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, August 15, 2012

Trooper Hook

As settlers moved west in the United States in the 1800s, there were just some things that a husband/grandfather/brother would not allow happen to a woman traveling with the group. At the top of that list? Don't allow a woman to become a captive of any number of Indian tribes. These were were abused, tortured and beaten down if they were even allowed to live. Obviously a darker topic, westerns nonetheless explored the unpleasant topic, most notably The Searchers, but with other movies as well, like 1957's Trooper Hook.

Having led a successful attack on a warring Apache village, Sgt. Clovis Hook (Joel McCrea) is left in an interesting predicament. Among the prisoners is the leader of the rampaging Apaches, a chief called Nanchez (Rodolfo Acosta). That's just one problem though because a white woman, Cora Sutliff (Barbara Stanwyck), is among the prisoners, and she has a son with her. The father? Nanchez himself. Cora has been a prisoner of the Apaches for nine-plus years and has long since been feared dead. What can she do now? She can't return to the Apaches, but the white people in the fort and the surrounding towns are less than welcoming, questioning how a white woman could become an Apache warrior's squaw. Hook steps in, taking orders to take Cora to her husband, but nothing will come easy on this trip for either of them. 

From director Charles Marquis Warren, 'Hook' is a no-frills, low-budget western from the 1950s. It was filmed on a small scale -- with ample use of poorly built "outdoor" sets standing in for nature's majesty -- and it shows. But because of its dark, adult subject matter, it rises above its smaller, modest background. Besides McCrea's Sgt. Hook, basically everyone forms an opinion (and quickly) about Stanwyck's Cora. They look at her with disdain, like she's less of a human because she tried to survive rather than kill herself and take the easy way out. This is a story about the people though, not interested in any bigger picture of how the west was conquered and the Indians were defeated.

An actor who made a career out of playing staunch, resolute heroes in B-movies and westerns, McCrea never rose to the heights of a John Wayne or even a Randolph Scott. He was excellent at playing a niche, a part in his comfort zone, and this movie is right in his wheelhouse. His Sgt. Hook (not Trooper as the title suggests) is a veteran horse soldier, experienced and trustworthy in every way, brutally effective in his soldiering. As for Stanwyck, she wasn't the in-demand starlet anymore, but she still delivers the movie's best performance. She doesn't say a word for some 30 minutes, but when she does speak (with a swinging shovel as accompaniment), you'd better watch out! The relationship that develops between Hook and Cora ends up being the key and the most important thing going for the movie. In his only career performance, Terry Lawrence plays Quito, Cora's half-breed six-year old son. 

In a movie that's more interested in the people than the action, violence or gunplay, a handful of other supporting parts are worth mentioning. The best one going is Earl Holliman as Jeff Bennett, a down-on-his-luck cowboy who ends up traveling with Hook, Cora and the boy. A little inexperienced in the ways of the world, Holliman's Bennett is one of those archetypal western characters, a scene-stealing part for sure. John Dehner similarly has an interesting part not because it's a likable character but because of a question hanging over his head. He plays Cora's husband, a man who thought his wife was long since dead and now has to decide if he wants to care for someone else's son, much less an Apache chief's son. Edward Andrews, Celia Lovsky and Susan Kohner play other  people the group meets on the stagecoach; Kohner a possible love interest for Holliman's Bennett. Royal Dano also has some fun as Mr. Trude, the fast-talking ex-Confederate soldier and current stagecoach driver. 

While the story is anything but light and fluffy, I liked the low-key nature of 'Hook.' The action is kept to a minimum for the most part, and even when there is some gunfights, they're over almost as quick as they start. This is more a story about the people and how they choose to deal with a not so easy topic. How does a woman reintroduce herself to a life she knew so many years earlier? Will that life and society let her back? The story does a good job showing all the different possible answers here. That said, the ending loses some momentum once Dehner shows up. It's never in doubt where the story's going, but it takes awhile to get there. Still a worthwhile western, especially for parts from McCrea, Stanwyck and Holliman.

Trooper Hook <---fan-made video (1957): ** 1/2 /****

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