"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Desert Passage (RKO, 1952)


The last of a long series




 
 
By the early 1950s Tim Holt was very well established as a RKO Western star. He appeared in Westerns for the studio first in 1938 and made 46 in all, all through the 1940s. They were formulaic, not to say repetitive, but they were energetic and fun. try, for example, Along the Rio Grande. Many were directed by Lesley Selander, a competent oater hand. Holt’s winsome smile won many hearts. His career reached a peak in 1948 when he revealed unexpected acting talent as Curtin in the great The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and in that (golden) year he also co-starred with his famous father Jack in The Arizona Ranger. By the 1950s, however, predictable and conventional one-hour black & white second-feature Westerns were beginning to lose their charm, boyish Tim was into his thirties and 1952 saw the end of the series. Desert Passage was Holt’s last Western, if you exclude a couple of appearances on The Virginian on TV in the early 60s.
 
Tim Holt (1919 - 1973)
 
Desert Passage is fun, though. It was Selander’s 88th Western as director, a worthy and commendable record. His career went from 1925 to 1968 and he deserves to be remembered as one of the pillars of the genre. If a genre can have pillars.
 
Lesley Selander (1900 - 1979)
 
There’s chirpy music by Paul Sawtell. There are a few pleasant Iverson Ranch locations photographed by J Roy Hunt, who shot a lot of the Tim Holt oaters and also worked on bigger pictures like RKO’s Annie Oakley.

There are some good character actors in the cast to support Holt, notably Clayton Moore (sans mask) as an unscrupulous crook (he often moonlighted as a baddy when not riding the range with Tonto), Denver Pyle as the chief badman’s henchman, good old Denver, and the excellent John Dehner as, of course, a besuited shyster lawyer.
 
Tim and Joan are beguiled by slick lawyer Dehner
 
Richard Martin is Irish-Mexican Chito Rafferty again, a role he had in fact first played as an air crewman in the war film Bombadier and had then extended to Westerns as Robert Mitchum’s pardner in Nevada. Chito had been Tim’s comic relief sidekick since Under the Tonto Rim in 1947. They made 27 films together in all.
 
This time Tim and Chito are partners in a stage business
 
We are in southern Arizona and Tim Holt (Tim Holt) and Chito are running a failing stage line connecting Lavic (near Barstow) with Yuma. A mysterious stranger, John Carver (Walter Reed, from Seven Men from Now) appears in town and looks to have escaped from the Yuma pen. Carver pays the pards a thousand dollars to take him over the border. There follows a series of skullduggerish events with various badmen pursuing the party, after the loot from a bank haul that Carver had committed, money he now wished to reclaim. All good stuff.
 
Fun
 
There’s a good bit where Carver stuffs the cash in a leather horse collar to hide it. Unfortunately for him, the stage (and horses) are then stolen. Dehner is Carver’s lawyer (but after the spondulix for himself). A whore and her pimp, namely Carver’s ex, Roxie, and Dave Warwick (Dorothy Patrick and Moore) also scheme to get the cash. In fact it seems everyone wants the boodle except honest Tim, who is ready to give it back to the bank. Of course the screenplay couldn’t use words like whore and pimp in 1950s B Westerns, so the script has a character ask how the others thought Roxie made her living while Carver was away and refers to Warwick as her “protector”. I like this pair because they are splendidly villainous and Roxie has a derringer, a typical weapon for such a dame (I’m surprised Clayton didn’t have one too, or Reed or Dehner, come to that). The pocket gun was almost invariably used by crooks in suits, gamblers and saloon gals.
 
Worth a look
 
There's an (unintentionally) hilarious bit when, in true early-50s style, the city-slicker men are unable to eat because there is no woman to prepare their dinner.

It all climaxes in a slightly less than Bullitt/French Connection type of vehicle chase and mucho gallopin’ and shootin’, Tim gives the cash back and gets the girl (I forgot to say, though you knew already, that there’s also a good girl, Emily, played by Joan Dixon) and all’s well that ends well, as is right and proper for such films.

