COMMAND, THE (director: David Butler; screenwriters: based on the novel “Rear Guard”by James Warner Bellah/Sam Fuller/Russell Hughes; cinematographer: Wilfrid M. Cline; editor: Irene Morra; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: Guy Madison (Capt. Robert MacClaw), Joan Weldon (Martha Cutting), James Whitmore (Sgt. Elliott), Carl Benton Reid (Col. Janeway), Ray Teal (Dr. Trent), Harvey Lembeck (Pvt. Gottschalk), Don Shelton (Maj. Gibbs), Bob Nichols (2nd Lt. O’Hirons), Gregg Barton (Capt. Forsythe); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David Weisbart; Warner Bros.; 1954)
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Warner’s first film in Cinemascope is visually striking. The audacious western is based on the novel “Rear Guard”by James Warner Bellah. It’s written in a thought-provoking way by Sam Fuller and Russell Hughes, but directed in a leaden way by David Butler (“Tea for Two”/”April in Paris”/”Calamity Jane“). Too bad Fuller didn’t direct, then we might have had something to talk about.
It’s set in the Wyoming Territory in 1878, just after General Custer was slaughtered at Little Big Horn and the Indians are feeling their oats to attack white settlers. While out on a patrol, veterancavalry troop commander Capt. Forsythe is hit by an Indian arrow and before dying orders Dr. Robert MacClaw (Guy Madison) to be in charge of the troops until they return to their fort. Gruff no-nonsense SergeantElliot (James Whitmore) objects, but remains dutiful to the inexperienced soldier doctor. They soon form a respectful partnership, as MacClaw relies on the seasoned soldier for advice. The troops advance to a nearby small town to bury their popular former commander. In town are two companiesof infantrymen under orders to accompany a civilian wagon train to Paradise River. Elliot is so full of pride that he doesn’t want the infantrymen to know their leader is merely a pill pusher and convinces the doc to wear Forsythe’s insignia of a line commander to fool the soldiers.Meanwhile the ailing gung-ho infantrymen commander,Col. Janeway (Carl Benton Reid), pulls rank and orders the cavalry unit be attached to his green outfit of mostly new recruits and accompany the civilian wagon train through hostile Indian territory.
The healer soon finds himself in the heat of battle and conflicted, as he now eschews saving lives but readily takes the lives of the attacking Indians that he’s sympathetic to in order to save the lives of the soldiers and civilians. Doc also treats a dying immigrant Italian boy from New York for possibly having smallpox. The attractive Martha (Joan Weldon) has been treating the boy, and she getsvaccinated by the doc after he tells her the truth about his command. A romance builds between the do-gooder woman and the caring doc, but there’s not much time for sex because this is a film made in the 1950s and the pursuing Indians are pulling of deadly raids on the wagon train party and the arrogant infantry doctor (Ray Teal) orders a quarantine of any wagon with someone sick. When MacClawtakes command of all the troops after Col. Janeway becomes too weak to lead, he realizes the wagon train is not safe until they cross the nearby Medford Pass. Doc knows to have any chance to survive they must reach the pass before the pursuing Indians, who vastly outnumber them, and he uses his street smarts to plan a military maneuver, not in the Army manuals, to trick the Indians from beating them to the pass.
Eliott’s repeated comment of “never say any Indian is dumb,” can be deciphered as a mere token of begrudging respect for the savages. But for the most part the Indians are treated as unpeople–humans who don’t really matter and fight because they’re not civilized. The pic has a fairly inventive cavalry-vs.-Indians plot, but Butler is such a pedestrian director that he doesn’t do much with any moralistic dilemmas that arise–like the humanitarian Doc shedding blood in order to persevere. Instead the film is kept action-packed with entertaining battle scenes and much is made over the importance of sound military tactics when engaging the enemy, and by the end it only seems as routine as most westerns except for its potential to be great.
REVIEWED ON 10/22/2011 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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