Sunday 19 July 2020

On DVD - Tom Ryan recommends a viewing of 7TH CAVALRY (Joseph H. Lewis, USA, 1956)

Given that now is a perfect time to settle into the armchair and watch a Western, it might as well be a good one. Actually, I reckon any time is right for a Western. One I can recommend is 7th Cavalry (1956), which has largely slipped beneath the radar of those who’ve exhaustively chronicled the genre, like Jim Kitses in his groundbreaking Horizons West (1968 & 2004’s updated “New Edition”, BFI), or Ed Buscombe, who edited The BFI Companion to the Western (1988, British Film Institute), or Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye who co-edited The Movie Book of the Western (1996, Studio Vista), or Kitses and Gregg Rickman, who co-edited The Western Reader (1998, Limelight), all otherwise cram-packed with insightful commentary… In his Aurum Film Encyclopaedia, Volume One, The Western (1983), Phil Hardy does note its existence, only to dismiss it as “oddly static” and “scarred by a script that takes itself too seriously” (p. 251). I’d argue that it’s better made and way more interesting than that. 
Beware: plot spoilers are included in the following commentary.


Rarely are the characters played by Randolph Scott required to prove themselves. Generally they arrive on the scene, their reputations, or even simply their bearing, sufficient to guarantee their trustworthiness and propriety. To which one can add the sheer moral force that Scott the Southern gentleman lends them, even if he sometimes makes mistakes. 

However, there are several films in which the Scott character is regarded with contempt by those around him. 1953’s The Stranger Wore a Gun is one (although it isn’t very good); 7th Cavalry is another. Both were made under the Ranown banner, with Scott credited as associate producer. It would be interesting to ascertain precisely what this role signifies in terms of his control over the material (although the topic lies beyond the scope of this piece).

Randolph Scott, Barbara Hale
In the wake of the 1876 massacre at Little Bighorn, Captain Tom Benson (Scott) returns to regimental headquarters at Fort Lincoln with his bride-to-be, Martha Kellogg (Barbara Hale), daughter of Colonel Kellogg (Russell Hicks), who’s based at Fort Supply. He’s greeted by the resentment of all within the fort for being absent from duty when Custer took his men into battle against the combined forces of the Sioux and the Cheyenne under Sitting Bull. In fact, as Benson tells a court of enquiry presided over by Colonel Kellogg, he’d left at Custer’s urging to sort out his personal affairs – a proposal to Martha – although this is something he can’t prove because there is no written record. 

As Martha later discovers, there had been a witness, a young corporal (Harry Carey Jr.). But Benson tells Martha he now can’t marry her because he’s facing ignominy and will become known by history as “the man who wasn’t there”. Then, on the orders of the president, and as a way of restoring his tattered reputation, he volunteers to lead a small unit of men to Little Bighorn to retrieve the bodies of Custer and his men and give them a decent burial.

Two debates are set up in the film, one to do with Custer’s decision-making, the other with the clash between the beliefs of the Sioux about the “holy land” on which the battle of Little Bighorn took place and the values of the white men who want to bury their dead. In both cases, there is a genuine tension, even if the eventual resolution is clumsily contrived and, finally, patronising towards the “superstitions” of the Indians.

Michael Pate
Benson is fervent in his defence of Custer, even slugging a fellow soldier (Donald Curtis) who tells him that Custer has been responsible for the massacre because of his arrogance and his pursuit of his own glory at the expense of all of those under his command. However, the evidence during the court of enquiry (which includes Michael Pate as an adjutant) suggests that Benson’s loyalty to his former commanding-officer is misplaced. The film seems to endorse this, while not entirely abandoning Custer’s cause. It’s worth noting that the opening captions describe him as “the gallant Indian fighter”.

For his mission to Little Bighorn, Benson gathers together a unit of other “volunteers”, reprobates who are a bit like the dirty dozen of Robert Aldrich’s 1967 film: men with dubious reputations who need to prove themselves and are provided with a chance to do so. Some accept the opportunity, others – like the snivelling Dixon (Denver Pyle) and the thuggish Vogel (Leo Gordon) – don’t. 

Jay C Flippen, Randolph Scott, Frank Faylen
The situation sets up the possibility of a repetition of what had happened to Custer and his men, Sgt. Bates (Jay C. Flippen) even embarking on a mutinous confrontation with Benson over his perceived mismanagement of the unit, placing them in a danger that could have been avoided. Bates backs down, leaving only a classic deus ex machina  to save Benson from making the same kind of mistake that Custer did.

The film’s depiction of Native American rights is fascinating, especially given the period in which the film was made (with HUAC well under way). Before the unit heads off on its mission, Bates observes, “Them Indians out there, they think they own the country,” a line pointed in its irony. With subsequent events providing a clear endorsement, there’s no doubt that this irony is intentional. Another soldier (Frank Faylen) indicates a clear awareness from the start of the mission that the volunteer unit’s planned incursion at Little Bighorn will be the equivalent of “busting into a church and shooting it up”.

At Little Bighorn, they become embroiled in a stand-off, Benson declaring their right to bury their bodies according to the order of the president, while the Sioux sub-chief, Young Hawk (Pat Hogan), who had been raised to the age of 12 by a white family, explains that the buried bodies of Custer and his men are now subject to the beliefs of his people, their blood part of sacred ground. Benson tells him that, having been educated in the ways of white culture, he must understand that all this is just “superstition”, to which Young Hawk eloquently reminds Benson that his beliefs are of the same order.

As the burial unit identifies the location of Custer’s grave, Benson points out that its markings indicate “the tribute of one great leader to another”, both lending a nobility to Sitting Bull and suggesting that, since Custer was deserving of the respect of his enemy, perhaps he ought not be so harshly judged by his peers.

The ending’s contrived resolution brings Custer’s riderless horse on to the scene and leads to the Sioux’ backing off from the confrontation, regarding the horse’s appearance as a message from the spirit world. Young Hawk tells his leader (played by an unnamed actor speaking English with a strong Italian accent), “Let them go in peace. The spirit of Yellow Hair has spoken.”  

A reconciliation between Benson and Colonel Kellogg is then clumsily engineered via a mutual apology. Benson concedes that, for once in his life, he’d “acted more like a bridegroom than a troop commander in the 7th Cavalry”. And Kellogg goes along with the mood of the occasion, acknowledging that for once in his life, he’d “acted more like an anxious father than an officer in the army”. 

7th Cavalry is a noteworthy addition to those 1950s Westerns which reflect sympathetically on the plight of displaced Native Americans and on the way those circumstances have given them little choice but to fight back against those who are effectively forces of occupation. 

The screenplay is by Peter Packer, most of whose work was for television, including an extended stint on Star Trek, and it’s based on A Horse for Mrs Custer, a story by novelist Glendon Swarthout, who also wrote the book on which The Shootist (1976) was based.  The story appears to have been inspired by the experiences of the real-life Captain Thomas Benton Weir, an officer in the 7th Cavalry who found himself unable to help Custer during the battle of Little Bighorn. These events are referenced in the two-part TV mini-series, Son of the Morning Star (1991). 

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