Enjoy.

 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Arizona Ranger (RKO, 1948)


Tim Holt sets up the Arizona Rangers




 
 
Oft have I waxed lyrical about the Western wonders of the year 1948. It was one of the golden years of the oater. I won’t blather on again about it here; if you want to delve deeper into the fab ’48 features, go on to IMDb and sort by genre (Western, natch) and year. Here’s the link to speed your search – but please come back!!

Of course, while such masterpieces as Red River, Fort Apache or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre were coming out in ‘48, a whole host of lesser oaters were also appearing. 137 Westerns were released that year (oh, happy day). Good old RKO released 87 movies in 1948, no less, and many of these were Westerns. Among them were five Tim Holt oaters.

Holt had been making Westerns with RKO since the late 1930s and the series had become very popular. They were pretty formulaic, it must be said, and were churned out rather on a production line, but they were professionally made and energetic, and quite a lot of fun. Look at Along the Rio Grande as an enjoyable early example, or a late one like Desert Passage. Many were directed by Lesley Selander, a more than competent hand who helmed huge numbers of cowboy films, but The Arizona Ranger had John Rawlins wearing the jodhpurs and wielding the megaphone.
 
John Rawlins
 
Mr. Rawlins had started in movies as an actor and stuntman back in the silent movie days, and became an editor and writer before directing B movies and serials for Universal, including cheapo Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes stories. He didn’t do many Westerns, though, directing only six. Still, he got the idea and The Arizona Ranger nips along at a tidy pace, without dragging.
 
Tim Holt
 
The film was unusual in that it brought together, with equal billing, father and son Jack and Tim Holt. Lantern-jawed Jack had been a heavy in Westerns since the year dot (well, 1914 anyway, which in Western movie terms is pretty much the same thing). The tough New Yorker had impressed Francis and John Ford, who used him in their films, and he became a leading man at Paramount, doing a lot of the Zane Grey-based Westerns to which that studio had bought the rights. His career lasted right up until the Clark Gable clunker Across the Wide Missouri in 1951.
 
Jack Holt
 
Actually, in The Arizona Ranger he plays a very unsympathetic character, Rawhide Morgan, the father of Bob Morgan (Tim Holt). He is basically an arrogant bully, a rich rancher beset by rustlers and ready to go to any lengths to stamp them out. He has curiously dudish costume and well-pressed pants for range work, along with the usual very fancy 40s gunbelt, but never mind.

Son Bob, rather than staying to work on the ranch and help dad eradicate the rustlers, decides to join the Arizona Rangers and is thus cast off by his father as an ingrate.
 
Actually, the slogan is wrong. Father and son had appeared together in 1928, when Tim was 10, in a silent movie, The Vanishing Pioneer. Tim played Jack's son.
 
Now Arizona Rangers appeared quite often in Hollywood movies. Arizona was the location for a lot of Western shooting in those days (the very earliest oaters had been filmed round Prescott and of course Old Tucson and its saguaro-rich environs remained a Western mecca for years) and the state seemed an ideal setting. The very word Arizona appeared in huge numbers of Western movie titles (both Destry Rides Again and Broken Lance had Arizona as alternative titles). And the thought that there was a force of rangers in that Territory like the Texas Rangers seemed ideal material for Hollywood. So, for example, Audie Murphy founded the force in Arizona Raiders (review soon) and lots of other heroes founded the Rangers too.

In reality, the Arizona Rangers were only created in 1901 and were disbanded in 1909, and during this brief period only 107 men served in the ranks. They were at first a covert force, with no uniforms or badges, and one of their main tasks was strike breaking. Like their fellow rangers in Texas, no proper funding was ever provided and the force was doomed (though in 1957 a volunteer body called the Arizona Rangers was organized). The Arizona Ranger gets one thing right; in it son Bob comes back from the Spanish-American war and in fact the first Arizona Rangers were recruited from former Rough Rider ranks.
 
