Dr. Allen Seward (Robert Francis) is assigned to a western cavalry post where his predecessors had been drunks and slackers. The post doesn't take kindly to him either, especially after he disregards regulations and tends to sick Indians on the malaria-infested reservation. The Indians break away from the reservation to move to a healthier higher ground, and when they join with the Comanches to besiege the fort, Seward is branded as a "woodhawk", the bird that turns against its own. Donna Reed is present as the niece of the post commander; Phil Carey is a cavalry captain that believes the only good Indian is a dead Indian, and May Wynn (who shared a screen debut with Francis in "The Caine Mutiny)is the white girl raised by the Indians and married to the chief's son. Francis would make only two more films before being killed in a 1955 plane crash. Written by
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Better than expected, with a complex script, lots of action (not all well-staged), and even some character development. Francis is fine as the idealistic young doctor whose dedication to his Hippocratic oath is greater than his oath to the army. As a result, he treats hostile Indians as equals, causing trouble for the cavalry when the tribe jumps the reservation. It's hard to tell if Francis's apparent unease is good acting or still a bit of stage fright for a newcomer. But whichever, it fits in perfectly with a tenderfoot trying to get his bearings in unfriendly surroundings.
At first I thought Donna Reed's super-coy little flirt was nothing more than star-casting that would ruin the movie. But the script deals intelligently with her development as the plot darkens. Carey's excellent as the no-nonsense Captain, who's the realist counterpoint to the doctor's idealism. Note how he's never treated with disrespect even though some of his decisions seem ethically callous. Too bad, however, the writers included the tiresome cliché of a whiskey- loving sergeant as comedy relief. Nonetheless, director Karlson, who would later excel at crime dramas, keeps things moving, and wonder of wonders, even has the Indians shrewdly shooting horses out from under the cavalry.
The movie's theme reflects the growing racial consciousness of the 1950's. I like the way a bond is established between the doctor and the medicine man in their common human concern with healing. But just as importantly, the screenplay manages to make its point without getting preachy. Sure, the production is low-budget, never getting out of greater LA, with an Indian encampment that looks about as real as a Disneyland tableau. Still, it's a thoughtful and generally well-executed little horse opera that's better than it ought to be.
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