Apache War Smoke (1952)

apache_war_smokeSometimes the most straightforward stories are the best. There’s nothing particularly fancy about 1952’s Apache War Smoke, but it gets the job done, relying on a familiar but always entertaining premise, a solid, familiar cast, and some good shoot ‘em up action. That’s all you need at times with a good western.

A bandit on the run, Peso Herrera (Gilbert Roland) is infamous throughout the American Southwest. While visiting friends (and maybe family), Peso begins to follow a passing stagecoach full of passengers. The stagecoach pulls into Tonto Valley Station on the line, a stop run by Tom Herrera (Robert Horton), Peso’s son. Smoke signals have been seen in the desert hills, leading Tom to suspect an attack is coming. With about a dozen people inside the adobe-walled stage station, Tom preps for an attack. As for Peso, the bandit has his eyes on the Wells Fargo box weighted down with gold.

This 1952 B-western from director Harold Kress has been sitting on my DVR since mid-October after an airing on Turner Classic Movies. I ain’t timely, but I caught up! It’s become harder for me to find westerns I haven’t seen before, but ‘Smoke’ was pretty entertaining. There’s a feel of a TV episode with a few extra minutes with a final running time of just 67 minutes.

The main locale is the walled-off stage station which works to show off the danger and isolation. There’s also the sense of almost a western stage play. We see Apaches at times, but the threat of an attack from outside the walls is just as effective. Stage stations are a familiar locale for countless westerns, and ‘Smoke’ manages to have some fun with that familiarity. As well, there are some secrets and mysteries to be revealed along the way.

So how about some ensemble cast? Roland hams it up in stereotypical fashion as Mexican bandit Peso Herrera. He’s duded up like a western star of the 1930s and looks a little too polished all-around. He plays his guitar, woos the ladies, yells ‘Ay, Chihuahua!’ too much and resorts to basically every stereotype of a Mexican bandit ever. Horton comes off in better fashion as his son, Tom, a capable worker, a good shot, and similarly able to woo the lades. The father-son western dynamic is cool but is underdone at times by Roland’s theatrics.

The rest of the ensemble doesn’t boast much star power, but there’s some welcome familiar faces. Glenda Farrell plays Fanny, a middle-aged saloon/casino girl who knows Peso quite well. Barbara Ruick (angelic daughter of cavalry officer Douglas Dumbrille) and Patricia Tiernan (sexy, back-stabbing ex of Tom’s) fight for Horton’s attention as potential love interests. Gene Lockhart is the business-like stage rep, a young Robert Blake is Luis, a half Mexican, half-Apache worker, Myron Healey as Pike Curtis, a drifter, Harry Morgan as stagecoach driver Ed Cotten, Argentina Brunetti as Madre, the station cook, and Hank Worden, Emmett Lynn and Chubby Johnson as workers at the stage station. Also look briefly for Iron Eyes Cody as an Apache chief.

Not too much to analyze here with ‘Smoke.’ It’s fun. A little slow in the beginning, but it picks up steam pretty quick. I was surprised by the lack of casualties in the action-packed finale, but I guess those walls were pretty protective! A decent western that fans will definitely appreciate.

Apache War Smoke (1952): ***/****

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Red River (1988)

redriverSo what’s more unnecessary than a remake of a classic? A TV movie remake of a classic! Released in 1948 and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift from director Howard Hawkes, the original Red River is a classic western that’s undone by one of the worst endings in the western genre. So some 40 years later, the TV remake hit TV screens on CBS. Here’s 1988’s Red River.

It’s 1865 in the months following the Civil War, and the cattle market has dried out in Texas. A cattle rancher for 15 years, Thomas Dunson (James Arness) has decided the only way to save his ranch and his cattle is to drive an immense herd north to a railroad and sell the herd for a pretty penny. It’s never been done before though, and the dangers are everywhere from Indians to bandits to weather and nasty trail. With his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Bruce Boxleitner), an ex-Confederate soldier, his longtime right-hand man, Groot (Ray Walston), and a crew of cowboys, Dunson sets off north for Missouri. His ranch and well-being are at stake, and he pushes his men and the herd to the absolute limit. His intentions are genuine, but the means are less than pleasant, pushing Garth to make a decision that could tear the whole thing apart.

So for starters, there’s no real reason to remake the ’48 Hawks version. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way…the ’88 version is pretty good. It’s limited by an obvious TV budget at times with stock and insert footage filling in for the bigger shots of the herd moving north, but the quality is pretty decent. Some fun was spent, and that’s all a TV movie really needs. The Borden Chase story is there with a decent cast. It’s hard to mess that up other than that ending. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll get some enjoyment out of the remake.

It’s hard to step into the shoes of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, but Arness and Boxleitner make a willing go of it! Arness certainly had the presence and attitude for the part. Years earlier, it was Wayne who recommended Arness play Marshal Matt Dillon TV’s Gunsmoke, and that worked out for everyone. Boxleitner — a reliable actor who never quite became a star — delivers the movie’s best performance as Garth, capable, well-meaning and loyal but only when right is on the line. The chemistry is solid between Arness and Boxleitner, and throw in an underused but always welcome Walston for good measure.

The ’48 version is infamous for some of its latent homosexual tendencies between Clift’s Garth and John Ireland’s Cherry Valance, another young gunfighter. Gregory Harrison steps in here as Valance, and the dynamic is better. We have 2 young gunfighters, two type-A personalities, and let’s face it…there’s only room for ONE. The tension is solid, and the resolution is better than the original. The doomsday moment is the unnecessary addition of a female character, widowed Kate (Laura Johnson), for the two to fight over in predictable fashion.

Who else? The depth of the cast might not blow you away, but there’s some good stock characters here. A black cowboy, Jack Byrd (Stan Shaw), is added to the mix, injecting some life into the story. There’s also the troublemakers, L.Q. Jones and Jerry Potter, the youngster, Zachary Ansley, and the reliable cowboy, Burton Gilliam, who many will recognize from his key part in Blazing Saddles. Western fans should also keep their eye out for a quartet of cameos — blink and you’ll miss them — including Guy Madison, Ty Hardin, John Lupton and Robert Horton. Definitely cool to see some familiar western faces pop up, even if it’s only for a scene.

The cattle drive western is one of the archetypal genre set pieces. Including its predecessor, Lonesome Dove, one of the best segments from Centennial, The Cowboys, and plenty of others, it helps average stories rise above to something better. Familiar? Even repetitive? At times, but they’re always entertaining. This ’88 remake is a tad rushed in spots at just 94 minutes — comparing to the original’s 133 minutes — but it is never dull. If it is too familiar, so be it. I liked it. A solid, if unnecessary remake.

Red River (1988): ** 1/2 /****