They have badges now
 
There’s a lawless town, Longspur, and badman Quirt Butler (Steve Brodie) rules the roost. The Governor decides to set up a force of rangers to restore law ‘n’ order and of course asks Bob/Tim to head up the outfit. Equally of course, Tim has Chito Rafferty at his side. Richard Martin is Irish-Mexican Chito again, a role he had in fact first played as an air crewman in the war film Bombadier and had then extended to Westerns as Robert Mitchum’s pardner in Nevada. Chito had been Tim’s comic relief sidekick since Under the Tonto Rim in 1947. They made 27 films together in all.
 
A fine portrait of Tim, rather more serious than usual
 
The Rangers have an office and wear badges so there’s nothing covert about them. They gallop over nicely photographed black & white Lone Pine locations to the stirring strains of music by Paul Sawtell. Skullduggery is thwarted, order restored, father and son are reconciled and Tim gets the gal (Nan Leslie), all as you would expect.

A satisfactory 64 minutes is had by all and will be had by you too, dear e-reader, should you decide to watch this enjoyable romp.

 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Along the Rio Grande (RKO, 1941)


An early Tim Holt oater from RKO




 
 
Along the Rio Grande is a classic black & white Tim Holt Western of the early 1940s. Holt (1919 – 1973) was the son of lantern-jawed heavy Jack Holt, who appeared in many silent and early talkie Westerns, and Tim often accompanied his dad on location and even in 1928 appeared in a silent movie, The Vanishing Pioneer, playing Jack’s son. Tim went straight into the film business from school. In 1937 he was signed to contract by the famous producer Walter Wanger and in 1938 RKO cast him in their Western The Renegade Ranger supporting the then top star George O'Brien, followed immediately by The Law West of Tombstone supporting Harry Carey Sr. He was the young lieutenant in Stagecoach in 1939 and RKO signed him to a seven year contract. His boyish and clean-cut good looks were a great asset.
 
Boyish charm
 
RKO tried him out in some big films like The Girl and the Gambler and Swiss Family Robinson but the studio then decided to star him in a series of B Westerns. These proved very popular and Holt made 46 of them, many directed by Lesley Selander. Along the Rio Grande was the third of these, after Wagon Train (1940) and The Fargo Kid (1940).

After distinguished war service (he was wounded on the last day of the war) Tim impressed as Virgil Earp in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine and in 1948 he surprised everyone with the quality of his acting as Curtin in John Huston’s great film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. They shouldn’t have been too surprised: Orson Welles had seen his potential back in ’42 when he cast him as the malicious son George in The Magnificent Ambersons. Still, the fact remains that we remember Tim mostly for his very repetitive Western programmers and second features, and Along the Rio Grande is a classic example.

It was directed by Edward Killy rather than Selander. Killy was fairly new to the genre: he’d done Wagon Train with Holt two years before and he went on to do quite a lot of oaters for RKO in the 1940s, including two with Robert Mitchum, Nevada and West of the Pecos.

Tim is ranch hand Jeff who, with his pardners Smokey (Ray Whitley) and Whopper (Emmett Lynn), decide to bring to justice evil rustler Doc Randall (Robert Fiske) who has cold-bloodedly murdered their boss. You can immediately tell Randall is a baddy, before he shoots anyone, by his Vincent Price mustache. There follows much skullduggery, derring-do and bringing to book.
 
Obviously a baddy
 
There are songs. Holt didn’t essay one this time but Mary Loring (Betty Jane Rhodes), a demure maid who daringly gets a job singing in the saloon and who takes a shine to Tim, gives us Monterrey Moon and then Smokey yodels away through another country chanson, before the two duet on the title song of the movie.
 
Jeff and Mary hit it off
 
There’s plenty of comic relief as the badmen hold up a stage, only to find that the women passengers are in fact tough marshals in drag.

Well, it’s predictable, traditional, and could have been made any time in the 1930s, as a Three Mesquiteers picture, for example. Having said that, it’s not a bad example of the type and you could while away an amusing hour if it came on TV.
 

