Last evening, Johnny Boggs, David Morrell, Robert Nott and I met for our Western Movie Night in Santa Fe. Still in Palm Springs, Kirk Ellis was not able to join us for an engaging pair of Westerns provided by Robert. The night’s main feature was TWO FLAGS WEST (1950) with a screenplay by Casey Robinson from a story by Frank Nugent and directed by Robert Wise, his second Western after his noirish BLOOD ON THE MOON two years earlier.
TWO FLAGS WEST opens with the proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln that any Confederate prisoners of war could gain their freedom by joining the Union Army to defend the Western frontier against the Indians. We fade in on the claustrophobic confines of the Union prisoner of war camp at Rock Island, Illinois, where Confederate cavalry prisoners are offered amnesty. Their colonel, Clay Tucker (Joseph Cotton), decides to accept the Yankees’ offer if for no other reason than to get his men out of this prison pesthole. Now under the command of a Yankee captain (Cornell Wilde), Tucker and his men (including fine character actors like Arthur Hunnicutt and Noah Berry) arrive at Fort Thorn in New Mexico Territory, where the post commander, Major Kenniston (Jeff Chandler) wants nothing to do with these “Johnny Rebs.” A bitter man who lost his leg earlier in the Civil War and holds all the rebels responsible for the death of his brother, Kenniston resents being relegated to this remote outpost. He also has a consuming desire to possess his late brother’s wife (Linda Darnell) who has been stranded at the post for months while awaiting an opportunity to return to her home.
Meanwhile, Tucker and his men endure insults from the Union cavalrymen while doing their best to adjust to being Galvanized Yankees. It’s not long before they consider deserting and making a run to Confederate Texas. Indian troubles appear when the son of a Kiowa chief is taken prisoner. When the chief demands his son’s release, Kenniston executes the young warrior, shouting that this is what happens to “rebels and traitors.” (At first, it sounds like a very strange thing for him to say, but then you realize that Kenniston’spersonal hatreds and problems have overwhelmed him.) Enraged, the Kiowas lay siege to the fort and Kennistonmust act to save his men.
The attack is well staged by director Wise, and the script provides several surprising revelations. Shooting in glorious black and white on location in New Mexico at the San Ildefonso Pueblo and the Shipman Ranch near Black Mesa, Wise and his cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, use the rugged landscapes and expansive sky to define not only the sweeping beauty of the location but also the isolation of the characters who must depend on each other, in spite of their differences.
According to reports, it was a difficult shoot, as sandstorms often shut down production. And Linda Darnell, who had starred with Henry Fonda and Victor Mature in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE four years earlier, hated making Westerns because she was allergic to horses and suffered from hay fever.
The second entry Robert brought was a television episode from Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater entitled “Desert Flight.” Directed by Budd Boetticher (RIDE LONESOME, COMMANCHE STATION, BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE), the tight script by Jim Byrnes and Joseph Byrnes opens with a simple bank robbery suddenly going badly. Powell plays the shrewd robber with two cohorts he wishes he didn’t have (a nasty turn by James Coburn and Ben Cooper as a novice outlaw) riding into the desert to escape the posse pursuing them. In Boetticher’s hands, this 1960 TV episode often has the look and depth of his feature films, such as long vistas showing riders as no more than specks, and a remarkable way station sequence.
Two terrific pictures for an afternoon or evening escape.