#74 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
John Ford made this film under duress, almost. He hated the script he was given, brought in his regular writing partner Frank Nugent to help, and threw up his hands because he felt it was unsalvageable. He still made the movie out of a sense of loyalty to the Columbia executive Harry Cohn, who had died a few years earlier. It does cover some of the same ground as his masterpiece The Searchers, but it’s really no more than a surface level plot resemblance. The end result feels like a script pulled in several different directions to give it some kind of distinctive flavor, but it’s a combination of flavors that clash more than they compliment each other, all while swirling around without much of a story to drag them along.
The story begins with Marshal Guthrie McCabe (Jimmy Stewart), sleepily waking up on his porch in the morning, receiving a beer from the owner of the local tavern, and then scarring off a pair of tough looking visitors by simply dropping his name. This sort of nasty reputation is one of a dozen ideas that feel half-formed and poorly implemented. In walks Lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark), sent from the army fort forty miles away to being McCabe by any means necessary. They go, and it turns out that a group of settlers have camped outside of the fort, looking to McCabe as some kind of savior to bring back some lost children that the Comanche had stolen from them about a decade ago. Here is the similarity to The Searchers, and it’s curious from the start. Neither McCabe nor Gary have any personal connection to the missing children, the children have already been gone for years, and it takes forever just to get McCabe and Gary out on the trail.
Really, it takes about an hour for McCabe and Gary to actually start on what essentially ends up being the plot, and that hour is taken up with the mechanics of getting McCabe to the fort, McCabe haggling with Major Frazer (John McIntire) over the price of McCabe’s services (he could sit and be corrupt back home for more money), the reason McCabe is necessary (he’s had dealings with the Comanche chief Quanah (Henry Brandon) before), and a bunch of little interactions with the settlers. Now, why these settlers are still wandering around without having settled anywhere about a decade after the local Comanche tribe stole their children never gets explained, but they are still living out of wagons and having small spats about which bachelor will catch the eye of the pretty girl Mary (Shirley Jones) whose brother was one of those taken by the Comanche when she was thirteen (making her twenty-one now). The problem I have here is that so little of it ends up mattering, mostly around Ole Knudsen (John Qualen) who seems to have the focus on who should be rescued (his daughter). It doesn’t help that Gray begins some kind of romance with Marty that carries no weight, neither emotional nor narrative.
After all of this, the pair finally leave and immediately find Quanah as well as four of the missing people. There’s some internal politics about the Comanche tribe with Quanah needing to deal with the rising power of Stone Calf (Woody Strode), none of which really matters. They eventually get two of the captives, a young man and a young woman. The young man, Running Wolf (David Kent), is determined to stay behind, having completely forgotten his white upbringing and seeing himself as Comanche first and foremost. The young woman, Elene (Linda Cristal), is a Mexican woman who also doesn’t really want to go back, but neither Gray nor McCabe force her to go. McCabe and Elene end up falling in love because, of course, when Gray decides to go ahead instead of camping for the night, taking Running Wolf with him. The explosion of personalities here is supposed to be the culmination of a long-term conflict, but so little time has been dedicated to them that it feels random rather than something that the film had been building towards.
And then, more than halfway through the film, I think we get to our point. It’s sort of taking up the story of little Debbie Edwards in The Searchers by having an exploration of what it would mean to suddenly find oneself back in a white society after having been stolen and forced to live as a Comanche against one’s own wishes. Running Wolf reacts badly to it, killing the woman who tries to claim him as her long lost son. Elene tries to reintegrate with McCabe on her arm, but the whispers and impolite questions grate on her until she tries to leave with McCabe shaming everyone before he follows her.
This movie is a mess of ideas. The central point, well what I think is the central point, doesn’t really come up until there’s only about 30 minutes left in the film. Everything up to that point has been an uncomfortable combination of comedy and drama that never gels while dealing with an assortment of different subplots and ideas that never come together. There’s some light entertainment to be had, especially from side characters like Andy Devine’s Sergeant Posey, but while Jimmy Stewart does his best with an underwritten character like McCabe, snarling half the time, I’ve never been able to warm to Richard Widmark as a leading man. I prefer him as a character actor in things like Judgment at Nuremburg instead of the all around good leading man here.
All in all, this really does feel like the kind of movie Ford made out of obligation. He seems to have tried to save it, but that effort might have simply made things worse. The proximity to The Searchers isn’t the issue, though. It’s that what could have served as a continuation of the earlier film (in the similar way that Rio Grande is a sort of continuation of Fort Apache) gets lost in a bunch of other stuff that never comes together.