Warning: As usual, this Retro Review may contain spoilers.
Don’t be fooled: Despite its somewhat predictable cavalry v. Indians plot and the flaming arrows shot directly at the audience to showcase the movie industry’s earliest 3-D special effects, The Charge at Feather River is about relationships €”between misfit soldiers and their leaders, between rivals for a woman, between a young white woman and a Cheyenne chief and the people who come to her unwanted rescue. At the admirable heart of this surprisingly complex story lies the bond that forms between a frontiersman and another captive woman, although as movie romances go, this one is understated and unique.
Released in 1953, The Charge at Feather River stars Guy Madison as Miles Archer, a frontiersman that the U. S. Army in the Colorado territory calls upon to lead a column to rescue two white women that Cheyenne Indians have held captive for years. Although the rescue mission appears a noble cause, it’s merely a diversion designed to distract the Cheyenne long enough to buy time for the construction of a railroad line through their territory. U.S. Cavalry fort commander Lt. Colonel Kilrain (Fay Roope) needs all available fit troops to guard the railroad construction crew, which means that for the rescue party, Miles will have to scrape the bottom of the Fort Bellows’ soldiering barrel. He turns down the job but relents when he discovers the captive women are the sisters of a young man he served with during the Civil War. The Army outfits Miles with expendable troops €”misfits and ne’er do wells who €œvolunteer € so they can get out of the stockade (shades of The Dirty Dozen). He whips them into shape, training them in €œIndian tactics, € all very entertaining to watch. In an odd script detail, a portrait artist tags along for excitement and scene-of-action sketching ops. He comes to play an important supporting role. With the help of the quirky unit headed up by stolid Sgt. Baker (Frank Lovejoy), Miles stages his daring rescue. Complicating an already uncertain mission: Sgt. Baker and one of the soldiers, Trooper Ryan (Steve Brodie), are rivals for the affections of Sgt. Baker’s wife. The tension between these two men turns ugly.
The chancy rescue mission succeeds but with a definite hitch: One of the captives doesn’t want to be rescued. The older sister, Anne McKeever (Helen Westcott), is glad to be freed but has doubts about how the white world will receive her after her life with the Cheyenne, saying, €œI don’t want a lot of prissy white women staring at me. € The implication is that she has suffered rape during her captivity. The real trouble comes in the form of her younger sister Jennie (Vera Miles). Raised among the Cheyenne all her life, she thinks of herself as Indian. She’s soon to become the wife of Thunder Hawk (James Brown), the Cheyenne chief, who is intent upon marrying her before he goes on the warpath against the railroad.
After freeing the women, Miles and his troops make a dash for Fort Baker only to find its occupants slaughtered and no food or water available. The next nearest refuge is Fort Darby, a four-day trip. Miles and his party set out again with the Cheyenne dogging their trail and attacking them all along the way, stealing their horses and forcing them to flee on foot. Their chances of survival dwindle as Jennie, devoted to her tribe, betrays the party every chance she gets. Because of Jennie, Miles’ rescue operation turns into a suicide mission, but his €œunfit € troops rise to the occasion.
Thunder Hawk and his braves succeed in pinning down Miles and his party in a desolate stretch of desert. Sgt. Baker and his rival Ryan volunteer to try to slip past the Indians to reach Fort Darby (where, hmm, awaits Sgt. Baker’s wife) for reinforcements, but their chances for success are slim, especially since these two men are as likely to kill each other over Baker’s wife as they are to be killed by Indians anticipating their attempt to get past them.
As Miles, Anne, and the soldiers do what it takes to stay alive, Miles recognizes in Anne a woman of great courage, competence, and beauty. Anne is practical-minded and very truthful; like Miles, she sees with a clear eye, says what she thinks, and holds up her end of responsibilities heroically. While her sister undermines the group’s chances of survival, Anne becomes a key ingredient for its success. She aids the rescue party at great risk to herself. Miles comes to depend upon her strength then falls in love with her. He makes it clear he doesn’t care what happened to her when she lived with the Cheyenne. But with Chief Thunder Hawk on their trail, there’s no time for frilly romance. Their relationship forges naturally in the fires of their fight for survival.
Desperate, Miles and his group make a daring break for freedom past the Cheyenne, Jennie jeopardizing their every move. The Indians charge what’s left of the rescue party just as it reaches Feather River. Caught in the open, the group suffers further casualties. Miles’ and Anne’s future together appears grim. In classic western tradition, the cavalry arrives just in the nick of time, Sgt. Baker riding at the column’s head.
The desert provides an austere backdrop for this suspenseful, action-packed, well-written and wonderfully acted movie, which also happens to be one of the earliest 3-D color films made. Yet even in 2-D, this is a good oldie. I appreciated the surprisingly witty dialogue and the chemistries €”including the caustic ones €”that form and foment the various relationships between characters. I found the bond that grows between Miles and Anne fascinating, especially as it goes against and beyond the usual plot contrivances. In many westerns, the good guys’ task is to rescue captive women before what happened to Anne strips them of their stereotypical cultural virtue. It’s too late to save Anne from that, but despite her treatment by the Cheyenne, Anne’s quality of character remains admirably intact. Miles’ sharp eye and good heart are naturally drawn by her integrity. Rather than regarding Anne as €œdamaged goods € or pitying or loathing her (behavior she fears), he recognizes her as a woman worth fighting for €¦ and worth fighting with. That’s one of the movie’s rather powerful and progressive-for-the-times messages, but you have to watch closely to catch it. No glamor or glitz calls special attention to this bold theme.
So we have a solid, 58-year-old, rescued but non-restored, video-quality movie here that displays many good story qualities. Trivia: the movie is famous for its originating the name “Wilhelm scream” for a sound effect used when the character Private Wilhelm is pierced by an arrow. The Star Wars series and many other movies exploit this famous screen scream. (The scream itself came from the 1951 film Distant Drums). I’m able to offer free DVDs of The Charge at Feather River to the first ten commenters (maybe more) who read the review and post comments.
Here are the rules–One movie will go to each unique commenter. Play nice: If you win a movie on one post, let someone else have a chance at the other movie–please refrain from posting on the other review. If more than 10 commenters post comments on each movie, we’ll try to meet demand, but if the numbers rise too high, I might impose a cut-off limit so that I don’t have to spend the next two weeks mailing parcels!
The image at the head of the post is my son Saul’s copyrighted design and is used with his permission.