The Siege at Red River (1954)
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I've probably sat down in the middle of a movie, but that's okay. It's fun trying to figure out what's going on. Then "Siege at Red River" starts. The grand 20th Century Fox logo with the moving floodlights. My favourite. I sink into my seat and a surge of anticipation rushes through me. Van Johnson is blonde, sturdy and stalwart - and maybe a scoundrel. There seems to be questions about his courage, but he sure gives that soldier bully what for! The beautiful lady doctor with the red lips likes him, then hates him, so I guess they'll get together at the end. He's up to his eyeballs in trouble regarding a Gatling gun and he's mixed up with a shady character with a whip played by Richard Boone, who's really, really nasty. Hiss. Boo. There's lots of good story, some funny parts, and tons of action with guys on horseback riding furiously around. The Technicolor is vivid and the outdoor scenery, with those huge pink/orange granite cliffs, is beautiful. There's a spectacular climax, with the cavalry, trumpet blasting, arriving in the nick of time. Too bad the injuns never win, though. Funny how the guys who are shot and fall off their horses never stay on the ground.
I don't know for sure if I saw this movie as a kid - there were so many - but I probably did, and I probably sat through the entire triple bill twice. As an adult I still find this movie entertaining. It delivers what it promises. I don't know, as one reviewer has suggested, if it's a metaphor for the Cold War, but its equivalent in contemporary cinema might be a Matt Damon movie with a hero who can take care of himself, nasty arms dealers and Arab strife. One thing, though - I miss the cherry ice cream bars.
Two Rebs steal the being-developed Gatling Gun from the Feds in an ingenious segment, eventually toting it further south but ending up stuck in a small town. This town gets quickly filled to the brim with Federal soldiers still on the hunt for their gun. Van Johnson (Reb) and Joanne Dru (Fed) fall for each other of course although of course they don't realise it until the climax. What interested me was the implication that the gun could be used by civilised whites against each other in a civilised slaughter but that selling it to the savage Reds was beyond the Pale. Both Feds and Rebs are eventually united to prevent the Reds using it during the noisy 5 minute siege. And of course the implication was only the Reds were low enough to actually use the horrible weapon the Feds had had the brains to design – at the time of production America had the same idea about the Russian Reds and the atom bomb.
It has a bit of everything Western in: romance and fights, trains and horses, shootings and slapstick comedy. It's fun, I loved it.
Not one to recommend highly, but worth a watch once with a solid 5/10 rating.
If we substitute the Gatling with a nuclear warhead, the Civil War with the Cold War; and if we note that the bandits make off in a red mail van, and that their leader wears a red cravat, and we assume them as commies, than the Western becomes an Allegory. This is not surprising - from its inception the genre has celebrated the UNITED States and played out and resolved its crises, while the likes of President Reagan have used it to signify a sense of genuine Americanness, so it is natural the genre should be marshalled in such a time of perceived crisis.
As the film is directed by the great Rudolph Mate, former cinematographer for, among others, Carl Dreyer, one of the genuine maestros of the cinema, we might assume that if his film is a Cold War Allegory, it will be far from simplistic. The linking of Communism with disruption, criminality, secrecy and murder is not a surprise; if we do make the link, when our first shock is that the bandit leader is played by the film's star. The benefits of the star persona - wit, charm, a (relatively) rounded personality (he is a grim avenger and gun smuggler, but also a musician, orator and gentleman; he is connected with role-play and the theatre) are in contrast with the monolithic forces of law and order; while he has multiple interests besides the war, they have only that defining interest. Further, while his motives are essentially decent and right-minded, the 'good' guys are not only street-bawling thugs, but perpetrators of vile, near-genocidal acts.
The film doesn't go so far as to salvage Farraday's oppositional position - the conflict between North and South is on one level displaced on gender, where it can be resolved in romance; and on another, generic level, displaced on a third enemy - the murderous amoral smuggler and the Indians - so the opposing American forces can finally reconcile. But it's not a happy reconciliation - the massacre of the Indians is only cathartic if we ignore that they too, like the Americans in the Fort, have women and children; and the finale is only happy if we accept the couple's words, and not the narrative reality, that he is an outlaw evading justice and leaving the woman he has learned to love. This fact of separation from the site of reconciliation implicitly questions that reconciliation.
There are other features - the anti-realistic use of colour; the drunk scene, where the dominant male point of view suddenly switches to the drunken, gun-shooting female, linked to her frank, disruptive, transformative sexuality and contrasted with the ship-lashing, neurotic villain; the use of song, espeically 'Tapioca', and its movement from rebel code to music hall; the argument that nation is an arbitrary series of signs - the Indians shoot first at the US flag, not the army; the image of the Niagara Falls on the music hall curtains - where national identity is constructed and negotiated, not 'natural'; a sophisticated attitude to patriotism, war and friendship - that all add up to a more thoughtful Western than its routine reputation might suggest.
The movie is immaculately shot in Technicolor by Edward Cronjager and Rudolph Mate ensures the action moves along with vigour .The acting is good and the movie never flags ,even finding time for a unique drunk scene -the inebriate in question being Nora .
