Fort Utah (1967)

fort_utah_filmposterMy usual stance on B-movies, even low-budget movies, is that cheap does not necessarily equal a bad movie. There can be a charm and enjoyment from low budget, so yeah, it doesn’t equal a bad movie…until it does. Bad scripts, bad editing, bad acting and a cheap budget it all equals a real winner with 1967’s Fort Utah.

Riding west to California, ex-gunfighter Tom Horn (John Ireland) crosses paths with a worried Indian agent, Ben Stokes (Robert Strauss). A large group of warriors (I don’t recall a tribe specification) has left the reservation with Stokes on their trail to bring them back. Making it worse, an Army deserter, Dajin (Scott Brady), is leading a group of bandits and murderers wreaking havoc wherever they go. Horn teams up with Stokes to help the cause, trying to bring cavalry from nearby Fort Utah to quell the bloody uprising. It’s on the way to Fort Utah that Horn stumbles across a west-bound wagon train that is oblivious to the storm they’re riding into.

Last month I reviewed 1965’s Apache Uprising, a low-budget western from producer A.C. Lyles. It wasn’t good, but it had its moments. Lyles produced 12 westerns in the mid and late 1960s, and apparently Encore Westerns has a deal to air all of them, including Fort Utah! ‘Uprising’ was pretty bad, but ‘Utah’ is just plain awful. The script is lazy, and the low budget really shines through unfortunately. It wastes a decent cast and an at least interesting premise but is consistently hamstrung by any number of complaints in director Lesley Selander’s western.

Positives? Though much of the cast is sleepwalking, it is the familiar faces of the cast. Ireland looks especially bored as ex-gunfighter Tom Horn although it never specifies if he’s the actual Tom Horn. The forced love interest here is Virginia Mayo as a woman with a horrific secret about why she’s heading west (it’s not that shocking). Their long falling in love scenes cripple the pacing just like similar ones in ‘Uprising.’ A welcome face in many adventure films, Mayo seems here to wear a low-cut dress and show her cleavage to the camera in scene after scene. Not a complaint, just an observation.

Plenty of other names to look for. Strauss hams it up in buckskin as the unlikely Indian agent who teams up with Ireland’s Horn. He at least shows a pulse as things hit the fan. The always welcome John Russell plays Eli Jonas, the leader of the wagon train with a checkered past and reputation. Brady blusters and looks angry as Dajin, not showing up until the hour-mark in an 84-minute movie. Also look for Richard Arlen, Jim Davis, Don ‘Red’ Barry and James Craig in supporting parts.

The story has no energy overall and bounces from scene to scene, throwing random bits and pieces of other westerns into a blender. Whatever develops, that’s your movie. The fight scenes are really bad with horrifically obvious stunt doubles jumping in for our leads. Scenes drag on for 10 and 15 extra seconds as characters ride away, fleshing out an already dull 84 minutes. The worst is the editing in an attack on a wagon train that seems to be pieced in from about 4 different westerns. The rock formations around the train bounce from desert to rock formations to evergreen trees and then desert again.

A stinker. A real stinker. Steer clear.

Fort Utah (1967): */****

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Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

gunfight_at_the_o-k-_corral_film_posterAmerican history in the wild west has a handful of instantly recognizable, oft-told stories that the film industry has visited time and time again. Just some include Custer’s Last Stand, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, the Alamo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and maybe most famous, Wyatt Earp‘s involvement in one of history’s most famous gunfights. Here’s 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

It’s the late 1870s and Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) is on the trail of several outlaws who he can’t quite catch up with. In Texas, Earp meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), a dentist turned gambler who’s dying of tuberculosis. The two become unlikely friends of sorts, each saving the other’s life in a do-or-die situation. Both men seem to be drawn to danger — for different reasons — but always seem to get through unscathed. That luck may be running out as circumstances drive both Earp and Holliday west to the mining town of Tombstone in the Arizona territory where a gang of rustlers, cowboys and gunfighters are a constant threat. All roads lead to a little two-bit corral where everything will be settled.

There aren’t too many directors better suited for a guy’s guy movie like this than John Sturges who would go on to direct The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in the coming years (among many other action-oriented, male-heavy casts). Sturges (and screenwriter Leon Uris) does a fair job bringing to life one of the American west’s most well-known stories. It is a big film that looks gorgeous, especially the sweeping plains and desert shots. Composer Dmitri Tiomkin turns in a familiar-sounding score that suits the historical story well. Some cool location shooting in Old Tucson especially stands out, especially the actual shootout in the finale.

What surfaces again and again in O.K. Corral westerns is the friendship and the bond between noted peace officer Wyatt Earp and dying gambler Doc Holliday. By far, the performances from Lancaster and Douglas are the best parts of ‘Gunfight.’ Lancaster as Earp — sans mustache — is steadfast, stubborn, loyal and an incredibly capable man who lives by his word. Dying of tuberculosis, Douglas’s Holliday is living one day at a time in hard-drinking fashion. Through their many differences, the two men find they also have many similarities. Their chemistry is smooth sailing throughout. Douglas is an intense scene-stealer as Holliday, even if the character isn’t too much like the real-life dentist-turned-gambler.

The lead performances are solid, but still not enough to rescue a western that has glacial pacing early. At 122 minutes, ‘Gunfight’ is slow to say the least. It takes 73 minutes for Wyatt and Doc to even reach Tombstone. Getting there is an episodic story that has some potential but typically gets bogged down too much. Go figure, there’s unnecessary love interests, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), Doc’s girlfriend with who he has a less than stable relationship, and Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a beautiful gambler who catches Wyatt’s eye. Taking the movie as a whole, there’s little historical truth to anything. Yes, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were in Tombstone, there was a gunfight at the O.K. Corral…and yeah, that’s about it.

One of Sturges’ specialties as a director was leading the way for male-dominated casts, like Great Escape and Mag7 among others. The star power isn’t huge here, but western fans will appreciate the depth of familiar faces you’ll see. John Ireland plays quick-on-the-draw gunfighter Johnny Ringo while baddie Lyle Bettger plays the slimy Ike Clanton. Also look for Dennis Hopper, Frank Faylen, and Jack Elam as other members of the Clanton gang. The underused Earp brothers include DeForest Kelly, Martin Milner and John Hudson. There’s also supporting parts for Earl Holliman, Ted de Corsia, Whit Bissell, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef and Olive Carey.

Now how about that titular gunfight? In a movie that’s generally light on action and gunplay in general, the showdown at the O.K. Corral runs about 5 minutes — about 4 minutes and 30 seconds longer than the real gunfight — and packs quite a punch. Again, the history is garbage relative to the real event, but as a cinematic gunfight, it is pretty exciting. A mixed bag in the end with a fair share of positives and negatives mixed in one bag. Western fans will definitely get some enjoyment out of it, if for nothing else than the casting of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Also worth checking out? The very catchy, whistle-worthy theme song sung by Frankie Laine which you can listen to HERE. Listen to the soundtrack itself HERE.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957): ** 1/2 /****