The Yellow Tomahawk is pretty run-of-the-mill, I liked it. Entertaining, surprisingly violent and with a cool cast, it's a solid western that's worth a watch.
Riding out of the wilderness, frontiersman Adam Reed (Rory Calhoun) finds himself being chased by Cheyenne warriors. He's cornered and looks to be in trouble until his blood brother, Cheyenne warrior Fire Knife (Lee Van Cleef), steps in, all of it a show to arrange a meeting. Fire Knife has a warning and a message he would like delivered. The U.S. cavalry is building a new fort nearby with a commander, Major Ives (Warner Anderson), who lead a bloody massacre months prior against a peaceful Indian camp. His reputation has preceded him with Fire Knife passing his message along to Reed. What is it? Tell Ives to stop building the fort and risk an attack that will wipe out the partially-assembled fort. Reed rides down to the fort and passes it along but Ives isn't having it, doubting the truth of the threat. What awaits for the small garrison and the soldiers' families who have traveled west? Reed sees the writing on the wall but no one else seems to believe what's coming.
Nothing flashy here, nothing too crazy. From director Lesley Selander, 'Tomahawk' is nonetheless an entertaining, pretty solid western that isn't limited by its budget or limitations. A longtime director in film and television, Selander is a pro at spinning a movie like this. So often, westerns are town-bound. limited by a fake-looking set that never allows the story to breathe. This particular entry does not have that problem with virtually no sets! The cavalry building a fort allows for no sets other than a couple half-assembled walls. It was shot on-location at the Kanab Movie Ranch and Fort, giving the story a cool, intimidating, scary sense of the openness of the desert and wilderness. You're all alone out there, and with the threat of an imminent Indian attack, there's no place to hide.
A star of B-westerns who often played supporting roles in bigger budget pictures, Calhoun is a favorite of mine. He plays a memorable, roguish good guy, a solid anti-hero with an edge who is quite comfortable in the western and in the saddle. His Adam Reed character, a frontiersman and scout of sorts, is interesting because of his hinted-at backstory. It's never told in detail, but it appears he lived with the Cheyenne at some point, his brotherhood and family connection with a young Lee Van Cleef as warrior Fire Knife. If there was a little more time to breathe ('Tomahawk' is a very pleasant 82 minutes), maybe we could have learned some more about out hero. Still, what's there is pretty cool.
No A-listers on-hand here, but that doesn't detract from an overall good cast. Peggie Castle (Lily Merrill on TV's Lawman) is the necessary love interest, a beautiful woman visiting her fiance, a cavalry officer, at the budding fort. She's no damsel in distress either, a welcome addition to the genre. Noah Beery Jr. has some stereotypical fun as Tonio, an ay-ay-ay Mexican horse wrangler with a beautiful Indian girl, Honey Bear (Rita Moreno), who follows him around. As the stupidly blind officer, Major Ives, Warner Anderson is frighteningly uncomfortable, portraying an officer that was probably all too familiar in the wild west. Also look for Peter Graves (gold prospector) and Adam Williams and James Best (cavalry troopers) in key supporting parts.
One good western after another followed a simple formula. Introduce a disparate group of survivors and individuals, throw them into a survival situation with an ever-present Indian war party, and see who makes it out. After an intense, tension-building first 30 minutes or so, that's what 'Tomahawk' uses as a base. We follow a small group of survivors of an Indian attack trying to get across the desert to safety. The action itself is pretty intense in itself, especially the Cheyenne attack on the hastily-built and poorly-defended fort. It's not hugely graphic -- it is still 1954 after all -- but the violence is incredibly rough and if it had been shown on-screen, whoo, we're talking one nasty picture. The ending too is pretty honest for a mid-1950's western, something that surprised me, caught me off-guard a little bit.
A solid western overall. Worth checking out.
The Yellow Tomahawk (1954): ** 1/2 /****