It's been just a few months since the end of the Civil War, and ex-Confederate soldier Ben Lassiter (Victor Mature) is riding west with his 10-year old daughter, Abby (Reba Walters). They're heading to Oregon -- via Nevada? -- but now they've caught up with a Union patrol guarding a payroll shipment. Ben and Abby head their separate ways, but down the trail they ride across the massacred remains of the patrol with two female survivors, sisters Beth (Elaine Stewart) and Martha (Faith Domergue) Drury. A Modoc war party is on the warpath killing everything in its path. The Drury sisters tell Ben they were supposed to meet up with another Union patrol somewhere ahead of them, but they're not sure exactly where. While trying to avoid the Modoc warriors, can Ben and Co. manage to find the patrol and safety?
This western from director Francis D. Lyon is interesting for its writing staff; actor/writer Leo Gordon and Fred Hartsook (cool name). Gordon made a career out of playing tough guy roles in films like Tobruk (also wrote), Hondo and many others, including this one. He also wrote more than a few films and TV episodes and did it well. Gordon had a knack for writing meat and potato stories that audiences ate up. They're pretty straight forward, but they feature plenty of action and tough guys beating the hell out of each other. This one is pretty straightforward too, even a little short at 75 minutes, but western fans should enjoy it.
The Civil War western angle plays well here. A few months since the end of the war, Mature's Ben is looking for a fresh start. He's put the war behind him and wants to move on with his daughter. Meeting up with Union cavalry troopers though that aren't so forgiving, the hatred and rivalry from the war still very much alive. It's made worse when Ben meets the Drury sisters. Beth likes the Confederate and his daughter, but Martha isn't so forgiving, holding a hard-edged hatred for the Confederacy having lost her husband in the war (but there's more going on there too). The Union vs. Confederacy angle works well, giving a familiar western a fresh perspective. Then, the two former enemies must band together to survive Indian attacks. Good stuff all around.
The casting is good from top to bottom here, starting with Mature. He's a very capable soldier, but we also see a softer side of him as he looks out for his daughter. Stewart is solid and Domergue is appropriately shrill and hateful as the Drury sisters. Rex Ingram is a scene-stealer as Nelson, a black Union quartermaster wounded in the attack who bonds with Ben. The Union troopers include William Ching and Noah Beery Jr. as the officers in charge with Slim Pickens, Harry Carey Jr., Ken Curtis and Gordon. With a movie that's just 75 minutes, none of these familiar western faces are given much to do, but it's cool to see so many in one film. Would the movie be better with some more development in story and characters? Sure, what movie wouldn't? What's here is solid though.
Filmed in black and white, 'Escort' has the California hills/mountains posing as the Nevada mountains. It's got an interesting visual look to the story, the black and white adding a nice touch. The cavalry vs. Modoc story develops nicely with a claustrophobic touch as the canyons full of rocks and plants seem to be closing in on the troopers. Indians are hiding all around, just waiting to attack. An actor named X Brands play Tago, the Modoc leader. The biggest flaw may be that at 75 minutes, it feels rushed. The ending comes together too quickly, wrapping up in a flash because....well, because it does. It's a solid, entertaining B-western that could have been significantly better, but it's not bad for what it is.
Escort West (1958): ** 1/2 /****