Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Director Andre De Toth's cavalry versus the Indians western "Last of the Comanches" (*** out of ****) with Broderick Crawford and Lloyd Bridges qualifies as a first-rate remake of the classic World War II propaganda war film "Sahara" (1943) that starred Humphrey Bogart and Lloyd Bridges. Calling "Last of the Comanches" a carbon copy of "Sahara" stretches the resemblance between the films almost to the breaking point. There is nobody in "Comanches" that looks like the Italian soldier and the German soldier that ride on the tank with Bogart and company. Further, "Comanches" is more realistic in terms of what happens. Everybody in this western could have been there, but there is some question that an American tank and its crew played the role that they did in what was essentially a British theatre of operation. For example, Columbia—the same studio that produced "Comanches"—never explained how the crew of the U.S. Army tank 'Lulu Belle' landed in North Africa six months before the U.S. actually landed in Morocco. In fact, scenarist Kenneth Gamet of "The Stranger Wore A Gun" goes to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of the date—1876—in the opening credit narration where tough Sgt. Crawford compares their holding exploits against the Indians with Custer's Last Stand that occurred in 1876. The other major difference is that no African-Americans appear in "Comanches" while there was one in "Sahara." However, "Comanches" sticks to the same basic plot—a survival saga set in inhospitable surroundings with a numerically superior enemy force waiting to massacre the good guys.

"Last of the Comanches" opens with Sergeant Matt Trainor (Broderick Crawford of "Born Yesterday") and five other cavalry troopers who survive a massive Comanche attack led by the infamous Chief Black Cloud (John War Eagle of "They Rode West") on the isolated frontier town of Dry Buttes. No sooner has the action unfolded than our heroes find themselves in peril. There is a really nice looking matte painting of Dry Buttes in ruins after the savages stampeded a horse herd through the town, incinerated everything in sight, and left most everybody for dead. Low on water, Sgt. Turner rallies his soldiers—among them "Sea Hunt's" Lloyd Bridges and "Adam-12's" Martin Milner--by reminding them that they are still soldiers and the maintenance of military discipline is the only thing that will ensure their survival. They set out on a 100 mile journey to the closest settlement, Fort Macklin, through craggy terrain thriving with redskins and low on water.

Along the way, they encounter a stagecoach—nicknamed 'Buttercup'—with a lone female, Julie Lanning (Barbara Hale of TV's "Perry Mason"), whiskey drummer Henry Ruppert (Chubby Johnson of "Gunfire at Indian Gap"), former cavalry scout Satterlee the Prophet (Milton Parsons of "That Hagen Girl") and stagecoach driver O'Rattigan (George Matthews of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral") and catch a ride on it. Later, they discover a suspicious white man in the desert Denver Kinnaird (Hugh Sanders of "The Last Command") for no apparent reason. Eventually, they discover that Kinnaird has been running guns to the redskins and Sgt. Trainor has Jim Starbuck (Lloyd Bridges) keep his eye on him. Starbuck doesn't have much use for Kinnaird because he cheated a fellow trooper out of money during a gambling hand. The last passenger that our heroes come across is a young Kiowa Indian boy, Little Knife (Johnny Stewart of "Boots Malone"), with whom they initially want nothing to do, but in a fit of conscience they let him join their ranks because Black Cloud is his enemy, too. Our heroes prospect for wells unsuccessfully until Little Knife appears, and he takes them 30 miles out of their way to a mission with a well. Black Cloud attacks them, but his superior numbers are no match for the lack of water. Trainor offers Black Cloud a deal, a cup of water for every repeating rifle, but the Indians refuse. Meanwhile, Turners sends Little Knife off to deliver a help message. Non-surprisingly, Little Knife gets through in the nick of time and our heroes are saving, but not before several of them bite the dust.

"Play Dirty" director De Toth does an outstanding job with "Last of the Comanches." Everybody emerges as a tangible character, not like the poorly drawn characters in De Toth's "The Stranger Wore A Gun." Broderick Crawford is at his commanding best, and it's interesting to see Martin Milner at this early stage in his Hollywood career. De Toth pulls off some cool looking visuals, such as Crawford and Bridges conferring with each other in silhouette during the last moments of sunlight. The camera-work when the cavalry excavate the well at the mission looks great, too. We are shown it from the perspective of the well as the troopers break through it. The multiple explosions that Crawford sets off when the Indians attack looks truly spectacular! Barbara Hale holds her own among the all male cast with expert marksmanship. Clocking in a 85 trim minutes, "Last of the Comanches" doesn't waste a moment on needless material. It's a cliché that the cavalry ride to their rescue at the end, but our heroes are pretty close to the end at that point. Surprisingly, for a 1950s western, "Last of the Comanches" piles up a rather high body count, something that most westerns held to a minimum.

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