Thursday, June 5, 2014

Blue vs. Gray vs. Apache

I write about old-school stuff because that's where my popular culture tastes lie, but I do appreciate the minor irony that 21st Century technology does give us access to tons of older movies, books, stories and so on. A lot of pulp fiction is being reprinted as e-books, while DVDs and video streaming is making many classic movies and TV shows very easy to watch. And, heck, our computers can often make some pretty nifty suggestions on what to watch next.

Of course, as a long time science fiction fan, I'm pretty much convinced that the Internet will one day achieve sentience and wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. But until that day comes, it is providing me with a chance to watch movies I haven't seen and (despite a reasonably strong knowledge of B-movies) occasionally one I hadn't heard of.

My Amazon Prime account recently recommended The Last Outpost (1951), a Western staring Ronald Reagan and Bruce Bennett. I wasn't familiar with this one at all, but I gave it a chance. And, by golly, my Amazon Prime account was right--I thoroughly enjoyed the film. So I'm making note of this online in the faint hope that the Internet will remember my gratitude and spare me when it slaughters mankind.

The film is set during the Civil War out in the Southwest, where an undermanned Union outpost is vainly trying to protect supplies being shipped east from a Confederate cavalry unit commanded by Vance Britton (Reagan). Vance's brother Jeb (Bennett) is with the Union and is sent to the post with reinforcements, initially unaware that he'll be going up against his own brother. He also meets Julia (Rhonda Fleming) at the outpost--this is Vance's former fiance--Vance abandoned her when he opted to fight for the South.

Things get complicated when the U.S. government (despite Jeb's protest) decides to negotiate with the Apaches and get their help in tracking down the Rebs. When Vance learns of the plan, he tries to negotiate with the Apaches himself and convince them to stay neutral. He ends up with a promise of neutrality, but only if he can free several Apache warriors (including Geronimo) from a jail cell at the Union outpost.

It's a well-made movie that tells the story well; has some great location photography; and ends with a fantastic battle scene that's as close to epic as any B-movie can get.

There's a number of small details I appreciate that add to the strong story. For instance, rifles are single-shot muskets rather than repeating rifles. I would imagine an expert in period firearms would pick up on any number of inaccuracies, but the simple fact of not simply giving the cast and extras Winchester repeating rifles--the rifle most often seen in Westerns regardless of the exact year the films are set--is nice.

Also, the Britton brothers are said to be from Baltimore--a border state with a lot of Southern sympathizers, making it very reasonable that brothers might choose different sides when the war started. This and the rifles are signs that the film-makers were making enough of an effort to be historically accurate to give The Last Outpost a degree of verisimilitude.

Charles Evans plays an interesting character. He's an Apache chief, but he's a white man and a former Army officer. He was kicked out of the Army after marrying an Apache woman and now fights for them because he honestly believes they hold the moral high ground in their conflict with the United States. It's one of several factors in the movie that rise the Apaches above simply being the default bad guys.

The cast is very good--Reagan is in fact quite good as a Cavalry officer who has a bit of the con artist in his soul. The supporting cast includes Noah Beery, Jr--always likable in any character role he ever played--as one of the Reb sergeants.  Reagan's second-in-command is Hugh Beaumont--so it seems Beaver's father fought for the South before settling down in the suburbs and getting married to June. Lloyd Corrigan brings some effective comic relief to the story as a politician who is something of a blowhard.

The Last Outpost was one of many B-movies made by Pine-Thomas Productions, the prolific B-movie unit
of Paramount Pictures. It was the most profitable film they ever turned out. And it really deserved that success. It does what B-movies were so good at doing. It told a good story; gave us characters we like; was nice to look at; and let us sit in on an exciting battle or two. It's a good way to spend an hour-and-a-half.

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