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Trooper Hook, an independently produced western from 1957, tapped into themes that were increasingly in the air in the 1950s in such films as Broken Arrow (1950), The Searchers (1956) and Two Rode Together (1961). Though it begins with a battle between a renegade band of Apaches and a cavalry troop, the film is less about the spectacle of cowboys and Indians than about race and prejudice and miscegenation, contemporary issues seen through a frontier context.
Joel McCrea is the title character, Sgt. Clovis Hook, a veteran cavalry officer who discovers a captive white woman among the prisoners, and Barbara Stanwyck is the "white squaw," a silent, distrustful woman who clings to her half-Indian son, who is also the son of Apache Chief, Nanchez (Rodolfo Acosta). Hook is assigned to escort the woman back to her husband (her name is Cora Sutcliff and she was travelling to meet her husband when her stage was attacked by Apaches). The rest of the film plays out like a variation on Stagecoach (1939), with a collection of various characters joining Hook, Cora, and her son Quito on a stage ride to her husband's ranch.
Trooper Hook was a reunion of sorts for Stanwyck and McCrea, who had often been paired up early in their careers, including the lively medical drama Internes Can't Take Money (1937), with McCrea playing Dr. Kildare, and Cecil B. DeMille's epic western Union Pacific (1939). This became their sixth feature together after a fifteen year gap. Both came to the film older and more seasoned, but there was one major difference from the previous films: For the first time, Joel McCrea received top billing.
Joel McCrea, perhaps the most modest of Hollywood movie stars, had great success in dramas and romantic comedies (where his low-key delivery and quiet confidence made him the quintessential strong, silent type) through the thirties and forties, but after World War II, he increasingly turned to westerns. He's right at home here as the career cavalry officer Hook, a man weathered to a leathery toughness, but not so much hard as resilient. He's a survivor and a realist, ruthless when he needs to be but generous and humane by nature. Frontier life has, if anything, given him the courage of his convictions and, in his gruff way, he's protective of Cora and Quito.
Stanwyck, once one of Hollywood's strongest leading ladies, took roles in increasingly smaller pictures as she approached the age of 50, including a number of westerns. The genre proved to be a good fit: The frontier was the perfect setting for the kinds of tough, self-reliant women she excelled at portraying and she was often cast as ranchers and frontier women. Trooper Hook was a very different kind of western role for her, however, one that called upon an inner strength rather than action; she harbors a suspicion of those around her, and a maternal protectiveness of her half-Indian child from the hostile world of white settlements on the frontier. With her hair cropped short and a hateful glare in her eyes, she doesn't say a word for the first twenty minutes or so of Trooper Hook, but when she finally speaks, it comes out with a furious conviction.
A solid cast of character actors provide support, notably young Earl Holliman as a jovial cowpoke who, like Hook, doesn't judge Cora or her son, and Royal Dano as the cranky stage driver, carping about timetables and grumbling at every stop but in his own way as honest and honorable as Hook. Susan Kohner, who later had her big role in Imitation of Life (1959), is a young woman of Spanish-American aristocracy who takes a shine to Holliman's affable cowboy. Tex Ritter sings the theme song, which (as in High Noon, 1952) is reprised throughout the film.
Director Charles Marquis Warren, a veteran of low-budget westerns, essentially created the TV incarnation of Gunsmoke, directing and producing the show's first season and scripting the first episodes. According to biographer Axel Madsen, Stanwyck talked about television with Warren between takes. She wanted to produce a series about frontier women and, while the show never materialized, she soon turned to the small screen and eventually took the lead in the western series The Big Valley (1965-1969), playing a tough matriarch. Though they never worked together again, Warren later praised Stanwyck as "the most magnificent actress I ever worked with and, I think, the finest actress Hollywood has ever turned out."
Producer: Sol Baer Fielding
Director: Charles Marquis Warren
Screenplay: David Victor, Martin Berkeley, Herbert Little, Jr. (screenplay); Charles Marquis Warren (screenplay, uncredited); Jack Schaefer (story)
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Art Direction: Nicolai Remisoff (uncredited)
Music: Gerald Fried
Cast: Joel McCrea (Sgt. Clovis Hook), Barbara Stanwyck (Cora Sutliff), Earl Holliman (Jeff Bennett), Edward Andrews (Charlie Travers), John Dehner (Fred Sutliff), Susan Kohner (Consuela, Senora Sandoval's Granddaughter), Royal Dano (Mr. Trude, Stage Driver), Celia Lovsky (Senora Sandoval), Stanley Adams (Heathcliff, the Windmill Salesman).
by Sean Axmaker
"The Films of Barbara Stanwyck," Homer Dickens. 1984. Citadel Press
"Barbara Stanwyck," Al Diora. 1983, Coward-McCann.
"Stanwyck," Axel Madsen. 1994, Harper Collins.