The climax may appear familiar and if so this is unsurprising -the climactic battle is lifted from Buffalo Bill ,the Joel Macrae movie from an earlier decade ,and intercut with close up of the actors in this movie
Its a solid action Western and enjoyable for lovers of the genre
Van Johnson, surprisingly, plays the chief Confederate agent Jim Farraday, His chief nemesis through most of the film is Pinkerton agent Frank Kelso(Jeff Morrow), until Van changes sides, when Britt Manning(Richard Boone), his former aid, becomes his chief European opponent, along with Chief Yellow Hawk, leader of a multi-tribal confederation in an attack on Fort Smith.
Some humor is provided by Van plus Melburne Stone, as Bengi: the traveling snake oil salesman, when they sing an odd ditty called "Tapioca" and sometimes a related song, which signals their contact in that town to give them instructions for their further wanderings toward Confederate territory. Also, Joanne Dru(as Nora) along with Van provide some chuckles when she accidentally gets drunk on Benji's whiskey-fortified Chamomile tea, passes out, and is put to bed by Benji and Van, after removing her dress(not shown). Later, Van and Joanne share a small blanket out on the trail, Van requesting that they stay on their side of 'the Mason-Dixon line' in the middle.
At Baxter Springs KS, a chorus girl sings "Tapioca" at the request of their agent in that town, Britt Manning(Richard Boone). She brings them to Manning, who gets involved with their problems. The cases of Gatling Gun parts are moved from Benji's wagon to Joanne's hospital wagon, she being a Yankee nurse who was rescued by Van from being stuck in river sand. The wagon searchers decide to let her through without inspection. Benji's wagon is inspected, but no longer contains the Gatling Gun. Manning later kills Benje on the road, gets the Gatling gun from Joanne's wagon, and decides to try to sell it to Chief Yellow Hawk, after finding the instructions on how to assemble and operate the gun. The chief is impressed and buys it, planning to use it in an attack on Fort Smith, in which warriors from various tribes will unite.
Van and Joanne flirted after he rescued her. But she changed her attitude when the question of why he wasn't in a Union uniform came up. He stated that he didn't want to fight as a soldier, so he paid a substitute $300. to take his place. She wanted to disown him as cowardly. But, he changed sides on the Fort Smith attack, fighting Manning, who was manning the gun for the Indians. He changed after learning that many women and children were included in the fort. After this, Joanne warmed up to him again, and there was a suggested union between them after the war was over(an imminent occurrence).
Joanne certainly lite up the screen with her beauty and personality. She had already costarred in a variety of westerns, including "Red River", "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", "Wagon Master" ,"Vengeance Valley", and "Southwest Passage". In contrast, I believe this was Van's only western, he being known for musical comedies, sitcoms, and war pictures.
A few mentionings of relevant historical facts are in order. There was a historic Sioux chief called Yellow Hawk, but Sioux are unlikely to have been involved in a fight in future Oklahoma. There was a real town called Baxter Springs, located in the extreme SE corner of Kansas, right next to Indian Territory, to become Oklahoma. But, historic Fort Smith was located on the central western border of Arkansas, far from Baxter Springs. "The 5 Civilized Nations", which had been moved to Indian Territory did align themselves with the Confederates. Dr. Gatling Only tried to sell his gun to the Union, unsuccessfully until after the war. However, several Union commanders involved in the siege of Petersburg individually bought a gun for their command. The gun was often used in the subsequent Indian Wars, as well as by various European countries. Strangely, Dr. Gatling was a member of the Order of American Knights": a secret pro-Confederacy organization.
I agree that Milburn Stone stole every scene he was in and provided some nice comedic relief. As a matter of fact, I have no problem with any of the cast except for Johnson, who looked more comfortable banging on the piano and singing Tapioca then he did riding, shooting, or fighting.
Hollywood Westerns were famous for their historic inaccuracy, especially when it comes to the Civil War and weapons. From the comments about the South in retreat, and Grant pushing Lee back, I take the film was supposed to have been around 1865. During the Civil War, both sides were using single-shot black powder rifles and cap and ball pistols, but Hollywood always had them shooting Colt 45s and Winchester repeater rifles. That made me wonder if the Gatlin Gun was even invented during the Civil War. This led me to the internet, where I confirmed "...Invented by Richard Gatling, it is known for its use by the Union forces during the American Civil War in the 1860s, which was the first time it was employed in combat." So, it looks like they finally got something right, but the movie indicated it hadn't been used in combat yet, and the war was already ending.
All in all, this is a nice diversion for 50s western fans (like myself) if you can get past Van Johnson's miscast role.
Boone, playing an out-and-out villain, steals his scenes.I wasn't too sure about the comic interlude halfway through with Dru accidentally getting drunk, though it did teasingly leave us with the question: did Johnson really change her into her night-dress and put her to bed? I incline to nitpicking, and I thought it ham-fisted the way the Union troops charged in to town to arrest the Southern-sympathising storekeeper, only to shoot him dead. It would have been more convincing, but less spectacular, to send three or four men in to the store posing as customers - he could still have been shot in a struggle.
