Leading a small patrol toward a remote outpost, Captain Harper (William Talman) and his men almost ride into a trap as the beginning of a Ute uprising. Under attack, the patrol sneaks into the fort and finds that Ute war parties have been attacking all over the region. The reason? Harper thinks it's because an Army deserter, Halliday (Dana Andrews), who supposedly conspired with the Utes, has been captured and is in the outpost that is now severely outnumbered. An attack is looming when Halliday puts forth an idea. What if the garrison tries to sail down the nearby Colorado River? The river is within reach of the fort, and now it's just a matter of if they can sneak past the Ute lookouts.
For the most part, this B-western from director Jerry Hopper is just that, a B-western. It wraps things up in a tidy 88-minute package and has a good mix of action, tension and....okay, there's a forced in love interest too. They can't all be winners, can they? Yeah, Andrew's bad boy Halliday is quite the rebel. Everyone hates him because he supposedly betrayed his unit two years earlier, a decision that cost the lives of several soldiers. Come on. Would Dana Andrews be a bad guy? I think not. But that bad boy quality appeals to Laura (Piper Laurie), the daughter of the recently killed outpost commander. She just can't help herself. Thankfully, that awful, never so subtle love story is held off until the last 30 minutes or so. Instead, the focus is on the thing that makes this movie worthwhile.
I figured I was in for a pretty typical western when the patrol arrives at the cavalry outpost. That's not a bad thing in my head. I've watched many a western like that, and I'll probably watch many more; outnumbered cavalry fighting off overwhelming Indian attacks. 'Signal' doesn't go down that route. Rather than go meekly into a massacre, the garrison takes the boats long since left at the fort and rides them down the Colorado River and hopefully to safety. It's a cool departure from the typical cavalry vs. Indians movie. As a bonus, we get some very cool footage of the troopers making their way down the Colorado. It's as imposing a physical marker as there is in the American Southwest. Granted, there's also some really cheesy inserts of Andrews and the cast "floating on the river." Yeah, we're talking very fake shots of the real-life Colorado with the cast on a very real studio set full of water. Still, it's a pretty cool addition to a well-worn formula.
One of the most solid if unspectacular movie stars around, Dana Andrews is a solid if very unsexy pick to play Halliday, the cavalry deserter now working to prove he isn't guilty of the court martial charges hanging over his head. He just isn't a flashy actor, but it's a solid enough part. Along with the vengeful Capt. Harper (seeking revenge for his brother's death because of Halliday's actions), Rex Reason plays Lt. Wayne Ford, a fellow officer full of hate. Douglas Spencer has some fun as Garode, a frontier trapper/drifter who gets caught up in the action. The cavalry troopers include Milburn Stone as Miles, a soldier on Halliday's side, William Schallert as Livingston, the blinded soldier, Gordon Jones as Cpl. Rogers, the former riverboat man, Robert J. Wilke as Sgt. Daly, the loyal NCO, and Pat Hogan as Delche, the superstitious Indian scout.
So like its star in Dana Andrews, this is a solid, entertaining and generally pretty forgettable B-western. The focus is more on the dynamic among the survivors as opposed to the constant threat of attack from the warring Utes. Talman and Reason end up being bigger villains than the attacking Indians, both men blindly writing off Halliday as a traitor and a coward. The script does feature some twists as the boat trip down the Colorado continues, and everything is wrapped up nicely in the end. Worth a watch...once.
Smoke Signal (1955): ** 1/2 /****