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Friday, November 16, 2018

Outlaws hiding out in Custer's cavalry in Warpath (1951)

If you're looking for a quintessential 1950s Western that has just about everything, look no further than Paramount's Warpath (1951). Sure, there are more profound and certainly more iconic Westerns...but hey, why not expand your horizons?

This film review is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's fall blogathon on the topic of movie outlaws. Go here, if you dare, to read all the great entries.

Warpath boasts a solid cast, starring Edmond O'Brien, Dean Jagger, Polly Bergen, Harry Carey Jr., and Wallace Ford. As I've been digging into the career of Edmond O'Brien via the recently published biography, Edmond O'Brien, Everyman of Film Noir (to be reviewed in an upcoming post), this one grabbed my attention because it's the first Western that O'Brien headlined. In fact, this film emerged when O'Brien, who specialized in film noir, was arguably in his prime-- just two years after D.O.A. and White Heat and two years before The Hitch-hiker.

Producer Nat Holt helmed Warpath for Paramount Studios. Westerns were his specialty, as he free-lanced during the 1940s and 50s for Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and RKO.  Writer Frank Gruber also specialized in Westerns, having written novels and short stories in the genre. In the director's chair was Byron Haskin, who also helmed Too Late For Tears, a fantastic noir that has recently been restored by the Film Noir Foundation and has played to the delights of 21st-century audiences on Turner Classic Movies and at festivals. Ray Rennahan, the cinematographer, had a long career from silents to television, and many Westerns in the 1950s--of note he was the DP for the epic Western Duel in the Sun starring Jennifer JonesGregory Peck, and Joseph Cotten.

Warpath starts rather romantically, planting us squarely in the west of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who commanded the Seventh Cavalry against the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes at his 'last stand' in the battle of the Little Bighorn, Montana.

We soon meet O'Brien's character, John Vickers, an officer during the Civil War who now, a decade later, is looking to get revenge against three men who were responsible for the death of his fiancee, but who had evaded justice and were said to be hiding out in the Seventh Cavalry, probably with names changed. With little more than their original names to go on, since he never got a good look at these men, Vickers shows up in a small town in North Dakota and on the street, immediately meets and kills (after being drawn on, of course) the first of the three men (how he knew it was his target was not explained). Shortly after, he meets Molly Quade (Bergen)--who has just arrived to help her long-lost father (Dean Jagger) run his local store--and saves her from some unwanted moves by an officer. The two develop an instant attraction. Strangely, Molly's father seems to not want her to have anything to do with the soldier.
Molly (Polly Bergen) immediate sets her sights on the
handsome stranger.
Vickers, who had been an officer in the Civil War, enlists as a private in the Seventh Cavalry and intends to find the two missing outlaws while continuing to serve his country. Unfortunately, he has to report to O'Hara, the local sergeant (Forrest Tucker) the same officer whom Vickers prevented from assaulting Molly. Also in the group are Pvt. 'Irish' Potts, (a delightful Wallace Ford) and Pvt. Fiore (Paul Fix). Harry Carey, Jr. plays the regimental captain.
At the dance: even cavalrymen get to have fun once in a while.
(l-r Paul Fix, Wallace Ford, Edmond O'Brien)
The revenge story takes a back seat in the middle of the film when trouble brews on the range, and a series of skirmishes with the native tribes break out. Sgt. O'Hara, who is now suspected by Vickers as one of his targets, proves himself to be a coward, while our hero Vickers's skill is noticed by none other than Custer himself. Vickers is rapidly promoted and now is O'Hara's commander.
Gen. Custer (James Millican) promotes John Vickers (O'Brien)
When embarking to meet and warn Custer about an impending attack, his group is ambushed and taken prisoner by an army of Sioux. This time O'Hara is the hero, sacrificing himself to save the others (this after Pvts. Potts and Fiore also get themselves killed at the hands of the natives).  At this point, Vickers has already figured out who the outlaws are but keeps this to himself for a while, as he begins to question whether he wants his legacy to be his private vengeance and simultaneously condemn himself to outlaw status. Complicating the decision is Molly's direct condemnation of his plan. As expected, the plot threads are all tied up in a way that allows Vickers and Molly to get together at the end. (You'll need to watch the film to see who the outlaws are!)

On the positive side, this film boasts well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, has a complex story with a few plot twists, and entertains with exceptional action sequences and strong production values that make me wish I could see it on the big screen. There are scenes with large contingents of soldiers and natives, all filmed on location near Billings, Montana. There are wagon trains, but Paramount did not give director Haskin the budget to use real trains, so he reused film from The Great Missouri Raid early on in the film (from D. Sculthorpe's bio Edmond O'Brien, Everyman of Film Noir, 2018).
Settlers and Cavalry about to be attacked by the Sioux.
On the negative side, Warpath is a bit overlong and suffers from mediocre editing. The film doesn't have a significant point of view on the Western ideology or the plight of the native American, but is, in essence, a somewhat moralistic piece of entertainment solidly of its time.

Edmond O'Brien, ca. 1940s.
O'Brien went on to have quite a career in Westerns, even though I'm never sure if his New York City accent and manners were really right for the genre. Yet, I highly recommend The Big Land, an Alan Ladd vehicle with good friend O'Brien in support. Of course, near the end of his career he had a memorable turn as grizzled gun-fighter Freddie Sykes in Sam Peckinpah's classic The Wild Bunch (1969).

I watched Warpath on Amazon Prime Video.

Fawcett Comics made a comic book from this film in August 1951, which was one of only twenty film adaptations the company made.


  1. I'm happy to be introduced to a "new" western, especially one with this cast. It certainly sounds interesting enough to keep me glued to the screen. Plus, you never know where you will find the outlaws. Are they hiding behind their uniforms?

    1. This might be the first time you've not seen a film I've written about - wow! Thanks for stopping by. Well I didn't want to give too much away, but at least one of the outlaws was hiding behind his uniform, indeed.

      I was disappointed that Harry Carey Jr. didn't have anything to say about this film in his autobiography, but perhaps that's not surprising, considering the book focused on his work with John Ford. I did find on ebay one of the Fawcett Comic books from the film with Carey's autograph, so there's that!

  2. When I see Wallace Ford, I start snooping around, so many thanks for introducing me to this film. It's always great when a fellow blogger introduces you to something new. And, again, thanks for alerting that it is on Amazon Prime. Excellent post. Outlaws are everywhere this week!

    1. Wallace Ford—yes!! I love it when he pops up in a film. He had quite a career arc from (sort of) leading man. Thanks for stopping by—my pleasure to introduce you to this one!

  3. I've never heard of this one, but have always been fascinated by Custer and his strange life (as well as fictional portrayals of it). Thanks for the head's up about the editing--something that gets to me with films, but I'm willing to sometimes overlook if I'm prepared for it!

    1. I bet Custer would be an interesting film survey subject! His role in this film was minor, but I was struck by the charisma that James Millican brought to the portrayal. Thank you for reading!

  4. Fabulous review of a movie I haven't seen. I love Westerns and Edmond O'Brien (he was really good in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and I have Amazon Prime, so it looks like I have a movie date tonight.

    1. Thanks so much, Amanda. I do hope you enjoy it. TMWSLV is one of those I haven't seen all the way through...yes, I know...time to get on it! :-)