I wonder what Southern audiences would have made of Johnson's change of heart at the end (I'm British)? Both sides in the Civil War used Indians, and by its end the fact that women and children - families of Union soldiers - would be killed would be of minor concern to many Confederates.
But we can't have loose Gatling Guns around and Army Intelligence Officer Jeff Morrow is on the trail of the thieves. Johnson and Stone are a wily pair and con Union Army nurse Joanne Dru into innocently transporting the weapon with her medical supplies. But another guy who they use for aid, outlaw renegade Richard Boone has an agenda all his own and it involves the Indians.
I don't think I have to go any farther, anyone who's seen enough films and knows off history knows how this will end generally. How it ends for the principal cast members you see the film for.
What I liked about Siege At Red River is that Van Johnson and Milburn Stone in their guise as medicine show hucksters got to do a little snappy patter and song in the film. Johnson started out as a chorus boy on Broadway and he was brought to Hollywood after a bit part on Broadway in Too Many Girls. Occasionally he did do some singing and dancing, but not enough in my humble opinion. Peggy Maley also does a nice number in the saloon and she was great also.
Maley is Richard Boone's girl and when Richard Boone is mean on the screen there ain't nobody meaner. His villains are usually quite irredeemable creatures with no decent characteristics.
The final attack of the Indians and the soldiers counterattack is staged very well. Nice location cinematography for this, it was not the kind of sequence that could reasonably been done on a studio back lot any longer. Definitely a good western and I believe the only one Van Johnson ever did in his career.
The film will cover that of two confederate soldiers deep into Union army, and thus enemy, territory whom pose as travelling salesmen ridding their waggon of muscle tonic and dumping such goods onto the unsuspecting locals with a catchy tune; a smirk and a wink in the process. They are charmers, operating amorally out of a front but whose presence there is much more broadly linked to that of a recently stolen, state-of-the-art Union army produced Gatling gun. Such a gun, and the catalyst of which kicks off its ambling journey around the houses, is foretold during the film's opening; a daring robbery of the train upon which this gun was being transported seeing the perpetrators initially hidden away in the mail waggon with their target granted as much secrecy as it lies hidden away from public view on account of the top Union army officials whom have denied its existence in the newspapers. The thieves, however, know about its presence and the manner in which they infiltrate the train on top of this hints at a sly professionalism very few might be able to match.
It is those very salesperson's, a certain Jim Farraday played by Van Johnson and his accomplice Benjy Guderman (Stone) whom stole and are now in possession of the gun; the bedding down in a nearby town of which leads to complication that see it near impossible to get out of there without being found by the enemy whom litter the area, predominantly down to a Union army captain and his crew scouring for all of the bits and pieces which will lead them to the merchandise he's aware is around. Thank heavens, then, for the shining beacon of light that is Richard Boone's Brett Manning; a rough talking, sleazy, fist-fighting tough guy whom offers them a way out of there - then again, maybe not. Manning plays a sly and seedy customer; a womanising, gambling lout whom, it would seem, mingles around and plays guardian to a performing girl whom specialises in that of playing on-stage burlesque as he sits in the office back-stage doing what-not and probably getting a cut of her earnings to boot.
The aura, or the reputation that the Gatling gun seemingly has, is highlighted by some character officials speaking of said item. The concerns raised about the gun, in that it is so advanced and so powerful, sees one official doubt that it even exists in this still feeble, pre-modern world, or if it is indeed only a rumour that such a paramount armament exists. Its presence, however, is something another man confirms is true before going on to speak of notions that it would indeed be "terrible" if it were to "fall into the wrong hands", something the film enjoys in a very basic sense of building up an off-screen MacGuffin before having the aforementioned clinical bandits make off with it – when they do, we fear the worst. Farraday and Guderman venture onwards and uncover young Nora (Dru), a nurse at a local manor house she owns whose cart is stuck in a river, Jim's somewhat displeasing attempts at getting to know her seeing him use, again, a false persona as he does with the travelling store to charm her; the bumps in the road as he transports her back seeing her invite the interaction, and despite hearing some different truths about Jim from Gunderman, she appears unperturbed and will continue on as is.
The film dares us not to particularly like its leads, Farraday and Guderman; something that is indeed linked to the fact they are thieves and con-men but is more broadly linked to that of a long history of Confederate demonisation embedded within the genre of the American western. In contrast to the rather monstrous Manning, these two are fairly decent folk and it is again to the film's credit that it even attempts to go anywhere near the places it ventures toward come the finale, when ideas of redemption and men seeing the errors of their ways unfold; the film providing us with a chance to reverse prior perception and yet maintain a dramatic edge whilst weaving newfound territory naturally into the proceedings. But the film's sole joy remains observing these scuzzy lowlifes whilst in the throngs of their existence try to outsmart and manoeuvre their way out of trouble, the savage elements linked to that of the overall representation of the Native Americans uneasy in hindsight, but everything else blending well and most of it working rather expertly in the long run.