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"On December 8, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a Special Proclamation, whereby Confederate Prisoners of War might gain their freedom, provided they would join the Union Army to defend the frontier West against the Indians." That statement opens the 1950 western Two Flags West, a cavalry film inspired by a little-known footnote to American history that screenwriter Frank Nugent uncovered while doing research for John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). With every able-bodied Union soldier needed for the war, the frontier was being protected almost entirely by men unable to fight on the battlefield: the young, the old, the wounded and crippled. Lincoln's solution offered Confederate prisoners of war a pardon and a legal escape from the appalling conditions of the prison camps, in return for an oath of loyalty and service to the country without being forced to fight their own. Thousands of men took up the offer. Nugent combined this premise with another obscure bit of Civil War history about a Confederate plot to reach out to Southern sympathizers in California, to create his original story, which he titled "The Yankee from Georgia."
The film underwent a few title changes and casting incarnations before it was released as Two Flags West, directed by Robert Wise from a screenplay by writer/producer Casey Robinson (according to the AFI, 20th Century Fox originally bought the story as a vehicle for Victor Mature). Joseph Cotten takes top billing as Confederate Colonel Clay Tucker, an honorable soldier as loyal to his men as to his cause, who swears allegiance to the Union under Lincoln's conditions only to save his troops from the fatal conditions of the POW camp. Cornel Wilde, introduced with patch over one eye to announce the injury that bumped him from battle, is Union Captain Mark Bradford, whose respect for Tucker as a soldier and an officer overcomes his resentment of him as an enemy. Bradford leads this unit to their assignment on the frontier, a fort in New Mexico commanded by a bitter Major Kenniston (Jeff Chandler), who doesn't bother to hide his resentment of his new Confederate troops or his distrust of their motives. Linda Darnell is the beauty in the midst of the men as the young widow Elena, a Spanish rose from Monterey intent on returning home but stuck at the fort due to attacks from the local tribes. The supporting cast is filled with memorable character actors, most notably Jay C. Flippen as an aging Union officer and Noah Beery, Jr. and Arthur Hunnicutt as Johnny Rebs loyal to Tucker.
Director Robert Wise apprenticed at RKO under Orson Welles (as editor of Citizen Kane, 1941) and Val Lewton, the legendary producer of intelligent and evocative low-budget horror films who promoted Wise to director on the tender The Curse of the Cat People (1944); he carried the lessons of the two mentors to a career of smartly-made and intelligently-directed films. Two Flags West, his tenth feature and his second western (after the shadowy, film noir-tinged Blood on the Moon, 1948), was his first production after leaving RKO and his first film for 20th Century Fox.
Two Flags West was shot on location in New Mexico at San Ildefonso Pueblo, a small community of Tewa Indians about twenty miles out of Santa Fe, and Wise and cinematographer Leon Shamroy made dramatic use of the locations. The film opens in darkness within the confines of a Union POW camp, which Wise shoots entirely inside the clapboard barracks of the prisoners, smothering the characters in shadow and a suffocating claustrophobia. Shamroy's photography enhances the atmosphere with striking set-ups marked by shafts of light cutting through the gaping holes in the building and caught in the heavy air. As the prisoners sign on to frontier duty, their journey takes them through increasingly open scenes, from the forests of the Midwest to the vastness of the New Mexico desert under bright, sunny skies. Mesas and mountains in the distance give the cavalry outpost a sense of isolation, alone in a barren desert, and come to the foreground when venture out to give the country a rugged beauty. The movement from darkness to light and confinement to openness mirrors the journey of the characters, who remain divided by competing allegiances but slowly find common cause under the threats of the frontier.
It was a sometimes difficult shoot. The cast and crew lived in a camp near the location, living in semi-rugged quarters that once housed construction workers, and were beset by sandstorms that more than once shut down the production and kept them stuck inside. Linda Darnell hated making westerns, as she suffered from hay fever and an allergy to horses, and was unimpressed with some of her co-stars. "Cornel is seemingly trying to be halfway decent but I still avoid him as much as possible," she wrote in a letter to her husband. "Joe Cotten is an awfully stuffed shirt, and a lush to boot, but Jeff Chandler is a dreamboat, a good actor, and a real down to Earth guy." Wise, too, was impressed by Chandler, who spent his days off hanging around the production. "I just love to watch Joe Cotten," he explained to Wise. "His is such a marvelous technician. I'm studying him and learning so much."
Though Frank Nugent only received story credit on the finished film, his sensibility is evident in elements that recall with his earlier John Ford cavalry films. Kenniston's bitterness and hatred for both the Confederacy and the Native American tribes that he (quite irrationally) sees as invaders of American territory looks forward to the scars of the Civil War and the fierce hatreds harbored by Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). Not that Two Flags West is as rich or evocative as that film, but it is an adult and thoughtful production that explores the conflicts of men who are both enemies and allies in the waning days of the Civil War.
Producer: Casey Robinson
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Casey Robinson (screenplay); Curtis Kenyon, Frank S. Nugent (story)
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: Chester Gore, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Film Editing: Louis Loeffler
Cast: Joseph Cotten (Col. Clay Tucker), Linda Darnell (Elena Kenniston), Jeff Chandler (Maj. Henry Kenniston), Cornel Wilde (Capt. Mark Bradford), Dale Robertson (Lem), Jay C. Flippen (Sgt. Terrance Duey), Noah Beery (Cy Davis), Harry von Zell (Ephraim Strong), John Sands (Lt. Adams), Arthur Hunnicutt (Sgt. Pickens).
by Sean Axmaker
"Robert Wise On His Films," Sergio Leemann
"Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream," Ronald L. Davis