In Tomahawk, the crooked Jackman brothers control the town, Sheriff Dunham is up for re-election, the sheep growers are banned in town and a stagecoach line undercover investigator arrives to catch the gang that regularly robs the stages.
Marshal Wyatt Earp kills a couple of men of the Clanton-gang in a fight. In revenge Clanton's thugs kill the marshal's brother. Thus, Wyatt Earp starts to chase the killers together with his friend Doc Holliday.
Marshal Bill Haney, his assistant Tom and driver Jud are transporting prisoners Link Ferris and Tioga through Apache Indian territory and hopefully on to Fort Smith, Arkansas. On an adjacent trail, shifty Indian trader Jonah McAdam happens upon a cavalry troop that has been massacred by the Yellow Claw lead Apaches, the only survivor of the attack is Capt. Riordan, who orders McAdam to take him to Fort Dragoon Wells. Before they set off they are met by the prison wagon and not too long after that a stagecoach carrying Ann Bradley, Phillip Scott and Mexican entertainer Mara Fay also arrives on the scene. All of them now under serious threat of attacks by the Apaches. So Riordan orders the two prisoners to be unshackled so they can aid the defence of the group as they attempt to make it to Fort Dragoon Wells. But the Apache are not the only problem facing them, not all in the group are quite what they seem and with food and water at a premium, the odds are heavily stacked against them making it to safety.
As it was directed by journeyman Harold D. Schuster and coming out of B-studio Allied Artists, the omens weren't that great for Dragoon Wells Massacre being anything other than a poor B Western picture. That it breaks free from budgetary restrains and becomes a fine genre entry is largely down to three key points. First is the screenplay by Warren Douglas, secondly is a few fine acting performances and thirdly is having William Clothier on cinematography duties.
Though very similar in plotting to a number of other Westerns, this boasts a great script that gives weighty substance to the characters, and with Schuster effectively not letting the pace sag, the pic is both entertaining and intriguing. It would have been easy for this to turn out as a bunch of stereotypical caricatures meandering across the plains, but thanks to Douglas these become real people in very real peril. They not only must survive the constant attacks as the Indians try to pick them off at opportune moments, they must also survive each other. Thus with twists and surprising developments popping up during the journey, story doesn't lack for inventiveness.
Casting aside Mona Freeman's awful and grating on the nerves turn as Ann Bradley, the cast deliver some quality characterisations, particularly notable are Barry Sullivan (Ferris), Dennis O'Keefe (Riordan), Jack Elam (Tioga) & Katy Jurado (Mara Fay). While Sebastian Cabot is weasel personified as Jonah McAdam. William Clothier is no strange name to Western fans, his work with John Ford, Howard Hawks & Budd Boetticher ensures he's a name to be excited about on a Western credit list. As usual, he doesn't disappoint. Superbly photographing the rugged terrain (Kanab, Utah) as it imposes on our under duress group, he also does fine work with the close up shots as well. Shot in CinemaScope with De Luxe Color, it's a shame that the print is of average quality.
This is a film that is crying out to be remastered, but its lesser known status lends one to believe that that is unlikely to ever happen. However, it's a testament to Clothier's ability that the piece still manages to look fabulous. There's some bad editing in the mix, and in truth Schuster is no skilled craftsman when it comes to action set pieces. Yet the faults are easily forgiven, for this is all about character emphasis, as nobody on this journey is merely canon fodder, they all are given time and thought to involve the audience. So that coupled with Clothier's work makes this a strong Western that's recommended with confidence to the serious Western fan. 7.5/10
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