You could give it a go

We'll look at some more Tim Holt oaters in the days to come, so stay tuned, e-pards!


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Badman’s Territory (RKO, 1946)









How many outlaws can you crowd into one picture?




 
 
There’s no getting away from it: Badman’s Territory is hardly one of the better Randolph Scott Westerns. The New York Times was quite generous when it called it “a lumbering action melodrama” and added that “Westerns seem to have a lot more life when told rapidly and concisely.” The day after, the Times’s sister organ The New York Daily News commented, “The quantity of events is not marked by the quality; in most of the conflicts the participants are too obviously a group of actors going rather awkwardly through the paces of a motion-picture scene.”
 
Worth a watch, but...
 
It has a totally preposterous plot and rather too much plot at that. In 1944 and ’45 Universal had had hits by grouping as many horror characters as you could think of in movies like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, in which Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, wolf men, hunchbacks and mad doctors crowded the cast list, and RKO must have thought they would have a go at that with outlaws. They would put the James gang, the Daltons, Sam Bass and Belle Starr all in the same movie. Surprisingly, it was a box-office success. The pubic liked it. Mind, Hollywood is still pulling that trick, with cartoon superheroes jostling cheek by, er, jowl in blockbusters of unending direness.

Never mind history. In this one a character recounts how, after the Coffeyville bank raids that did for the Daltons (1892), “They got the James boys. A man named Ford shot Jesse and the law got Frank.” This of course was 1882. But hey, who’s counting? It is a fact that the James boys, the Daltons, Sam Bass and Belle Starr never congregated in any year in Quinto, or indeed anywhere else, but well, it’s all a bit of fun, n’est-ce pas?

Randy is honest county sheriff Mark Rowley who is railroaded by a corrupt and sadistic US marshal (Morgan Conway).
 
Randolph the Great
 
Johnny Rowley (James Warren, briefly popular when he stood in at RKO during Tim Holt’s absence) is the sheriff’s younger brother who is tempted by the dark side and finally rides off with the wicked Dalton brothers (Steve Brodie as Bob, Phil Warren as Grat and William Moss as Bill – they always put Bill in for some reason; no sign of Emmett). The action is centered on the town of Quinto, the ‘capital’ of the outlaws’ homeland in the Oklahoma strip. Naturally there is a dishonest saloon keeper in Quinto, with the Elmore Leonardish name of Ben Wade (Richard Hale) and a dubious Colonel running the place (Ray Collins). There follows a highly complex series of plot developments which you need to work at to keep up with.

Of course there is a comic old-timer sidekick and naturally this is Gabby Hayes. Equally naturally there are a couple of dames. The rather lantern-jawed Australian Ann Richards plays an English newspaper editor (they called her English to get round the odd accent) for Randy to fall for and there’s the de rigueur rather more louche saloon gal played by Virginia Sale. It’s Indian Territory, technically, so RKO thought we better throw Chief Thundercloud in there. And that isn’t half the cast. You see, it’s pretty crowded in Quinto, with all those clichéd stock characters walking about.
 
Gabby is Coyote
 
Lawrence Tierney is Jesse James, which is good. I always like a Tierney and Lawrence was just as much a rowdy as his brother Scott Brady and ideal as the hooligan outlaw. Lawrence didn’t actually do many Westerns, more’s the pity, though in one of them, Best of the Badmen in 1951, he was Jesse James again. Tom Tyler (star of silent and early talkie Westerns, Captain Marvel and small player in many a John Ford oater - he was Luke Plummer in Stagecoach - as well as a host of TV shows in the 50s) is brother Frank but, as so often in Jesse James movies, he is just a minor character to be ordered about. Nestor Paiva is enjoyable (he always was) as Sam Bass, who naturally organizes a horse race, and I must say that Isabelle Jewell makes a lovely Belle Starr – who wins the race. If you have ever seen a picture of the real Belle Starr, you might think she was a touch too beautiful. She would have been a much better bet for Randy than the snooty editor lady.
 
