Friday, January 2, 2009


"Raiders of Tomahawk Creek" director Fred F. Sears' "The Nebraskan" (** out of ****) attests to the popularity of westerns during the Eisenhower era. This standard cavalry versus the redskins horse opera set in Nebraska packs plenty of action as white men trapped in an isolated way station battle bloodthirsty savages.

Predictable as the stock characters that inhabit it, "The Nebraskan" contains a couple of narrative revelations as well as good, solid performances from Phil Carey, Richard Webb, Jay Silverheels, but veteran screen heavy Lee Van Cleef takes top honors as a thoroughly evil cavalry deserter who has no qualms about killing in cold blood.

You will no doubt notice all those wonderful images of objects, arrows, knives, and flaming ceiling posts thrust toward the camera. "The Nebraskan" was one of Columbia's entries in the 3-D sweepstakes in the year 1953 right after United Artists released "Bwana Devil" as the first example of 3-D. Many of the effects here appear to be inserted just as some stock footage of Indians on the warpath look like they were re-photographed with rocks laid into the foreground to enhance the 3-D look. "The Nebraskan" isn't the best nor is it the worst 3-D movie, just as it is neither the best nor the worst western.

The action unfolds with Wade Harper (Phil Carey of "Return to Warbow") and Indian scout Wingfoot (Maurice Jara of "Take the High Ground") riding hell-bent-for-leather across rugged scenery with Spotted Bear (Jay Silverheels of "The Lone Ranger") and his Sioux warriors hot on their heels. Our hero and his prisoner barely make it inside Fort Carney before the rampaging Indians pull up outside the gates. Colonel Markham (Regis Toomey of "The High and the Mighty") warns Spotted Bear that Nebraska has just become a state and that both whites and Indians must obey the law. Wingfoot and Harper, it seems, were sent to conclude a peace pact with the Sioux, but Spotted Bear discovered Chief Thundercloud with a knife in his back dead not long after Wingfoot had left the chief's tent. Harper brought Wingfoot back as his prisoner so that the Sioux wouldn't use the occasion as a pretext to violence. Spotted Bear isn't happy with this arrangement, but he accepts it.

The Army locks Wingfoot up in the guard house with notorious Private Reno Benton (Lee Van Cleef, who wears his cavalry hat like he did years later in "The Big Gundown"). The villainous Reno strangles an inept guard (Robert Williams) who gets too close to the barred cell door, and then he relieves him of his keys. Reno forces Wingfoot to join him so that the Indian lead him to safety amidst all the irate Indians. Reno isn't content with killing one sentry. He stabs another in the back before the bugler sounds the alarm and Wingfoot and he high tail it out of Fort Carney. Markham assigns Harper and a handful of men, led by Captain De Witt (a barely recognizable Dennis Weaver of "McCloud") to pursue the escaped prisoners. Four days later, a tired, irritable De Witt rejects Harper's suggestion about taking the long way instead of a short cut in their pursuit of Reno and Wingfoot, and everybody but Harper survives a cleverly laid ambush by Reno. No sooner has Reno and Wingfoot taken off than they run into another cavalry patrol on the way to Fort Carney. Reno cannot argue his way out of this predicament so Wingfoot and he ride along until the cavalry patrol ride to the rescue of a stagecoach being chased by whooping Indians in war paint. The stagecoach overturns but the cavalry arrives in time to save two passengers, Ace Elliot (Richard Webb of "Prince Valiant") and his wife Paris (Roberta Haynes of "Hell Ship Mutiny"), and the commander allows Reno and Wingfoot to escort them to a nearby watering hole called MacBride's.

No sooner have the cavalry ridden away than Reno turns his carbine on the Elliots and robs them. Unfortunately, for Reno, the resilient Wade Harper makes a convenient appearance and turns the tables on the murdering cavalryman. Our heroes, heroine, and the prisoners ride off to McBride's way station, run by a crusty old-timer 'Mac' McBride (Wallace Ford of "Freaks"). About that time, Spotted Bear and his Sioux warriors descend on the way station with all their guns blazing and lay siege to our heroes.

Phil Carey portrays buckskin clad cavalry scout Wade Harper as an omniscient expert in all things Indian, but his character isn't very comfortable around women. It seems that Paris and he had a thing going once that didn't pan out because Harper wasn't very good with words. Paris, on the rebound, wound up getting hitched so-to-speak to the duded-up city-slicker Ace who reveals his true colors later after the Indians besiege them in Mac's stone cabin. Richard Webb does a better-than-average job as the cowardly Ace. Veteran western scenarist David Lang of "The Last Outpost" and "Ambush at Tomahawk Gap" co-wrote this passable oater with Martin Berkeley of "Red Sundown" and "Revenge of the Creature." According to IMDb.COM, Berkeley gained a notoriety by naming more Hollywood directors, actors, and writers at the infamous HUAC hearings in the 1950s than anybody else. Lang and Berkeley wrap up everything, even the mystery behind Chief Thundercloud's death, in a finale that leaves the dust settled. Appropriately enough, Lee Van Cleef dies with an Indian knife in his back.

"The Nebraskan" is nothing special, certainly not a memorable cavalry oater of John Ford quality. Nevertheless, it reminds us how many hundreds of westerns like it were produced in the 1950s when moviegoers couldn't get enough of the Old West. Picture's saving grace is its trim 68-minute running time.

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