William Holden and Eleanor Parker star in ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO, directed by John Sturges for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Escape from Fort Bravo (1953, John Sturges)

The Western is probably the greatest American contribution to cinema (don’t mention Leone, because Fort Bravo and the like have heart, something Leone was never interested in). Escape from Fort Bravo is an excellent example of the American Western. It’s not just conflict with the untamed West, but also the internal struggle of the Civil War. What matters about the Western, of course, is not these conflicts (if they did matter, there’d be a significant quality change once Westerns started treating the American Indians with respect and there isn’t–of course, did Westerns ever treat them with respect? Kevin Costner doesn’t count for that example either. I’m thinking American Outlaws and Young Guns). Anyway, Fort Bravo.

I first saw Fort Bravo because of Eleanor Parker. This first viewing must have been back in the late 1990s, before I knew who William Holden was, probably, and was only familiar with Sturges for The Great Escape. As a story about people, Fort Bravo is probably Sturges’ peak. Holden runs this film–though John Forsythe is a good alter ego for him–and both sort of fight over Parker. Mostly, Holden fights with himself over Parker (Forsythe, in a nice scene, obviously can’t beat Holden).

There’s no propaganda to Fort Bravo, the Northerners and Southerners are portrayed as soldiers in a war who speak the same language. This lack of propaganda is a significant aspect of the American Western. Even in the Civil War, it’s not about the ideas, it’s about the lives lost. Fort Bravo can get away with it mostly because it never shows what dicks the Rebs were, quite wisely. I can just excuse away the line about the South being right, because the truth is, they were allowed to cede. But it’s not an issue in Fort Bravo, because these interesting folks in a life-threatening situation is more interesting.

A lot of films owe the American Western. Any mainstream action film from Die Hard on is really a Western (allowing for Carpenter action films, which were earlier, but aren’t mainstream enough)–the whole Faulkner concept of man struggling to be better than himself plays out in the American Western. Fort Bravo is filled with gun battles and all sorts of action, but the real conflict is human. I was a little worried–I haven’t seen the film since 2000 at the outside–but I wasn’t wrong about it. It’s great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Sturges; screenplay by Frank Fenton, from a story by Phillip Rock and Michael Pate; director of photography, Robert Surtees; edited by George Boemler; music by Jeff Alexander; produced by Nicholas Nayfack; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Holden (Roper), Eleanor Parker (Carla Forester), John Forsythe (Marsh), William Demarest (Campbell), William Campbell (Cabot Young), Polly Bergen (Alice Owens), Richard Anderson (Lt. Beecher), Carl Benton Raid (Col. Owens) and John Lupton (Bailey).


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