Isabelle is Belle
 
The real Belle
 
RKO got Tim Whelan to direct, the Thief of Bagdad man. Badman’s Territory was his first Western and he only did three, though one, Rage at Dawn, another outlaw brother yarn, this time about the Renos, wasn’t at all bad and also starred Randolph Scott. Four people (Jack Natteford, Luci Ward, Clarence Upson Young and Bess Boyle) worked on the screenplay of Badman's Territory and it may have been a question of too many cooks. At any rate the script is a pretty corny mish-mash of clichés.
 
Quinto: where the welcome mat reads Reach, stranger!
 
Well, clunky it may have been but people went to see it. So much so that in 1948 (oh, golden year) they made a sequel (in which the Daltons strangely came back to life), Return of the Badmen, and it was one of those cases where the sequel was a lot better than the original. Return is a hugely enjoyable Western with an equally preposterous plot but a vast amount of energy. It’s a ‘proper’ Western, the sort my dad liked. It was directed by Ray Enright, altogether a better proposition, and despite having several of the same writers as Badman’s Territory was a tighter, better-constructed Western with zip and pzazz; plus, they added The Sundance Kid and Billy the Kid. I recommend it.

As for Badman’s Territory, well, yes, it’s a Randolph Scott Western of the 1940s and as such is definitely worth a watch. Put your credulity on hold and enjoy it for what it is. But don’t expect too much. No one would put it at the top of the Randy list.

 

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Gundown (Freewill/Silver Bullet, 2011)


Vin ordinaire




 
 
The Gundown (aka True Gun) could appear in the DVD racks of your local store or in your TV schedules. It’s one of those made-for-TV or straight-to-video efforts of recent times and as such is very typical. Standard clean-up-the-town plot, uninspiring acting, clothes which are too obviously costumes, indifferent writing, corny music, happy-ever-after ending, but quite pretty, all a bit safe and bland.
 
Skippable, but you could watch it if there wasn't a proper Western on
 
It stars Andrew W Walker, in one of three such Westerns (his others are the Canadian effort Lawman, aka loads of titles, and Ambush at Dark Canyon, another one directed by Dustin Rikert, like The Gundown). Mr. Rikert has made six Westerns so evidently likes the genre. Andrew Walker is OK, I guess. Certainly no worse than other modern stars. He tries to be a tough gunman. You can tell he is a gunman because his name is Cole. He is tracking the men who killed his wife and child. We kinda guess that he’s going to find them.
 
Walker, not Texas Ranger
 
The co-star is Peter Coyote, who is Thomas Morgan, the owner of a no-gun saloon in the town of Dead River. The town badman, Travis McCain (William Shockley) owns a rival saloon (guns allowed) and is running a protection racket on the local businesses. He wants to drive Mr. Coyote out and take over his emporium.
 
Peter Coyote, saloon owner
 
Coyote’s partner is his noble wife Sarah (Sheree J Wilson, Mrs. Chuck Norris in Walker, Texas Ranger), who decides to soldier on when her husband is gunned down by Travis’s hoodlums, while Travis’s sidekick is the delectable Dulcie (Veronica Diaz), curvaceous gunslingerette with tight-fitting duds. She has a bad hat and there are those stupid phew-phew noises when she twirls her pistol, which she does often.
 
Badman McCain and sidekickette Dulcie
 
Coyote (great name for a Western actor) was General Crook, briefly, in Deadwood, Buffalo Bill Cody in Buffalo Girls, and he was in another couple of TV Westerns. So he brings a bit of weight to it. But he doesn’t survive the first reel, if they have reels these days.

It’s set in the Benson area, there are 7 baddies in the showdown, there’s a nice silver-edged Winchester. So it’s not all bad. There’s the odd bare breast and f- word. But really nothing makes The Gundown stand out. In the old days it would have been a standard B Western. If it comes on TV you could skip it but you could also watch it if there wasn’t a proper Western on at the same time.

