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Ambush (1950) is not the first western Robert Taylor made; that distinction goes to Billy the Kid (1941), but it is his second, and the one that set him off on a string of oaters that sustained his career in later years. Following Ambush, Taylor made ten more westerns over the next 17 years, a dozen if you count the Argentine "cowboy" flick Savage Pampas (1966) and his two appearances on the TV series Hondo, which were stitched together with other episodes to make the European release Hondo and the Apaches (1967). The genre was significant enough in his career to earn him induction into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1970, the year after his death.
In Ambush, Taylor trades his usual highly polished good looks for a scruffier and more sullen demeanor as a civilian scout riding reluctantly with the cavalry in Apache territory. While tracking down a kidnapped woman, Taylor and company manage to maneuver around two romantic triangle subplots and into some exciting action sequences staged by veteran director Sam Wood.
The movie was filmed on location at the Corriganville Ranch in Simi Valley, California, home of hundreds of western movies and television shows through the decades as well as such outdoor action films as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Jungle Jim (1948). Additional location work for Ambush took place in and around Gallup, New Mexico.
Ambush was the last picture completed by Sam Wood, whose career stretched back to 1920. The Academy Award®-nominated director of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Kings Row (1942) finished work on this picture in September 1949 and was starting pre-production on No Sad Songs for Me (1950), starring Margaret Sullavan, when he was suddenly stricken with a heart attack in the offices of the Motion Picture Alliance, an organization he founded in 1944 to ferret out communists and their sympathizers in the film industry. Although known as an even-tempered and open-minded man for most of his life, Wood in his later years became increasingly vehement and conservative in his political activity, which his daughter, K.T. Stevens, said helped contribute to his death at the age of 65.
In addition to the angry rages over communism that Stevens said affected her father's health, she also noted the effect of this production. A very active person, Wood was always the first one on the set in the morning, amazing the younger actors with his energy, even under the grueling conditions of shooting on location for several weeks at an elevation of 9,000 feet.
Ambush caused a stir because of the adultery and wife-abuse featured in the plot and for Arlene Dahl's revealing outfits. As the abused wife, Jean Hagen is sometimes credited with making her screen debut here, but she was seen earlier when the Tracy-Hepburn comedy Adam's Rib (1949) was released a couple of months earlier. Hagen is perhaps best known today as temperamental silent screen diva Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain (1952)
The screenplay is by Marguerite Roberts, who had a number of western and action films to her credit, atypical for a woman in her day. It was based on a short story by Luke Short that was later novelized. Roberts' screenwriting credits also include Undercurrent (1946) and Ivanhoe (1952), both starring Taylor, and the John Wayne western True Grit (1969).
Director: Sam Wood
Producer: Armand Deutsch, Sam Wood
Screenplay: Marguerite Roberts, based on a story by Luke Short
Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Rudolph G. Kopp
Cast: Robert Taylor (Ward Kinsman), John Hodiak (Capt. Ben Lorrison), Arlene Dahl (Ann Duverall), Don Taylor (Lt. Linus Delaney), Jean Hagen (Martha Conovan).
by Rob Nixon