Thursday, October 2, 2008


Director Jodie Copelan's "Ambush at Cimarron Pass" (*** out of ****)qualifies as an entertaining but predictable 73-minute, black & white, B-movie, military western about the cavalry versus Apaches, with one noteworthy distinction—a young, clean-shaven, pre-"Rawhide" Clint Eastwood receives third billing. The title classifies "Ambush at Cimarron Pass" as a landscape western, and it foreshadows where the climactic action will transpire. Mind you, this is a characteristic of many westerns because the terrain acts as an arena for our heroes to prove their mettle. The Richard G. Taylor & John K. Butler screenplay based on a story by Robert A. Reeds & Robert E. Woods yields several quotable lines about masculinity. The central theme here is bargains. Survival depends on bargains. Copelan at the helm of his first and only film explores the usual themes of man versus man, man versus society, man versus his environment, and the issue of apocalyptic armaments. Clearly, the Winchester repeating rifles at the heart of this drama serve as metaphors for atomic weapons. Copelan emphasizes their role early on by presenting them in the first close-ups so that we cannot overlook them. The durable and dependable Scott Brady must prevent these rifles from landing in Apache hands. The Apaches are the equivalent here for the Soviets.

Twentieth Century Fox released this modest 1958 oater through its subsidiary company Regal Films, and theatres originally projected "Ambush at Cimarron Pass" in a widescreen process called Regalscope. Unfortunately, the Western Channel version is full frame, but you can imagine what the extent of the composition. "Showdown at Boot Hill" lenser John M. Nickolaus Jr.'s photography adds suspense to the action. He composes his shots so that the Indians appear on the periphery, frames shots through the arch on a warrior's legs so that they seem to dominate the terrain. All-in-all, "Ambush at Cimarron Pass" is a polished looking western. Copelan helmed a handful of television shows, but spent most of his/her (?) time as an editor on about 40 movies and television series. Clint Eastwood has a low opinion about his first western. He has been quoted as calling it "probably the lousiest Western ever made." Actually, "Ambush at Cimarron Pass" surpasses many lesser frontier army westerns and its armaments plot—one of the genre's integral conventions—assumes greater significance in light of the Cold War era release date and the paranoia about Armageddon.

Sergeant Matt Blake (Scott Brady of "Johnny Guitar") of the Seventh Cavalry and the four surviving troopers of his patrol are escorting a civilian prisoner, Corbin (Baynes Barron of "Fireball 500"), back to Fort Waverly to stand trial for selling repeating rifles to the Apaches. We learn later that Corbin struck a deal to sell the Indians 36 repeating rifles. Blake describes the magnitude of the threat that these rifles pose to the cavalry. "These new guns have the firepower of another company and fire 15 rounds without a reload." Our beleaguered cavalry heroes ride into an ambush less than five minutes into the action. They discover, however, the Apaches aren't trying to dry-gulch them. Instead, a band of former Confederate soldiers led by ex-Colonel Sam Prescott (Frank Grestle of "Crossroads") are shooting at them initially until they agree to a truce and Sgt. Blake pow-wows with them. Although two years have passed since the end of the American Civil War, old wounds don't heal as quickly. Prescott's second-in-command, Keith Williams (Clint Eastwood of "Star in the Dust") hates Blake from the start and accuses him of lying. "All Yankees are liars," Keith snarls with considerable animosity. The Georgia native bears a grudge against the Yankees because his family has suffered the wrath of General Sherman in the South.

Prescott explains that Apaches masquerading as troopers jumped them and stole their whole herd of cattle. Blake realizes that the Indians must have gotten their uniforms from his slain troopers. "A man has to take a lot of things he doesn't bargain for, Prescott," Blake observes and then adds, "Maybe that's what makes him a man." Prescott points out that they are heading for Waverly, too. No sooner do the Southerners and the cavalrymen form an uneasy alliance than two Apache horsemen appear and leave a bound woman sprawled in open ground not far from them. Our heroes rush to Teresa Santos (Margia Dean of "FBI Girl") and everybody is surprised when the Indians steal their horses and take Cobb (Desmond Slattery), one of the ex-Confederates, as a hostage. The treacherous redskins used Teresa as a decoy so that they could distract our heroes. Teresa explains that she is from the Santos Ranch. It seems that marauding Apaches burned it and killed her brother, sister, and father. The Apaches offer our heroes a bargain: Cobb in exchange for the rifles. Blake categorically refuses to negotiate. The Indians never let up on our heroes and whittle their numbers.

Naturally, tempers flare among the heroes over the value of the guns versus the former Confederates. "Getting riled up at each other ain't the answer," a conciliatory Prescott intervenes. "Let's calm down and talk this out," Eventually, Blake, Prescott, Keith, Teresa along with the troopers and Southerners have to strike out of foot with the 36 repeating rifles slung over their shoulders for a six to seven day march to Fort Waverly. Judge Stanfield (Irving Bacon of "Fort Apache") refuses to tote any guns. Eventually, Keith comes to his senses and sheds his antipathy toward Yankees in general and Sgt. Blake in particular. The last line that Keith utters summarizes the value of "Ambush at Cimarron Pass" in the career of Clint Eastwood. Says Keith, "Sometimes you have to lose before you can win." Another memorable line occurs when Private Lasky points out to Johnny Willows about their non-commissioned officer that: "A sergeant who isn't rough on his men winds up burying most of them." Clint Eastwood shouldn't be too ashamed of this B-western. You know the budget was tight because nobody changes their clothes throughout the action.

No comments: