It was Robert Nott’s turn to choose the film for our latest virtual Western Night at the Movies meeting and he likes the old low budget B-Westerns. He selected FORT DEFIANCE released in 1951. Not long into its quick 82-minute running time, and in spite of its sometimes awkward and cluttered plot, I found myself enjoying the unbridled and enthusiastic telling.
Ben Shelby (the always reliable Ben Johnson) rides up to a cattle ranch near Fort Defiance in Arizona Territory looking for a fellow named Johnny Tallon. Ned (a young Peter Graves), who lives on the place with his irascible uncle, tells Ben that Johnny is his brother and he’s has been waiting for him to come home since the war ended. Turns out Ned is blind.
Ben sticks around to help out and soon word comes that Johnny Tallon was shot dead trying to rob a bank over New Mexico way. That’s when Ben admits he had come to kill Johnny whose treasonous act during the last weeks of the Civil War resulted in the massacre of a company of Arizona Volunteers, including Ben’s brother, at the Battle of Tennessee Ridge. Ben was the sole survivor.
At a saloon in town, Ben writes a letter to his wife telling her that Tennessee Ridge is in the past and he wants her to come join him, but then changes his mind, tosses his half-written letter away and heads back to the ranch. The town drunk picks up the letter, reads it and runs to Dave Parker (Craig Woods), the saloon owner, who lost two brothers on account of Johnny Tallon’s treachery. Parker gets a passel of men together and they ride out to Ned’s place saying if he can’t sting up Johnny, his brother will do. The shooting starts, then a chase. Did I mention that the Navajo Indians are on the warpath, there’s also a reformed dance hall girl, and Johnny—well, I won’t say anymore, but the surprises keep coming and the coincidences are a hoot!
Some characters are fleshed out while others show up to impart information then disappear. But between screenwriter Louis Lantz, who had only a handful of unremarkable scripts to his credit, and director John Rawlins, who had worked as an actor and stuntman for years before turning out B pictures for Universal, the film forges ahead without restraint.
Utah and New Mexico stand in for Arizona and are strikingly shot by cinematographer Stanley Cortez who had photographed THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for Orson Welles years before and would soon shoot THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for Charles Laughton.
The film is available on youtube.com, but be aware the title card in the opening credits is in German for some odd reason.
Along with Robert, award-winning journalist and author of THE FILMS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, our group includes Johnny D. Boggs, record eight-time Spur Award-winning author whose works include RETURN TO RED RIVER, Kirk Ellis, Emmy-winning writer and producer of HBOs JOHN ADAMS and TNTs INTO THE WEST, Kirk’s wife Sheila, and David Morrell, award-winning author and New York times best-selling author of FIRST BLOOD.