 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ernest Haycox


One of the very greatest Western writers

 
In 1989 Richard Etulain, always worth reading on anything to do with the West (see for example his Telling Western Stories or his life of Calamity Jane), wrote a biography of the great Ernest Haycox in the Western Writers series. Ernest Haycox Jr. also wrote about his father in On a Silver Desert, published in 2003. But it is chiefly reading the original Haycox tales that one really appreciates the mastery of the man.

Ernest James Haycox (1899 – 1950) was a son of Oregon and he always loved the North-West. Some of his best stories are set there. He enlisted in 1915, was stationed on the Mexican border and then was sent to Europe during the First World War. On his return, he studied journalism and began writing.
 
A young Ernest Haycox
 
Altogether he wrote two dozen novels and about 300 short stories, some about his early interest, the American Revolution, but mostly Western tales. In the 1920s, 30s and 40s he was a leading contributor to top magazines and papers like Collier’s Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post. Admirers included Ernest Hemingway and Gertude Stein, and Hemingway once wrote, "I read The Saturday Evening Post whenever it has a serial by Ernest Haycox.”
 
Haycox in his prime
 
Haycox wrote many stories, including cavalry ones, centered on historical events, but he also created his own invented West. The great Luke Short, another of my all-time admired Western writers, preferred Haycox's non-historical novels: “My favorite Haycox yarns don’t lean on a known time or place…. In these stories, I suspect Haycox made his own geography, named his own towns and mountains and rivers; he peopled them with tough abrasive characters whose only law was their self will.” Short did that himself, of course. Some of the Haycox stories were fictional but thinly disguised historical accounts, such as Trail Town about the fictional River Bend and its sheriff Dan Mitchell - clearly Wild Bill’s predecessor Bear RiverTom Smith in Abilene.

Ernest Haycox really became famous in 1939 because that was the year in which John Ford adapted his short story Stage to Lordsburg into one of the most famous Western movies ever, Stagecoach. In the same year his novel Trouble Shooter was used as the basis for Paramount’s epic railroad picture Union Pacific, starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Cecil B DeMille.
 
One of the most famous Westerns ever was based on Haycox's story Stage to Lordsburg
 
After that, a good number of Haycox stories were used for movie screenplays. Fox’s Sundown Jim (1942) was based on the 1937 novel of the same name; Abilene Town (1946) was a film version of Trail Town with Randolph Scott as the Earpish marshal taming the town. Jacques Tourneur, no less, directed the very classy Western Canyon Passage, also in ’46, with Dana Andrews in the lead, a fine story set in Haycox’s beloved North-West.
 
Fine book, fine film
 
Randy was back in 1951 in Columbia’s Man in the Saddle, the first of the Westerns he made with André De Toth, and the following year MGM’s Apache War Smoke with Gilbert Roland was based on Haycox’s 1939 short story Stage Station. A wishy-washy filmic version (with a miscast Ray Milland) of the fine 1943 novel Bugles in the Afternoon followed,
 
The movie version was disappointing
 
and Universal’s mid-fifties James Stewart/Walter Brennan/John McIntire Western The Far Country, directed by Anthony Mann, was partially based on Alder Gulch. All in all it’s an impressive list.
 
Alder Gulch became The Far Country
 
There are many collections of Haycox stories available (in all kinds of format) and I do recommend you to try some. In the coming weeks I’ll be reviewing Stage to Lordsburg, Bugles in the Afternoon and Man in the Saddle. So stay tuned, e-pards, and click on this link again soon!

 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bugles in the Afternoon (Warner Bros, 1952)


A very ordinary cavalry Western




 
 
“A listless and shabby insult to a splendid book.” (Brian Garfield). Well, that may be a bit harsh. The picture has its plus points: some nice Utah locations (standing in for Dakota Territory) shot in Technicolor by Wilfrid M Cline, for one thing, and then a big budget, a score by Dimitri Tiomkin, some fine character actors in support and the very beautiful (if extremely posh) Helena Carter as female lead.
 
It has its points, but...
 
