The Charge at Feather River. What's it got going for it? Well, two things, an early use of 3-D technology that works surprisingly well and an iconic death scene that's influenced everything from Indiana Jones to Star Wars.
In the months following the end of the Civil War, former Union soldier Miles Archer (Guy Madison) returns to a ruined ranch with no cattle. He's approached by the commander at the nearby fort to undertake a dangerous mission. The railroad is moving into Cheyenne territory, leaving one last chance to get back two sisters who have long been held prisoners of the Cheyenne. Archer is less than enthused to take on this suicide mission, but he takes it on just the same, bringing a capable sergeant, Baker (Frank Lovejoy), to help him command a squad of prisoners from the guardhouse. Archer's squad heads into Cheyenne territory, but they find that only one of the women, Anne (Helen Westcott), even wants to be rescued while the other, Jennie (Vera Miles), is engaged to a chief, Thunder Hawk. More surprises await on this dangerous mission, Archer working to protect himself from threats inside and out.
According to a recent airing on Turner Classic Movies, 'Charge' was the highest grossing western released in 1953. Not bad when you consider Shane, Hondo, and The Naked Spur were all released that year. It's nothing special as a western, but it is enjoyable throughout. Director Gordon Douglas' movie is a solid cavalry vs. Indians western, featuring some cool locations and a memorable score from composer Max Steiner (borrowing some from his They Died With Their Boots On score). Listen to Steiner's main theme HERE. Using a familiar theme of saving captives from raiding Indians (The Searchers, Major Dundee), it's a pretty good example of what a pretty straightforward B-western can be. Some cool characters, good action and musical score. It doesn't have to be groundbreaking to be enjoyable.
What was the appeal then? No doubt some of the success had to do with the original release being in 3-D. I've never been a fan of 3-D filming, gone on record far too many times with that, but there is a cheesy charm when it's handled right. Maybe it has something to do with the 1953 release as opposed to 2013, but it's fun to watch. At different points, we get arrows, tomahawks, spears and lances chucked directly at the camera. Right in the midst of a battle, it can be a fun, diverting gimmick. At one point late, Lovejoy's Sgt. Baker even spits tobacco juice right at the camera!!! Twice!!! Take that rattlesnake about to bite him! Go figure, but the 3-D technique works here pretty well.
Taking a break from his starring role on TV's Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Madison is his typical workmanlike self, a tried and true hero to lead the way in an impossible mission. He's never flashy, but he was a good hero in countless westerns like this. Lovejoy too is well-cast as Baker, the necessary sidekick and right hand man, given a rivalry with Pvt. Ryan (Steve Brodie), who was trying to make a move on Baker's wife. Westcott is okay as the quasi-love interest while Miles gets to villain it up as Jennie, the captive turned future Indian princess. Madison's Guardhouse Brigade includes Cullen (Dick Wesson), a drunken thief providing some comic relief, Johnson (Onslow Stevens), a journalist/artist along for the mission, Johnny (Ron Hagerthy), the kidnapped sisters' younger brother, the treacherous Morgan (Neville Brand), Smiley (Henry Kulky), the boozing private, Zebulon (Lane Chandler), a former Confederate cavalry officer, and Connors (James Brown), the capable soldier.
It's a pretty straightforward formula once Archer and Co. get out on the mission road. We've got about 15-20 men on a dangerous mission in enemy territory. Who's going to make it, and who isn't? Various trials and tribulations are thrown at Archer's squad, providing some cool action scenes as they try and make it to safety with warring Indians seemingly all around them. The action is never on a large scale, but it's well put together, especially the finale with Thunder Hawk's war party closing in on all sides. What else to talk about? The scream of a certain Pvt. Wilhelm as he's hit with an arrow. Watch HERE. It is a scream that's been used in several movies since, including both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. Watch a compilation HERE. It's something little that helps make a good western particularly memorable. Solid western all-around.
The Charge at Feather River (1953): ***/****