Warpath, a decent little western that could have been pretty good. If it had just stuck to its revenge-driven guns...
Riding into a dusty, wind-swept town in the west, a man named John Vickers (Edmond O'Brien) gets off a stagecoach and promptly runs into the man's he long been after. He prods him into drawing first and shoots him dead, but not before getting some information out of the dying man. Vickers is looking for two other men and has been doing so for the previous eight years, always on their trail, always one step too slow. Now, he's got to take it one step further. Those two men he's pursuing have joined the cavalry. What to do? Driven solely by revenge, Vickers joins up too, knowing the regiment the duo enlisted with. That outfit? The infamous Seventh Cavalry, commanded by General George Armstrong Custer. Vickers hopes he can finish his mission, but has he bitten off more than he can chew?
I'm always on the lookout for new westerns, especially harder-to-find B-westerns like this entry from director Byron Haskin. Nothing too fancy here, a pretty straightforward revenge story that's undone by some story choices. It brings together all sorts of genre conventions, throws them in a mixer and you get to watch the finished product, a western clocking in at about 100 minutes that has a somewhat disjointed feel. Not especially good, not especially bad, but worth a watch for genre fans.
Edmond O'Brien is criminally underrated. Westerns, film noirs, dramas, thrillers, this guy could and did do it all. His John Vickers manages to hold things together throughout all the bouncing balls. He's a Civil War veteran hellbent on revenge, looking to avenge the death of his fiance who was shot and paralyzed as an innocent bystander during a bank robbery. He watched her die slowly, wilt away, and intends to exact revenge no matter where it takes him. It's a good part for O'Brien, simmering with rage and intensity as he puts himself through all sorts of trials and tribulations to exact that revenge, often putting himself at great danger to do so. Or is that his plan and has been all along? Hmm, interesting. Something to think about, huh? :)
The cast has some familiar names and faces, helping smooth out the rough patches. Among the cavalry soldiers O'Brien's Vickers finds in the Seventh Cavalry, there's Forrest Tucker, Paul Fix, Wallace Ford, and the always welcome Harry Carey Jr. Also at the fort, Vickers meets the comely daughter (Polly Bergen) of the owner of the general store (Dean Jagger). Wouldn't you know it? She likes Vickers...but she also likes another soldier! Oh, no! Yeah, the story goes down that path. A story that already bounces around too much grinds to a halt in those oh so painful moments. If you're a western fan, the solid supporting cast overall should pull you in. It did for me!
There's enough here to recommend. It's a solid B-western from the early 1950's, but it certainly has an edge to it. It's a kinda leisurely revenge-seeking trip -- how does it take 8 years to track 3 people down when you seemingly are always on their tail? -- and O'Brien's Vickers seems to take quite a risk enlisting in the army in the hopes of finding two men in an entire cavalry regiment. And as mentioned, the forced love interest never really takes off.
Still, 'Warpath' does take some risks that pay off. It's clearly made on the cheap, including an art insert of the fort walls as the cavalry troops ride in and out. Helping cancel things out are a combination of some western notables. A midway action scene has a twist on the Battle of Beecher's Island, one of the more fascinating, little-known battles in the wild west. Then, the finale is set against the backdrop of Custer's Last Stand, maybe the most iconic moment in American history in the wild west. So yeah, if the ending is a little abrupt -- oh, right, Custer and the whole regiment are dead! -- so be it. It's a fun little western.
Warpath (1951): ** 1/2 /****