But yes, overall it is a bit of a clunker. That is chiefly because it never recovers from the fatal miscasting of Ray Milland in the lead. Welshman Milland could do smooth urbanite with aplomb but he was no good in tough-guy roles. He was fine blackmailing a Cambridge pal into murdering his wife or winning an Oscar for Billy Wilder but of course big studios in the 1950s had to use him in war films and Westerns; those genres were de rigueur and every star, posh or not, had to climb into the’ saddle at one point or another. Milland got away with the pot-boiler California with Barbara Stanwyck in 1947 because that was only a semi-Western, more a costume drama.  He was no good with Hedy Lamarr in the John Farrow-directed Copper Canyon in 1950, and Bugles was his third oater. Apart from hosting a few Death Valley Days episodes and doing a couple of late TV movies, that was where he left Westerns, and a good thing too. In Bugles he convinces for the first thirty seconds as the cashiered officer but as he goes West and enlists as a private, beats Forrest Tucker in a fistfight and is promoted sergeant, he is simply unbelievable. The film is sunk in the first reel.
 
Milland: fatally miscast
 
It’s a peripheral Custer story. Like Lippert’s low-budget but rather classy Little Big Horn of the previous year, it is set at the time and in the territory of the 1876 military fiasco, and a bit like Randolph Scott’s post-Little Big Horn story in 7th Cavalry, Bugles in the Afternoon - the film and Haycox novel - are not directly about the famous last stand. Custer appears briefly and rather colorlessly, impersonated by Sheb Wooley (it’s barely a speaking part)
 
Custer reduced to a bit part
 
and General Terry, Major Reno and Captain Benteen (all nonentity actors) also make fleeting appearances. The real action of the movie, though, concerns a triangular relationship between the noble hero Kern Shafter (Milland) and the odious Capt. Garnett (an excellent Hugh Marlowe), two men who hate each other, for Garnett was responsible for Shafter’s unfair dismissal from the Army, and the woman they both love, Josephine Russell (Carter). The outcome is thoroughly predictable: it is absolutely obvious from the first ten minutes of the movie (no spoiler here) that Garnett will be unmasked as a cad and Shafter will be reinstated and get the girl. Boring, frankly.

Warners got Roy Rowland to direct. He had started as a flunky at MGM and married Louis Mayer’s niece. Curiously, he was then promoted. He was OK at crime dramas (e.g. Rogue Cop) and he later directed Stewart Granger (another posh Brit) in a B Western, Gun Glory. Later still he directed some Western TV shows and some Italian  ‘westerns’, so he totted up a total of 50 oaters one way or another, but still, you wouldn’t call him a specialist. The pace of Bugles is alright, though the love-triangle plot forcibly slows the action down.

Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes) and Harry Brown adapted the Haycox novel into a screenplay. They were both novelists (Mainwaring specializing in hard-boiled crime pulp) but again, neither was what you would call a Western expert. Brown did later work on El Dorado, but that rather proves the point…
 
Fine novel
 
Hugh Marlowe should have done more Westerns. He was terrific in the few he made, notably in the underrated but powerful noir Rawhide in 1951, his first. The Jacques Tourneur-directed semi-Western Way of the Gaucho followed, then Bugles. He was good later in Garden of Evil with Gary Cooper and appeared in a few Western TV shows but he was very strong in oaters and he is excellent here as the evil nemesis of Milland.
 
The excellent Hugh Marlowe. Pity he didn't do more Westerns.
 
Tucker is excellent (he always was) as the once sergeant, now private who at first resents, then bonds with the new sergeant (Milland). His death is noble and heroic. I wish these actors would avoid ‘Irish’ accents, though. This part is mostly Tucker, not Haycox.
 
Reliable Forrest Tucker, always good
 
Good old Barton MacLane is the sympathetic officer friend of the hero, James Millican pops up as a sergeant and I spotted John Doucette in a bit part as a tough barman. Bob Steele the Great is listed as ‘horseman’ but I didn’t spot him, dammit.

Far from a great Western, this one repays a watch and has its points but all in all is on the skippable side.

On the skippable side