Sunday, October 5, 2008


Director Lesley Selander's thoroughly routine outdoor yarn "The Yellow Tomahawk" (** out of ****) pits the Cheyenne against the U.S. Cavalry with leathery tough Rory Calhoun in the middle as the seasoned, buckskin-clad Indian scout who has to lead the survivors to safety. This United Artists western was lensed in color but the TV print that Turner Classic Movies aired was inexplicably in black & white.

The action opens with Adam Reed (Rory Calhoun of "Black Spurs") eluding several Indians and riding up to palaver with his old friend and Cheyenne chief, Fire Knife (Lee Van Cleef of "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly"), who has killing on his mind. Fire Knife warns Adam that his Cheyenne braves are poised to wipe out a nearby cavalry fort under construction because it violates a treaty that the Indians made with the government. On his way to inform stuck-up camp commandant, Major Ives (Warner Anderson of "Objective, Burma!"),about the impending Indian attack, Adam discovers a beautiful wood nymph seductively treading water in a lake. Katherine 'Kate' Bolden (Peggy Castle of "I, Jury") is another of those silly women in westerns that bathe nude in the middle of Indian country without a care in the world. Castle appears to be genuinely nude in her bathing scenes, too, perhaps the most memorable scene of all in this otherwise predictable western. Naturally, Major Ives dismisses Adam's warning from Fire Knife until the commander realizes that somebody has raided his ammunition dump far outside the fort. This is one of the many questions that the Richard Alan Simmons' screenplay leaves unanswered in this trim, 82-minute oater. Why would the cavalry bury their ammunition at a secret spot in the desert rather than keep it on the premises in the fort? No sooner have they made this discovery than the Indians attack, knock out of hero, and leave him as the only survivor. Before this attack, a pair of white prospectors rides into the fort. Sawyer (Peter Graves of "Stalag 17") brings in his partner with an arrow in his chest. While Adam is getting hot water to help in removing the arrow, the greedy Sawyer grinds the shaft in deeper and kills his helpless partner. Later, we learn that Sawyer and his partner had struck gold. The question of the dispersal of the gold is also left unanswered after our heroes survive the ordeal. Adam and Fire Knife have one final pow-wow and Fire Knife demands that Adam hand over Major Ives or everybody will die. Naturally, Adam refuses and the Indians begin to whittle down the whites. James Best in a supporting role as a cavalryman gets an arrow in the back for his efforts. Noah Beery, Jr., plays a aimable Mexican scout pursued by a sexy Indian damsel appropriately named Honey Bear (Oscar-winning actress Rita Moreno of "West Side Story") and Robert Bray of "Lassie" fame is on hand briefly as the ill-fated cavalry officer that Kate had planned to marry.

The biggest surprise in this unremarkable western shot on location in Kanab, Utah, is that the evil cavalry officer Ives, who slaughtered Indian men, women, and children at the infamous Sand Creek Massacre, has been keeping a secret that he is a Native American, too! Ironically, the taut bow that Fire Knife gives out of friendship to Adam at the outset of the hostilities is what our heroic scout uses to kill the stalwart Cheyenne warrior after he has run out of bullets. "The Yellow Tomahawk" concludes on an ambiguous note. The survivors reach another outpost, Fort Ellis, where Adam and Ives furnish their respective reports about the issue to an army general, but we never learn the outcome of this meeting. Is this artistic ambiguity or yet another unanswered question. Producer Howard W. Koch is no relation to "Casablanca" scenarist Howard Koch. Ultimately, "The Yellow Tomahawk" is one of many pro-Indian westerns that appeared in the aftermath of "Broken Arrow" (1950) where the Native American is viewed as a noble savage unjustly treated by some but not all whites. Selander, who made dozens of westerns during the 1950s and the 1960s, makes this minor western tolerable despite its thin characters and familiar predicament. Calhoun stands out of an above-average cast as the always serviceable leading man, and good looking Castle is worth watching for her feminine charms. Peter Graves plays a skunk as was usual in most of his early roles. Actually, Lesley Selander did a more satisfactory dramatic version of this movie the year before called "War Paint" (1953) with Robert Stack. Incidentally, Noah Beery Jr. and Rita Moreno both went on to become regulars on "The Rockford Files".

No comments: