1958 was an important cinematic point for the genre of the Western. William Wyler's highly polished The Big Country played to the familial undercurrents of the genre he had so expertly helped shape, but a few decades earlier in the silent-to-talkie era while indulging, quite successfully, in the thunderously operatic storytelling of his Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston-starring epic. That film was partly a declaration of what the genre could be, a point Wyler had originally wished to prove in a decidedly more intimate setting and vein with The Westerner (1940). There was Budd Boetticher's ruggedly solid Buchanan Rides Alone, starring long-time collaborator Randolph Scott as a man finding himself in the middle of a battle between warring families. Joseph H. Lewis's revenge oater, Terror in a Texas Town, starred Sterling Hayden as a man desperate to heal the wounds derived from the murder of his father. Anthony Mann's elegiac ode of the fallen hero confronting the wickedness of his own past(extracting one of Gary Cooper's greatest performances in the process) helped to propel the oppressively downcast tale of Man of the West (Lee J. Cobb's scene-stealing turn as the film's ostensible villain did not harm matters, either). Paul Newman displayed a raging magnetism, tumidity and indefinably nebulous menace and lethality as Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's The Left Handed Gun. Cowboy took a more humorous, but nevertheless still darkly, almost schizophrenically complex stance in its depiction of authority, manhood and friendship between Glenn Ford's stoic dictator and Jack Lemmon's lightly comic abecedarian of the West.
With that in mind, the grim, gritty and gruesome Fort Massacre, starring Joel McCrea and directed by Joseph M. Newman, most famous for The Island Earth and 1959's McCrea western The Gunfight at Dodge City, and written by Martin Goldsmith, plays a more bluntly, scabrously, unpretentiously role in the cornucopia of envelope-pushing western pictures. Most of the westerns of today are in one manner of speaking or another, largely reflections of past cinematic exercises in the maintaining of what is frequently referred to as the most durable American film genre. The westerns of this particular era were either brushing up against, or in some cases demolishing, the clichés and culturally-delineated stereotypes that had been in some ways necessities for the flowering of the genre, dating back to a time when cinema was conceived, a time many would consider the latter period of time in which the stories, characters and settings, loosely corralled as a greater ratiocination of a broader historical tale. (The propinquity of the birth of cinema and the sprawling time period can be viewed through the microcosm of W.S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery of 1903.) In 1956 John Ford himself had, with The Searchers, made a film that openly, but entertainingly, cast grave doubt upon several of the foundations of the filmic genus.
Fort Massacre's protagonist shares a number of similarities with John Wayne's Ethan Edwards. He is a bigoted, hateful and vicious man. The tragedy of Joel McCrea's Sergeant Vinson—his wife killed their children when confronted by savage Apaches, and was raped and murdered by them shortly thereafter—informs the bloodlust and the sweeping loathing he emits with rabidly turbulent ferocity. The film's opening credits play over a trenchant symbolization of untimely death: a cavalryman's rifle pointing skyward, the killed man's hat draped over the business end of the barrel. This, the film immediately warns, is a cavalry picture, in some ways not unlike numerous others, but unlike Ford's for instance, the picture is sans humor and pathos-churning sentiment. The singularly stark opening image will haunt the mindful viewer; the dramatic music by Marlin Skiles unsettlingly assisting the specter's endurably problematic existence, serving in this way both realistically and artistically as an ontic and spiritual tombstone.
The western picture has, with its outdoors staging ground, reliably related the ambivalently impartial cruelties of nature. A genre inherently communicating the heedless drive of culture amidst nature's unforgiving encirclement, many a western has detailed the unsightly struggle between the nominally tutelary forces of civilization and the sometimes devastating reality of the surrounding nature. This routinely perplexing battle between man and his earth finds rhythmical expression in Fort Massacre, which depicts tumultuous battles of survival between Christian, white, European-Americans and the worshipers of the earth and the mysteries thereof, American Indians. Sergeant Vinson and his beleaguered, water-deprived force of approximately fifty men of “C Troop” in the American southwest of July 1875, are the survivors of an Apache assault. Determined to find what his men consider a mythical waterhole for his men, and unafraid of a potentially suicidal attack against the Apaches who guard the waterhole, Vinson, like many an hubristic and dictatorial leader, commands his men to follow his orders. When confronted by a particularly whiny soldier about the regularly illogical actions of the sergeant, McCrea deliberately delivers an important line to underscore Vinson's psychology: “I'm a sergeant. I don't think. I follow orders and I give orders.”
A suspenseful sequence leading to the waterhole confrontation sublimely captures the essential conflict between the pragmatic soldiers and the earth's treacherousness. One soldier attempts to scale down a fairly steep hillside, but places his booted foot on a large rock that he accidentally pries out of the ground, sending it downward and creating sufficient noise to alarm several Apaches. Moments later, a member of “C Troop”—though ordered to not fire until Vinson has personally commenced firing—shoots a frightening rattlesnake several feet away from him. Ill at ease with the tormentingly unpredictable and hazardous environment in which they find themselves, the film delicately suppositions that these men are as much victims of the dirt beneath them and the firmament above them.
With the cosmic equipoise serving as a bludgeon against the conceited Vinson, as though summoned by the “heathen savages” reviled by many of the soldiers—though Vinson's detestation is unrivaled—his rage only waxes. McCrea's facial expression at the end of the waterhole battle, as Vinson eyes one last Apache, humbly and fruitlessly making every gesture to indicate surrender, captures the deadened soul behind the attractive commander's sternly mad, Ahab-like authoritarianism. With insentient resolve, Vinson kills the man, long after the battle has concluded, his men watching, betwixt and between horror and apathy. When Private Robert W. Travis (John Russell) questions why Vinson executed the last Apache, Vinson's answer is all one needs to absorb the projection he must enact to sustain his protracted quest of bloody vengeance: “...Those Apaches hate us, do you understand? They hate us so much they quit being human! Hate can do that... It swells up inside you until it pushes out every other feeling: pain, love, even fear. When a man gets like that, bursting with it, the only way for that hate to come out is through a neat, round bullet hole.”
Lushly brought to life with suitable cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie in CinemaScope, this outwardly glossy production with a wanly fleshed out supporting group of characters cannot truly compare to the historic accomplishment of Ford's The Searchers, which, with Wayne's iconic portrayal of familial-motivated dementia unleashed, spoke to many of the dramatic concerns of Fort Massacre two years earlier in a more thoroughly constructed filmic essay. However, McCrea's performance—which plays against the man's easygoing likability that served him so well throughout his long screen career—touches many of the same keystones at the vibrant heart of Wayne's Edwards. He has been poisoned by violence visited upon him by forces he believed to be only previously beyond his control; the intention to control the demons, within and without, given human dimension by the Apaches with whom Vinson does battle can only lead to tragedy. Whereas Edwards is searching (for home, for kin, for love), Vinson considers all such components of the good life to be forever gone, replaced with anagogic penury and earthly desolation. As Fort Massacre begins, it is truly Vinson for whom the rifle and hat representatively stand, for his is a life that has, in nearly all manner of speaking, already ceased to be.