The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fort Defiance

If there was ever a place where having all your physical abilities and capabilities was necessary, the American West seems cut out to be that place.  But a handful of westerns come to mind dealing with a character(s) who is deaf like The Great Silence or blind like Blindman and Eye for an Eye, or a B-western I recently watched 1951's Fort Defiance. A generally forgotten smaller budget western, 'Defiance' introduces a blind character and lets the story build around it in a surprisingly enjoyable, very easygoing western that caught me off guard.

It's been a few months since the end of the Civil War and former Union soldier Ben Shelby (Ben Johnson) is riding west.  He's looking for revenge and finds the ranch of the man he's looking to kill, but the man, infamous gunfighter Johnny Tallon, isn't there.  Instead he finds Johnny's blind brother, Ned (Peter Graves), and his uncle Charlie (George Cleveland) there.  Ben takes a job and sits back and waits only to find out Johnny was gunned down while returning home.  Having developed a brotherly relationship with Ned, Ben decides to stay on and help build up the ranch.  He sends for his wife, and everything looks to be going smoothly.  But the cavalry is having problems with a local Navajo tribe that's ready to go on the warpath, and just when everything is at its bleakest, Johnny Tallon (Dane Clark) shows up, throwing everyone for a loop.

Of the three moves mentioned before about gunfighters with disabilities, all of them had a bit of a superhuman element to them.  Honestly, how long could a blind gunfighter survive?  That's no problem here because Ned doesn't even carry a gun.  He's a good man who lost his eye sight in a bar fight, but years later he refuses to pity himself.  He knows he's up against it in terms of having any success running a large cattle ranch, but he's willing to try.  Ned needs help and gets it through the relationship that develops between himself and Ben.  With as many westerns as I've seen, I'm usually just looking for something, a change of pace, and this B-western does what few much bigger scale westerns I've seen couldn't do.  'Defiance' uses many familiar elements but adds just enough to be different, to be interesting.

Some of my favorite westerns are the of the more cynical variety, downbeat, realistic looks at the American west.  There is a darkness to 'Defiance' but it never overshadows the good that's in these characters.  Johnson's Shelby character is looking for revenge for the the death of his brother which could have been easily avoided.  He's a family man who has to right a wrong done to his family.  Hunting Johnny Tallon down, he doesn't expect anything to come of it other than a bullet in his gut or Tallon's.  The relationship that develops between him and Ned -- also looking for help and needing a big brother -- is completely genuine.  Credit to Graves and Johnson for nailing their parts.  Amidst all the revenge, Indian uprisings and pissed off gunfighters are these two men looking to build a new life for themselves.

The dynamic among the three leads is what made this B-western more enjoyable for me.  All three are flawed in some way, but they're not downright nasty people.  Even Clark's Johnny Tallon has made mistakes in his past and resorted to a life of crime when nothing else was there, but when a situation presents itself where he has a chance to think of only himself, he thinks of his scorned brother.  It was just one of many things that appealed to me about this western.  Johnson was coming off the success of his two parts in John Ford's Cavalry trilogy and shows off his natural, easygoing way on-screen.  In just his second credited part, Graves shows he's got some talent to work with, and Clark makes the most of playing a bad guy who isn't really that bad, but he has to live up to his hard-earned reputation.

With all this going on, throw in the cavalry, an Indian uprising, a runaway stagecoach with a pretty saloon girl (Tracey Roberts), a second vengeful gunman and his gang, and you've got quite a lot of plates trying to keep spinning at the same time. Some get neglected or left by the wayside, but at the heart of the movie is a bigger dynamic among men forced to work together in stressful, extremely deadly situations.  When it would be easier to ride out, these men dig their heel in and brace themselves for what's coming.  A classic by no means, but a western I really enjoyed from the start.  I can't put my finger on it, I just liked the movie and hopefully you do too.

Fort Defiance (1951): ***/****

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