(director: John Ford; screenwriters: Frank S. Nugent/from the book by Will Cook; cinematographer: Charles Lawton; editor: Jack Murray; music: George Duning; cast: James Stewart (Guthrie McCabe), Richard Widmark (Lt. Jim Gary), Shirley Jones (Marty Purcell), Linda Cristal (Elena de la Madriaga), Andy Devine (Sgt. Darius P. Posey), John McIntire (Maj. Frazer), Annelle Hayes (Belle Aragon), David Kent (Running Wolf), Woody Strode (Stone Calf), Willis B. Bouchey (Henry J. Wrangle), Henry Brandon (Chief Quanah Parker), Olive Carey (Mrs. Frazer), Chet Douglas (Deputy Ward Corby); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Stanley Shpetner/John Ford; Columbia Pictures; 1961)

“Ford fails to make his racism theme work in the same powerful way he did in The Searchers.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Ford directed this minor, atypical Western for him, as a favor to Columbia boss Harry Cohn, which is not among his best films but shouldn’t be completely dismissed; it doesn’t have much action, but has a blend of black comedy and a cynical tone about frontier greed and racism after the peace treaties are signed with the Indians. It depicts both the white settlers and Indians as both hypocrites, bloodthirsty and willing to make financial deals together that are not above board. It’s written by Frank S. Nugent from a novel by Will Cook. Though it makes some good social commentary points and presents a worthwhile racism theme to explore, Ford fails to give it the depth required and can’t convincingly put a happy face on a dreary ending that seems contrived. Ford fails to make his racism theme work in the same powerful way he did in The Searchers.

Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) is the marshal of a small peaceful Texas town, where he’s pleasuring the attractive saloon owner Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes) and receives a cut of ten percent profits from all the businesses in town to supplement his $100 a month paycheck. This good life is interrupted when Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) comes with a detail from the local fort, some 40 miles away, and takes him to see the brusque no-nonsense fort commander Major Frazer (John McIntire). Because of his good relationship with Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, Guthrie is hired on as an army scout and sent on a mission to bring back any white prisoners captured by the Comanches. Jim is to tag along, but without his uniform so he won’t be in violation of breaking the peace treaty. A group of settlers are camped out on the fort grounds and want their relatives, some children, who were taken long ago in Indian raids, to be returned. The cynical marshal makes a bargain, worth a thousand bucks to him, to bring back any white male who is around seventeen to businessman Henry J. Wrangle so he can get his nagging wife off his back, as he recently married her and she agreed to marry him only if he made every effort to bring back the son she had from a previous marriage.

Before Guthrie sets out to the Indian camp he questions the relatives about their missing relatives and they seem to have a naive attitude about what to expect, not realizing they are now savages and some are probably raising half-breeds. In a drunken rant, Guthrie wises up a sweet gal named Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones) that her brother, who was 8 when captured and would now be 17, would be just like a Comanche savage. Jim takes a shine to Marty, and the two console each other and become romantically linked.

At the Indian camp, Guthrie manages to take only two whites back by trading for rifles: a fiercely savage seventeen-year-old boy named Running Wolf and the squaw of the warlike Stone Calf named Elena de la Madriaga(Linda Cristal). There are other whites he leaves behind who refuse to return, and their lives are pictured as already ruined by the savages. Back at the fort, the civilized whites show their ugly racism and are compared to the savages for their ignorance. The only problem is that Ford doesn’t know how to handle these disturbing scenes except by skipping over them to come up with a standard conclusion that doesn’t remove the nightmarish vision unleashed. The movie came off feeling as a halfhearted attempt to explore a serious moral issue; perhaps, as indifferently as Stewart and Widmark were in their efforts to repatriate the whites with their families.