Ambush At Tomahawk Gap (1953), starring John Hodiak and John Derek, is a minor Columbia Western directed by Fred F. Sears. And it’s a damn good one.
After years in regional theater and teaching drama at Southwestern University in Memphis, Fred F. Sears headed to Hollywood. He eventually wound up at Columbia as a bit actor and dialogue director. While working on some of Columbia’s Durango Kid pictures, he got to know Charles Starrett. He directed one, Desert Vigilante (1949), and eventually took over the series. (There’s a nice DVD available of 1951’s Bonanza Town, which Sears both directed and appears in.)
Along with William Castle, Sears became a preferred director for Sam Katzman, whose quickie unit at Columbia cranked out serials and genre pictures at a frantic pace. He spent the rest of his career at Columbia, and from crime films to horror movies to Westerns, Sears’ ability to get ‘em done on time and on budget served him well. Quality wasn’t much of a concern, but he always managed to provide some anyway. Today he’s known for Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), a picture that benefits from remarkable stop-motion animation from Ray Harryhausen, and The Giant Claw (1957), a film completely scuttled by some of the worst special effects in Hollywood history. Sears died in his office at Columbia in November, 1957, with eight pictures waiting for release, leaving a deep filmography that’s certainly worth diving into. (1956’s The Werewolf is a good one.)
Ambush At Tomahawk Gap gave Sears a better cast than usual, a slightly bigger budget and Technicolor. It makes good use of a familiar plot — a group of ex-cons battle Indians and each other as they search for their buried loot — adding plenty of suspense and a mean streak a mile wide. This is a surprisingly violent film. It does what many good low-budget Westerns do: build a simple story around a small cast, create some tension, then pile on the action.
Sears had an excellent cast to wok with. Not long after the release of Ambush, John Hodiak would appear on Broadway to raves in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial; he had a fatal heart attack in 1955. (He hated working with horses.) John Derek was an upcoming young actor, and he’d appear in a number of excellent 50s Westerns. David Brian, who was a year away from appearing in Dawn At Socorro (1954), had a long, successful career as a character actor in movies and TV. Ray Teal is now known as Sheriff Coffee in Bonanza, but he turns up in hundreds of films (he’s terrific as the bartender in One-Eyed Jacks). María Elena Marqués was a noted Mexican actress. This and Across The Wide Missouri (1951) are the only American films she made — both times she played Indians. And the great John Qualen is on hand as a grizzled old prospector.
Helping Sears make the most of this were cinematographer Henry Freulich, who shot lots of cheap Technicolor Westerns for Columbia, including William Castle’s Masterson Of Kansas (1954). Writer David Lang has a long list of credits — 50s Westerns such as Fury At Gunsight Pass (1956, again with Sears) and TV like The Rifleman, Cheyenne and Maverick.
Ambush At Tomahawk Gap is a picture that’s easily overlooked — just one of many Columbia Westerns from the 1950s — but offers so much for those willing to track it down. Hopefully, a DVD release of some sort will make that easier.