Directed by Harold Schuster
Produced by Lindsley Parsons
Screenplay by Warren Douglas
From a story by Oliver Drake
Director Of Photography: William Clothier
Cast: Barry Sullivan (Link Ferris), Dennis OKeefe (Capt. Matt Riordan), Mona Freeman (Ann Bradley), Katy Jurado (Mara Fay), Sebastian Cabot (Jonah), Casey Adams (Phillip Scott), Jack Elam (Tioga), Trevor Bardette (Marshal Bill Haney), Jon Shepodd (Tom), Hank Worden (Hopi Charlie), Warren Douglas (Jud), Judy Strangis (Susan), Alma Beltran (Station agent’s wife), John War Eagle (Yellow Claw)
This is an entry in The Allied Artists Blogathon, a celebration of the studio’s rich and varied output.
The team of writer/actor Warren Douglas, producer Lindsley Parsons and director Harold D. Schuster turned out five excellent B-plus pictures for Allied Artists in the 50s. They were the tight, grim Western Jack Slade (1953); a terrific noir, Loophole (1954); a solid sequel, The Return Of Jack Slade (1955); Finger Man (1955), a dope picture with Forrest Tucker, Peggie Castle and Timothy Carey; and finally, the dark, tense CinemaScope Western Dragoon Wells Massacre (1957).
Producer Lindsley Parsons had been in the picture business since the 30s, starting out writing B Westerns like those Lone Star John Wayne movies. Warren Douglas was a B Movie actor who made the transition to screenwriter, often playing a part in the pictures he wrote; he’d later write for a number of TV Westerns. He based his Dragoon Wells Massacre screenplay on a story by the prolific writer/producer/director of scores of B Westerns, Oliver Drake.
Director Harold Schuster started as an actor, making the transition to editor before the Talkies came in. Though he never set the world on fire as a director, he made a few fine films before settling into TV.
Dragoon Wells Massacre begins with a prison wagon carrying two bad men, Link Ferris (Barry Sullivan) and Tioga (Jack Elam), to trial. Before long, they come across an Indian trader, Jonah McAdam (Sebastian Cabot), and a cavalry patrol that’s been slaughtered by the Apaches, with Capt. Matt Riordan (Dennis O’Keefe) its only survivor. Soon, the drivers and passengers of a stagecoach are added to those making the desperate journey to Fort Dragoon Wells with the Apaches never far behind. This is a fairly common setup — a diverse group making their way from Point A to Point B, battling an enemy, the elements and each other along the way — that’s certainly not limited to Westerns. Douglas comes up with some solid characters, makes sure we like the good ones and hate the bad ones, then puts them all through absolute hell — and us through a tense 88 minutes — before the final fade.
While the basic premise may be conventional — and I’m keeping the synopsis lean on purpose, what Douglas does with it is certainly not. (I’d love to know how many of the finer points were found in Drake’s original story.) What’s more, Schuster keeps things chugging along, almost relentlessly, from one set piece to the next. The picture really benefits from all of his years at the Moviola, and he gets top-notch performances from his terrific cast — which steadily shrinks with each brush with the Apaches.
Sullivan and Elam are likable badguys, and we’re soon hoping these outsiders will get their chances for redemption. This could be Elam’s best performance, as a man damned by his appearance — and by the shallowness of others. Dennis O’Keefe is fine as the tough cavalryman. Sebastian Cabot is utterly despicable as the gunrunner — the movie’s real villain. Before he became Mr. French, Cabot was a terrific 50s Westerns sleazeball.
Mona Freeman does a great job as a snooty, self-centered, judgmental stage passenger (and former flame of O’Keefe). Her transformation is not only satisfying, but believable. Katy Jurado is good, as always, as a saloon girl hoping to turn her life around. My one complaint is that Hank Worden doesn’t have enough to do — but that’s something you could say about almost everything he appeared in, from The Searchers (1956) to One-Eyed Jacks (1961).
William Clothier shot Dragoon Wells Massacre around Kanab, Utah, in CinemaScope and color by DeLuxe. One of the finest Western shooters ever, Clothier’s work here is tremendous. The entire picture takes place outdoors, and you really feel the heat and dryness of the desert. Just as important, you never think that you’re watching a low-budget movie.
Dragoon Wells Massacre is unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. There’s a German DVD that presents the picture at a TV-friendly 1.78 instead of Scope’s 2.35. It’s a real shame the picture’s so hard to track down and that Clothier’s work is compromised. This is one of those 50s Westerns that gets everything right, and it now sits at the top of my Blu-ray Want List.
Someone who frequents this blog, when I once mentioned that I was watching an old Phil Karlson picture, pointed out that now matter how old it is, a movie’s new if you haven’t seen it. So, following that logic, and considering that I just saw this a few months ago, Dragoon Wells Massacre gets my vote for Best Picture of 2015.