Gar stumbling across a dead man with an arrow in his back. He switches jackets with the corpse and manages to trick the posse into thinking the Comanches killed him. Gar is still on his own though amidst raiding Comanches until he walks onto a small ranch run by a wife, Celia Gray (Virginia Mayo), and her son, Chad (Richard Eyer), who are waiting for her husband to return. He agrees to help the Grays get to the relative safety of nearby Fort Dobbs, but Mrs. Gray begins to think that Gar has a secret, maybe even about her possibly missing husband.
This is an example of what a western can and should be. The story doesn’t have to be on the level of The Searchers, Shane or High Noon where it delivers a message. It doesn’t have to be mindlessly stupid either full of action and gunplay. From director Gordon Douglas, ‘Dobbs’ isn’t a great, classic western. It is just a really good western, and that’s fine with me. It is shot on a relatively small budget with Max Steiner‘s score sampling his score from They Died With Their Boots On and even borrows some action footage from 1953’s The Charge at Feather River. But even on a small scale, it knows what it wants to do and how to get there. Unspectacular, solid entertainment that any western fan should be able to appreciate.
In the vein of the traditional, white-hat wearing hero from the 1940s westerns, Clint Walker is a great lead as Gar Davis. For starters, he looks like a western hero. Walker stood an imposing 6-foot-6 and weighed 235 pounds so he towers over basically everyone around him. When he starts talking, that deep, baritone voice sounds like it’s going to bounce off of people and echo back. His backstory is explained late in the movie, giving Gar a slightly darker side albeit a righteous darker side. Don’t go in thinking he’s the flawless hero, but he is a good hero who will ultimately make the right choice. It’s too bad Walker didn’t become more of a star in films because as is the case here and yesterday’s Gold of the Seven Saints, he’s perfect for the western genre.
He is capably helped in three main supporting parts, all three of which could have gone obviously very wrong. We’ve got the damsel in distress, her possibly shrill, annoying son, and a smooth, conniving gunrunner. Credit to Mayo, Eyer and Brian Keith for making the most out of their parts. I’ve long been a fan of Virginia Mayo, an actress who was always able to hold her own against some of Hollywood’s best tough guys. She’s tough, smart and gorgeous, able to stand toe to toe with Walker. Eyer as her son, Chad, is also very good. So often in the 1950s (maybe more than any other decade), child actors could single-handedly ruin the movies they’re in. In other films like Friendly Persuasion, The Desperate Hours, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Eyer shows he can act, genuinely act. He has a great scene with Walker too late in the movie, a natural, emotional scene for a 13-year old actor.
As for Mr. Keith, he’s a scene stealer as Clett, a gunrunner who keeps crossing paths with Gar and Celia as they make a run for Fort Dobbs. He obviously has had some past run-ins with Gar, and that tension comes out in these scenes, especially when Keith’s Clett goes after Mayo’s Mrs. Gray. I’m used to seeing him as more of a straight-laced good guy (like in Nevada Smith) so it’s great seeing him as a bad guy. It’s more of a smooth, quick-talking bad guy, but you get the idea. The final confrontation between Gar and Clett is appropriately epic featuring some great dialogue that feels right at home in the western. It’s not a huge part, but one that Keith knocks out of the park nonetheless.
The fairly straightforward story does just enough to keep you interested and/or guessing until the end. The Utah locations serve as a gorgeous backdrop to the trip to Fort Dobbs which upon arrival delivers quite a twist. The last 25-30 minutes are the more traditional cowboys and settlers vs. Indians story, but it’s handled perfectly. The action is exciting, even surprisingly graphic, and in the end everything wraps up nicely. Russ Conway has a good part as the Largo Sheriff in this final portion. Good, underrated western. Definitely worth checking out.
Fort Dobbs <—Youtube montage (1958): ***/****