Release Date(s)1958 (December 1, 2015)
Studio(s)United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: N/A
The growth of Kino Lorber’s “Studio Classics” label has yielded a lot of wonderful discoveries for this reviewer, but nowhere more than in the Western genre. The company seems particularly devoted to unearthing hidden gems from the tradition’s most prolific era, the 1950s, when the sheer number of Westerns was so staggering that even if one were to watch a Western a day (which I try to do), one could never truly scratch the surface of what was happening at both the studio and independent era in the postwar period. While masters of the form like John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Budd Boetticher are well known to enthusiasts of the genre, even the most dedicated fans often have trouble keeping some truly great movies from falling through the cracks.
At the same time that Boetticher was making his best films with Randolph Scott (the extraordinary “Ranown” cycle that ran from 1956 to 1960), Scott’s future Ride the High Country costar Joel McCrea was making a couple awfully good Westerns of his own with director Joseph M. Newman. Newman was a journeyman responsible for a series of fine but underrated Westerns like Pony Soldier and Red Skies of Montana who went on to helm episodes of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In 1958, he teamed with McCrea for the extraordinary Fort Massacre, a sort of stripped down companion piece to Ford’s The Searchers in which McCrea plays a racist cavalry commander seeking vengeance for the deaths of his wife and children. A slightly less prestigious exploration of the same issues as Ford’s masterpiece, Fort Massacre lacks Ford’s poetry but faces its subject more directly – McCrea’s intense bigotry and cruelty are occasionally quite shocking to behold.
Yet McCrea’s character is also far from one-note – throughout the film Newman and screenwriter Martin M. Goldsmith play with audience identification, shifting our sympathies among not only the various white characters (many of them men in McCrea’s own regiment who think he’s insane), but to the Apaches and Pawnees as well. The movie is extremely sophisticated in its manipulation of point of view, and as a result the action sequences pack a real punch – they’re all infused with moral complexity and rage. Although the movie takes the occasional misstep that dates it somewhat – the hilariously miscast Susan Cabot as a Native American girl is probably its biggest liability – overall it’s a riveting, provocative piece of work, with some highly quotable lines from Goldsmith thrown into the mix. Newman’s mastery of the Cinemascope frame, which is also on display in his subsequent collaboration with McCrea, The Gunfight at Dodge City, allows for dynamic, visually pleasing images that are serviceably presented on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray. The transfer isn’t the most fine-tuned – flesh tones seem washed out at times, and the contrast doesn’t seem as sharp as it ought to – but overall the palette is consistent and the print quality solid. The 2.0 audio mix is excellent as well, with a perfect balance between dialogue, music, and effects. There are no extras on this no-frills presentation of a minor gem that deserves to be better known.
- Jim Hemphill