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 2, 2013

Incident at Phantom Hill

I've been watching westerns since I was little, and I'll be watching them for years to come hopefully. By now at the ripe old age of 28, I've seen just about all of the must-see westerns out there, but with a genre that's been around since the first films, I've got a whole lot more to catch up with, like 1966's Incident at Phantom Hill, a solid if not hugely known American western.

It's the final few weeks of the Civil War and a heavily guarded Union convoy is transporting over a $1 million in gold bars across the Texas desert. A capable, shifty bandit turned Confederate soldier, Joe Barlow (Dan Duryea), leads an attack on the convoy, massacring the guards and making off with the gold. Some weeks later a Union captain, Matt Martin (Robert Fuller), is tasked with a mission. Barlow has been captured and says he can lead him to where the gold is hidden in the desert. There's a catch though...the hiding spot is in land designated for the Comanches where no white man is allowed. If Martin is to accept the mission, it will be without any permission or backing from the U.S. Army. With some personal reasons of his own, Martin accepts and with Barlow and a small detachment of volunteer soldiers heads out into the desert. With so much gold on the line though, it's questionable if anyone with him can be trusted.

While this 1966 western has been on the Encore Westerns schedule on and off for several months now, I was never able to catch up with it. Until now! Thanks Encore On Demand! From director Earl Bellamy, 'Incident' is a solid western that isn't trying to be a classic in any vein. It's more than content to assemble a cool cast, throw them into a pretty dark post-Civil War western and let the chips fall where they may. 'Incident' was filmed in the California desert -- with some similar locations to TV's Hondo -- so if it doesn't look like Texas, so be it, it's a fitting backdrop to the story. Overall, it is a pretty simple formula but it works. A whole lot of gold, a vengeance-seeking Union officer, a murdering bandit and Confederate soldier, a motley collection of volunteers, lowlifes and drifters seeking the gold and Comanches on all sides. How can you go wrong?

The most interesting dynamic here was between Fuller's Capt. Martin and Duryea's Joe Barlow, completely unwilling partners. I haven't seen Fuller in much, but I liked him in The Magnificent Seven sequel 'Return of the 7.' Here, it's an okay part, but mostly his Capt. Martin seems irritated and yells every one of his lines and glares at everyone around him in between. I suppose that frustration comes from his ever-constant vigilance in watching Barlow, played to perfection by Duryea. Nothing about Duryea screams great villain, but he's perfect once again. He's slight in stature, his voice is really high, but it works. His Barlow is a murdering bandit, looking for a pardon for a pre-war murder of a U.S. marshal. He's like a rattlesnake lying in wait, just waiting for his chance to make his move on his captors and escape. I enjoyed the movie overall, but Duryea is the best thing going here.

Overall, I was surprised by the general nastiness of this western. At 87 minutes, it packs a whole lot of darkness into a short running time. That's fair I guess when you figure there's a million bucks in gold bars out there in the desert. More on the casting of the crew later, but Martin's detachment of volunteers range from psychopaths to drunks, pacifists to one soldier plagued with guilt. Along the way, the convoy runs into a knife-wielding hunter (Denver Pyle) and his gang who quickly catch on that Martin's men are onto something big. At a trading post, the owner (William Phipps) leers in not so subtle fashion at a woman (hinted at she's a prostitute) along for the ride. Martin intercedes, knowing what awaits if she's left behind. How did she get there in the first place? A sheriff (Don Collier) had "dated her" but kicked her out of town when a different, classier, more reputable girl came along. It all adds up to a surprisingly dark tone that works really well.

Onto the rest of the cast. Jocelyn Lane plays Memphis, the possible prostitute basically shanghaied onto the convoy. Lane is rather wooden, always immaculately decked out in wardrobe and makeup regardless of the desert setting. Martin's motley crew of men include Lt. Adam Long (Tom Simcox), the guilt-ridden survivor of the original massacre, Dr. Armstrong (Linden Chiles), a pacifist doctor struggling with all the patients he lost during the Civil War, Otto Krausman (Claude Akins), a murdering soldier hell bent on killing as many Comanches as he can to avenge his family, and O'Rourke (Noah Beery Jr.), a boozing Irishman. No big stars, but some solid, interesting characters. Also look for Paul Fix as the general who assigns Martin his mission.

Nothing flashy here as a western, just an entertaining one. Also listen in the opening massacre with part of 1965's Shenandoah's soundtrack used. Odd because it isn't credited, and nothing else is used. Yeah, movie nerd trivia! Western fans will definitely like this one, worth a watch for sure.

Incident at Phantom Hill (1966): ***/****

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