Ambush (1950) is playing on Turner Classic Movies on Sun, August 17, 2014 07:15 AM est. Closed captioned.
Ambush is a gripping, authentic, action-packed, dramatically compelling picture of the United States Cavalry in the 1870’s Arizona territory. It was producer/director Sam Wood’s final movie, filmed shortly before his sudden death in September 1949 and released in January 1950. For top star Robert Taylor, now in his early forties (actually 38), weathered but gracefully aged, it was an auspicious beginning to what would be a close association with the Western genre for the rest of his career.
While there is plenty of action in Ambush, its intense, nuanced character studies are what sets this dynamic Western apart from the crowd. Taylor plays a tough, savvy civilian scout at odds with by the book Army captain John Hodiak, both over campaign strategy and the affections of gorgeous Arlene Dahl, a late general’s daughter hoping the cavalry can rescue her sister from Apache captivity. As if one love triangle were not enough for a dusty, little Army post, the first lieutenant Don Taylor is madly and hopelessly in love with the beautiful Irish laundress (Jean Hagen), the loyal Catholic wife to a drunken lout of an enlisted man (Bruce Cowling), who frequently socks her around. When a disabling injury to the major in command of the post (Leon Ames) puts the spit-and-polish captain temporarily in charge, everything comes to a boil. Not as soapy as it sounds but sensitively directed by Wood and perfectly acted by all concerned. The scenes of poignant longing tinged with guilt between Don Taylor and Ms. Hagen nearly steal the show. The rich supporting cast includes, as well as Ames and Cowling, John McIntire as an older scout, Pat Moriarity as the top sergeant, and also Charles Stevens, who claimed descent from Geronimo, as the vicious, resourceful Apache leader Diablito.
The script by Marguerite Roberts from a Luke Short story is intelligent and engaging with clever, brisk, colorful dialog. Harold Lipstein’s moody black and white cinematography and Rudolph G. Kopp’s textured score enhance the gritty, realistic, yet slightly nostalgic ambiance. Editing is silky smooth, as in almost any big studio picture of this era. The all important pacing is perfect. The compact 89-minute running time moves along at a brisk pace, building suspense, never dragging, but taking enough breathers to build character and create atmosphere. Costumes and sets are first-rate and authentic. Real-life western Army forts during the Indian War era did not have palisade walls, and, refreshingly, neither does the one in this handsomely turned out Western. More importantly, the characters act like nineteenth century people, with the social attitudes of the time, yet without seeming stiff.
With apologies to John Ford fans, which includes yours truly, Ambush is the best of its type. Whereas Ford, who liked to portray everything bigger than life, tended to make the cavalry too grand and romantic, Wood gives us the real Old West Army — long-service soldiers serving loyally but thanklessly at dusty, out of the way posts neither finding nor expecting much in the way of comfort or glory.
Ambush is a thrilling, dramatic, atmospheric, authentic adult Western, engaging, charming, and entertaining from beginning to end. The opening and closing scenes of this picture are both real knockouts! This is an unappreciated classic. Top-notch entertainment from Old Hollywood’s Golden Era. Author: oldblackandwhite from North Texas stocks for the IMDb.