"On December 8th, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a Special Proclamation, whereby Confederate Prisoners of War might gain their freedom, provided they would join the Union Army to defend the frontier West against the Indians."
A great premise drives this brooding yet action pumped Western forward, a production bolstered by crisp black and white location photography at San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, skilled direction by multi-genre director Wise and characterisations rich in thought and human interest value.
Film essentially centres around the workings of Fort Thorn, a Union Army stronghold commanded by embittered Maj. Henry Kenniston (Chandler). As he takes delivery of a unit of Confederate prisoners from Rock Island Prison Camp, themselves commanded by Col. Clay Tucker (Cotten), he struggles to contain his distaste. Something which obviously isn't helping an already pressure cooker atmosphere as groups of men divided by the on going war, are expected to stand or fall next to each other against the looming presence of chief Satank and his army of braves.
As the screenplay rolls on we learn about the main players beliefs and reasons for such, with the tragedy of the war deftly born out by the actors in their portrayals. The presence of widow Elena Kenniston (Darnell) also is cause for simmering tensions, where although an underwritten potential love triangle sometimes feels like a token offering on the edges of the frame, her character is so well drawn into the moody atmosphere, her back story packing emotional sting, that the film benefits from this case of testosterone lowering.
In amongst the Fort's uneasy alliance there are devious plans afoot on both sides of the coalition, that is to be expected, for it would be pretty standard stuff if these guys all agreed to shake hands and get on with it. But again the screenplay delivers some well thought out scenarios where agents and spies come into play, the safe transporting of civilians away from the Fort throws up some spice, as does a desperate act of violence by Major Kenniston. It all builds to a head and then Wise unleashes his skills as a overseer of action.
The crowning moment comes with the Indian attack on Fort Thorn. It's a prolonged attack filled with hundreds of extras and action aplenty. Each frame shot by Wise features flying bodies, arrows and bullets making their mark, fire raging in all parts of the ravaged Fort. Men, women and even children taking up the good fight as well, the Indian braves a fearsome and athletic foe coming in continuous waves. And this is not some Western where all the characters we have come to know are going to be singing come the end, some will die and it makes for dramatic and emotional impact.
Great cast, great direction and a great screenplay, this definitely deserves to be better known and loved by those into Westerns/Civil War movies. 8.5/10