Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Ronald Reagan and Bruce Bennett play brother versus brother in "The Last Outpost" (**1/2 out of ****), an entertaining but old-fashioned Civil War western set on the historic Santa Fe Trail. Reagan has charisma to spare as Vance Britten, a Confederate cavalry captain dispatched from Virginia by General Robert E. Lee to raise hell in the heart of Union territory, and raise hell he does with style and wit. Opposite him in Union blue is his brother Colonel Jeb Britten (Bruce Bennett of "The New Adventures of Tarzan") who wears an occupational stiff-upper lip and displays less sympathy since he represents law and order.

Happily, director Louis R. Foster keeps the tone of "The Last Outpost" as light-hearted as possible for most of this western's nimble 89-minute running time. Veteran western character actor Noah Beery, Jr., who wears his trademark Stetson more like a construction foreman than a cowboy, flanks Reagan as a good ole boy CSA sergeant, while Bill Williams rides at our hero's other side. Matters come to a boil when an unscrupulous white Indian agent Sam McQuade (John Ridgely of "The Big Sleep") demands that Washington intervene in the conflict and arm the Indians, so that the Native Americans can help the strapped Union troops weed out the Confederate raiders. Actually, all that McQuade wants is an excuse to agitate the redskins, so that he can sell them more guns and liquor. McQuade gets hoisted on his own petard when hostile Indians kill him and burn his supply wagon. The Indians didn't appreciate the inferior firearms and the rotgut whiskey that McQuade pedaled to them. Caught up in the middle of this fracas is McQuade's beautiful, red-haired wife Julie (Ronda Fleming of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral") who has few friends and is unhappy out west. Before he dies as the price for his own perfidy, McQuade tries to play a trick on Julie by inviting Jeb over for supper. Years earlier Julie had made plans to marry a Britten, but not Jeb. Instead, Vance abandoned her, and she hasn't sufficiently recovered from his bad manners. Meanwhile, Vance intercepts the Union officer sent from Washington with orders to negotiate with the Indians, takes his uniform, and visits the Indian camp to sue for peace. He learns about the death of McQuade and others at the hands of Geronimo (John War Eagle of "They Rode West") and two braves. He also learns to his chagrin that these warriors are rotting in a white man's jail. The Indian chieftains are neither pleased with Geronimo's precipitate actions nor do they approve of the white man's reprisal against Geronimo. Vance decides to maintain his masquerade as the Union officer. Not only does he plan to free Geronimo and his braves before the territory explodes into Indian warfare, but also he plans to relieve the Federals of a payload of gold coins. Things do not go as Vance plans, because he finds himself face-to-face with Julie, his former sweetheart who he abandoned without so much as goodbye. Julie still smolders with rage at this slight, and she warns Vance that she won't tolerate either his presence or his disguise for more than 24 hours. Predictably, when Vance cannot spring Geronimo and company from the town's hoosegow, the Indians go on the rampage and try to burn the town down. Things are looking mighty bad in the last ten minutes for the out-numbered Union troops and the beleaguered settlers when Reagan rides to the rescue with his Confederate cavalry.

Ironically, this Paramount Pictures release reunites Reagan, Bennett, and Ridgely who were once worked on the Warner Brothers backlot in the studio's heyday. What "The Last Outpost" lacks in stature, this solid little but unsurprising sagebrusher makes up for with its swift, sure pace and its exciting battle scenes.

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