Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Nebraskan (Columbia, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching the last film on the Turner Classic Movies tribute to 1950’s Columbia “B” movie director Fred F. Sears: The Nebraskan, a Western that at the beginning looked like it was genuinely going to be interesting — indeed, with Budd Boetticher directing and Randolph Scott starring probably would have been interesting — but pretty much settled into a predictable groove with a plot line that suffered from so many intrigues it was unclear just which was supposed to be the main thread and which were the subplots.

The Nebraskan opens with one of those shots of people riding horses shot so that only the legs of both species are shown, and over that we hear a third-person narrator (fortunately for the last time in the movie as well as the first) explaining that the time is just after the Civil War and the U.S. Army is attempting to restore order to Nebraska and, with the Confederates defeated, the main problem they’re having is with the restive Nebraska Sioux Indians. (Did the Sioux Nation extend as far south as Nebraska? Just asking!)

The Sioux Chief Thundercloud (not seen in the film), who wanted to live in mutual peace and harmony with the whites, has just been murdered. The new chief is Spotted Bear (Jay Silverheels, Tonto in the Lone Ranger 1950’s TV series and feature films, so it’s a bit odd to see him in full feathered headdress as an anti-white Indian!), who wants to go back on the warpath and doesn’t think it’s worthwhile trying to negotiate with the whites because the whites always break their treaties with the Indians anyway. (If you know anything about American history besides the winners’ propaganda, it’s hard to argue with him!)

The prime suspect in Thundercloud’s murder is Wingfoot (Maurice Jara, who quite frankly is the sexiest guy in the film), an Indian who works as a scout for the film’s (white) hero, Wade Harper (Phil Carey), a sort of civilian fix-it guy who shows up at Fort Kearney in buckskin and gets into a series of arguments with the fort’s commander, Col. Markham (Regis Toomey), who’s the white side’s equivalent of the war-oriented Spotted Bear and resists Wade’s attempts to bargain with the Indians and also Wade’s insistence that, rather than being handed over to Spotted Bear for tribal justice, Wingfoot should be kept in the fort’s stockade and held for a U.S.-style trial.

As if that weren’t enough plot for a nicely melodramatic stew, there’s Wingfoot’s fellow prisoner, Private Reno Benton (Lee Van Cleef, with a full head of hair and lacking the cadaverous look that came later, but already “typed” as a black-hearted villain), who’s being held on charges of murdering a fellow soldier and who forces Wingfoot to go along when he strangles the guard, steals the guard’s keys and escapes. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s also a civilian gambler, Ace Elliott (Richard Webb), and his wife Paris (Roberta Haynes) — that’s right, a woman named Paris well before the notorious Ms. Hilton (and she, unlike Ms. Hilton, at least attempts a French accent, which I suppose is meant to hint that she’s actually a Frenchwoman) — and it turns out that Paris and Wade dated for a while before she married Ace, and of course Wade is still holding a torch for her.

The characters of Wade and Wingfoot — both people in two worlds and what Douglas Sirk called “split characters” — could have been the basis for a quite interesting movie, but writers David Lang and Martin Berkeley use the situation as merely an excuse to trot out all the familiar Western clichés, and as the film moves to a climax the Indians besiege the fort and one can’t help but remember how much better the late Val Lewton staged this same situation in his last film, Apache Drums, two years earlier (and of course the basic concept had been done in countless movies before that, notably in John Ford’s The Lost Patrol). Eventually the deus ex machina turns out to be, not the Seventh Cavalry coming to the rescue, but Spotted Bear’s son Yellow Knife (Pat Hogan), who for reasons Lang and Berkeley never bother to explain to us figures out that his dad actually killed Thundercloud (ya remember Thundercloud?), announces this to both sides, then kills his father, assumes leadership of the tribe and settles the conflict, and of course Ace Elliott has been conveniently killed in the battle so Wade and Paris can get together for the obligatory happy ending.

The most interesting thing about The Nebraskan was that, though it wasn’t billed as such, it was clearly filmed in 3-D; there were enough shots of arrows, daggers and chairs being hurled or shot at the camera to give it away, as well as the obligatory 1950’s 3-D shot of a ceiling beam breaking loose from the top of a burning building and falling straight at the camera. The building that’s burning belonged to rancher “Mac” MacBride (Wallace Ford), who was clearly intended to serve the same kind of blarney-filled comic relief function Ward Bond did in John Ford’s films and Walter Brennan in Howard Hawks’, but at least those directors and their writers knew how to make these characters genuinely funny whereas Fred F. Sears, David Lang and Martin Berkeley didn’t. The Nebraskan is distinguished by being in Technicolor — it’s shot on the same “B” Western locations as so many other films but at least it’s a bit novel to see them in color — and the scenery is spectacular; indeed it’s better looking than most of the actors (Maurice Jara excepted). Other than that, this is just another movie.