Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Deserter Takes Command

Arrow in the Dust (1954) has a so-so reputation among B-movie and Western fans. No one finds it brilliant--and they're right. It's not brilliant. But there seems to be a roughly 50-50 split between those who consider it poorly written and dislike it AND those who think it's flawed yet still enjoyable. For instance, here's a negative review and here's a positive review from two different blogs. Both posts are well-written and well-reasoned.

The plot of the movie certainly has potential. Sterling Hayden is a deserter from the Army, trying to get far enough away from the soldiers pursuing him to start fresh. But circumstances are such that he is soon wearing a uniform he took off a dead officer and taking command of a detachment of troops escorting a wagon train. The wagons are under constant attack by Indians. In fact, for reasons that are initially unknown, several tribes that normally dislike each other have teamed up to attack the wagons.

So Hayden has to pretend to be a real major. Fortunately, he's a good leader and a good tactician, forming the demoralized troops into an effective unit once again as they escort the wagons to safety. He wins a few skirmishes--in one case using a "don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" tactic, then pulling back and repeating the same thing. But the wagon train's eventual destination is Fort Laramie, where Hayden will be recognized and arrested. So should he stay with the wagons where he's clearly needed or make a break for it and save himself? The plot mixes together action, a little mystery involving the motives of the Indians and a theme of personal redemption.

I fall on the positive side of this movie. I do recognize its faults--character development is lacking in a few important cases and the Indians often use insanely stupid tactics. But I think the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.

First, there's Sterling Hayden, giving an authoritative and realistic performance. Perhaps because of his real-life experiences (merchant ship captain and WWII OSS agent who smuggled supplies to Yugoslavian partisans), he carries a palpable air of authority here. You really believe he is an effective leader.

Second, there's the direction. Arrow in the Dust was helmed by Lelsie Selander, a B-movie vet with over 100 Westerns to his credit. Here, he tells the story in a crisp, clear manner and makes excellent use of location photography. Pay attention to the overhead shots he uses in the clip I've included. These shots help set up the tactical situation very effectively AND simply look cool.

Third, Lee Van Cleef has a bit part playing a villain. That is always fun to see.

So Arrow in the Dust won't knock you dead with its brilliance. But its still worth watching.

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