Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners from Fort Bravo, Arizona must fight side by side against their enemies, the Mescalero Indians. But their fratricidal war is too conveniently forgotten in this monotonous classic western.
In 1953, John Sturges was getting closer to the success of The Great Escape (1963) with his first major Western movie: Escape From Fort Bravo. The film focuses on Captain Roper (William Holden), a Union officer who runs a Fort where numerous Confederate prisoners are held, including Captain Marsh (John Forsythe). Along with three fellow captives, Marsh intends to escape the Fort, thanks to the help of his girlfriend, Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker). She arrives at the Fort on purpose for a wedding, after which the escape is carried out. Unfortunately for the prisoners, Captain Roper is also ‘the man who finds everybody’: regardless of the dangers of the Arizona desert, he goes after the fugitives and the woman he fell for, in order to bring them back to Fort Bravo. He finds them, of course. But they get surrounded by Mescalero Indians, and they are trapped altogether…
The movie was not as remarkable for William Holden as it was for Sturges. Although the actor played the main protagonist, this film did not offer him the best part of his acting career. Captain Roper is a rough man, who briefly opens up to love when he meets Miss Forester; but the lack of development in William Holden’s character makes it hard to like him or simply to understand him. This short coming was already pointed out by several critics when the movie got released, including by The New York Times . Unfortunately, the same flaw seems to affect Eleanor Parker’s character, whose love triangle with Roper and Marsh is not convincing.
The opening scene of Escape From Fort Bravo offers a promising beginning, with the potential for a great story. There are as many Union Army soldiers as there are Confederate prisoners, and the Mescalero Indians are never very far away from the Fort. But the interesting part unfortunately stops there and is replaced by curious details, such as the lack of security around prisoners. They can exit and enter their ‘guarded camp’ by themselves, they can request to visit their friends at the Fort’s nursery, they can speak freely to the Union soldiers, they can even attend the wedding of Colonel Owens’s daughter. The line drawn between Northerners and Southerners is well present in this movie through conversations and songs, but is deliberately meant to disappear. Therefore, villains are needed for the story: the Mescalero Indians thus play that part, when action finally takes place. After a slow first half of the movie, the prisoners’ break allows the Indians to show, once again, that they are the bad guys against the united American brothers. As pointed out before, protagonists are not well-developed in Escape From Fort Bravo; however, in order to counterbalance this fact (and to trick the audience into taking sides against the Mescalero Indians), the tribe had to appear as unfriendly and faceless as possible. Escape from Fort Bravo is yet another example of a Western in which Indians seem to get killed more easily than the main white characters, whose Indian guide is ironically the first to die on their side. The arrival of the Mescalero villains suddenly brings about the reunion of the warring brothers, chasing the Civil War away from the audience’s attention on purpose… through stereotyped characters.
The one thing Sturges managed to do properly was to shoot Escape from Fort Bravo on authentic locations or with convincing fake backgrounds: the Fort does seem to be lost in the wilderness. The environment is pleasant to see. Music in this movie is not very much present, but it suits the tone of the story and appears mostly for scenes of attacks or romance. The absence of melody perfectly works during the wait, right before the Indians’ final attack.
Escape from Fort Bravo by John Sturges is a standard Western film, with unconvincing characters and a long-awaited action for half of the movie. Though it is not exactly a waste of time to watch it once, this movie certainly does not make a lasting impression.
Captain Roper . . . . . William Holden
Carla Forester . . . . . Eleanor Parker
Captain John Marsh . . . . . John Forsythe
Campbell . . . . . William Demarest
Cabot Young . . . . . William Campbell
Balley . . . . . John Lupton
Lieutenant Beecher . . . . . Richard Anderson
Alice Owens . . . . . Polly Bergen
Colonel Owens . . . . . Carl Benton Reid
Nicholas Nayfack for Goldwyn Mayer (MGM)
Franck Fenton, Phillip Rock, Michael Pate