In just his second film after the success of 1954's The Caine Mutiny, Francis sticks with the army genre, albeit about 100 years before WWII. The movie is They Rode West, a solid western that tries to put its own spin on the U.S. cavalry picture. John Ford had already had his cavalry trilogy hit theaters and be a huge success, and in general, cavalry westerns tended to do well with audiences. There is something iconic about a patrol riding across the horizon of the American west. 'Rode West' isn't told from the point of view of the soldiers though, instead it's the perspective of the doctor working with the soldiers.
Looking to get a chance to improve his doctoring skills and medical knowledge, young Dr. Allen Seward (Francis) enlists with the U.S. army and is sent to a frontier outpost where the cavalry is dealing with a possible Comanche and Kiowa breakout from their reservation. The outpost's previous surgeons/medics were drunks and misfits so Seward arrives with little expectations from his fellow officers as to his ability. One officer, Captain Blake (Philip Carey), particularly resents Seward as much for his beliefs about the Indians as his interest in Laura McKay (Donna Reed), the visiting niece of the fort's commander. The problems escalate though when the Indians at the reservation contract malaria, and Seward is forced to make a decision; obey orders or do what he's sworn to do as a doctor.
Seeing a cavalry western from the outpost doctor/surgeon instead of the battalion commander or the veteran sergeant is a refreshing change in storytelling. For one, Seward's naivete is appealing because he looks at things in a very black and white manner. Someone's hurt or sick? I'd better help them. Oh, they're Comanche? I'll still help. He isn't biased by prior judgments or preconceived notions on people just because of who they are or their culture. This of course bites him in the ass with basically everyone in the fort because a recommendation he makes convinces a group of Comanches to leave the reservation and head for ground more suited to living. Oops, my bad.
Francis' acting and delivery can be a little wooden, but I'm chalking some of that up to his voice. He talks in an almost-stilted deep voice that doesn't differ much whether he's talking regularly, angry with an order, or trying to be smooth and get on Donna Reed's good side. But even with all that, the character is likable because what he is doing is right no matter what anyone else tells him he should be doing. Donna Reed does get to play against type here, sexing it up a bit as a bachelorette with a long list of suitors vying for her hand. Carey plays the type of a-hole character you just hope gets shot in the face but of course...doesn't. He argues for the sake of arguing and in general, you just hope he gets his comeuppance by the end.
Of course for all the good thing offered here, not everything works. Seward communicates with the Indians through Manyi-Ten (May Wynn), a white woman taken captive many years ago who now lives as a squaw. The good doctor seems genuinely perplexed that no one knows anything about her, and the duo even exchanges some glances that, uh-oh, they have feelings for each other. But once Donna Reed comes back into the picture, it's game over for that relationship. A fair amount of time is spent building up this possible relationship and then nothing happens. One supporting character is a fixture in the cavalry movie, the veteran sergeant, played here by TV star Roy Roberts (I can imagine Ward Bond or Victor McLaglen playing the part). He's a hard-drinking Irish sergeant and all the attempts at drinking humor come off as half-hearted and not funny in the least.
For a lower budget movie the action finale is surprisingly enjoyable if a little disjointed. The fort is the same one Fort Apache was filmed at along with several other films -- you'll recognize the set. The attack on the fort isn't on a large scale, but it isn't two or three soldiers firing at four or five Indians because a fair number of extras take part. Violent but not graphic -- with one very cheesy squib used -- it's a fitting end to a good if not great B-western.
They Rode West (1954): ** 1/2 / ****