APACHE. United Artists, 1954. Burt Lancaster, Jean Peters, John McIntire, Charles Bronson, John Dehner, Morris Ankrum, Monte Blue. Based on the novel Broncho Apache by Paul Wellman. Director: Robert Aldrich.
You’d think that a movie starring Burt Lancaster with strong supporting roles by John McIntire and Charles Bronson (billed as Charles Buchinsky) would be more captivating and engaging than Apache, a mid-1950s film about the life and times of Massai, one of the last Apache warriors. The film is based on Paul I. Wellman’s novel, Broncho Apache and on fact as well as fiction.
The story follows Massai (Lancaster) as he escapes a prison train meant to deliver him and other Apache prisoners, including Geronimo (Monte Blue) to confinement in Florida. Massai makes his way through the Midwest, encountering Whites in St. Louis and a Cherokee Indian man who teaches him about the Cherokees’ decision to grow corn and to adopt a non-warrior lifestyle. Initially, Massai, who really isn’t all that personable a fellow, thinks little of this approach to living, but eventually decides to crow his own corn when he arrives back in Arizona.
There is, of course, a love interest. Massai falls for Nalinle (Jean Peters), daughter of an Apache man who betrays him to the White authorities. He is a fugitive, after all. On his trail are two men, Al Sieber (McIntire) and the Apache Calvary officer Hondo (Bronson). Both of them are excellent in this otherwise average Western.
Apache often feels labored, almost soporific. It’s not that there isn’t any action. There’s actually action a plenty, but much of it seems so forced and downright tedious. There is, however, one notable exception. In a tense, beautifully filmed sequence, Massai and Al Sieber (McIntire) play cat and mouse in Massai’s small cornfield. For a moment or two, it’s not quite clear who is going to best whom and with what weapon.
Unfortunately, too many of the other chase sequences just aren’t all that thrilling. And then there’s the unavoidable question of whether the casting of the blue-eyed Lancaster as an Apache warrior was a good choice. I’ll leave that to future viewers to decide.
CONQUEST OF COCHISE. Columbia Pictures, 1953. John Hodiak, Robert Stack, Joy Page. Director: William Castle.
On the other hand, for a Western/historical drama that isn’t all that, you know, historically accurate, Conquest of Cochise is nevertheless a fairly entertaining action packed little film. Like Masterson of Kansas, which I reviewed here, Conquest of Cochise is a William Castle/Sam Katzman collaboration that holds up to the test of time far better than many other similarly situated lower budget 1950s Westerns.
Why is this the case? First of all is the strong cast. Although they may not have been the biggest box office stars of their time, both John Hodiak, who portrays Apache chief Cochise, and Robert Stack, who portrays U.S. Calvary Major Tom Burke, are both solid actors more than capable of delivering above average performances. The two men’s attempt to bring peace between the United States and the Apache Nation is repeatedly thwarted by events both in, and out of, their direct control.
The film also benefits greatly from the presence of Joy Page in her portrayal of Consuelo de Cordova, a Mexican woman caught between her family, the Apaches, and Major Burke’s romantic advances. Rico Alaniz, who may be familiar to fans of 1950s TV Westerns, portrays Felipe, a hotheaded Tucson man seething at the Apaches for the murder of his wife.
The film’s story line, if not true to history, is both fairly straightforward and (thankfully) without a lot of the forced, well meaning, anti-racist platitudes that ironically only served to categorize Indians as a people almost irrevocably culturally apart from broader American society. In Conquest of Cochise, the Apaches are neither presented as fundamentally misunderstood “noble savages,” nor as mindless brutes. They are a people caught between the Americans and the Mexicans, with their leader Cochise trying to make good decisions under difficult geopolitical constraints.
Indeed, Conquest of Cochise is a surprisingly thoughtful Western with some breathtaking scenery to boot. Although it doesn’t have the cinematography and sentimentalism of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy or the star power of James Stewart (Broken Arrow), William Castle’s Conquest of Cochise, with a running time of around seventy minutes, nevertheless remains a worthwhile investment of one’s time.
True, it’s no classic. But there’s action, moderately well developed characters, internal and external conflict, and romance. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t try to be a heavy-handed horse opera.
One final thing to consider: although it can be said about nearly every film ever made, I do think that this movie in particular has to be far more enjoyable when watched as it was meant to be seen on the big screen. Maybe it has something to do with Castle’s unique, if not easily categorized, vision of how a film should be directed so as to captivate the viewer’s attention.