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,Siege at Red River

Siege at Red River

There have been many stories of the Wild West set around the Red River, and just as many that at least invoke the name. Siege at Red River (1954) is a far cry from Howard Hawks's superior Red River (1948), but it does have the added interest for Civil War buffs of being set among Confederate and Union forces in the waning days of the conflict.

Twentieth Century-Fox borrowed Van Johnson from MGM to star as a Southern cavalry officer who hijacks a shipment of Gatling guns from Northern troops. Posing as a medicine show proprietor, he smuggles the deadly guns through enemy lines in a wagon. But a renegade rebel steals the weapons from him to sell to a band of hostile Indians. Johnson surrenders himself to Northern troops and enlists their help in retrieving the guns before the Indians can get their hands on them. In the course of events, he meets and falls in love with a Union nurse, who helps save his neck once the stolen weapons are back in Yankee hands.

Johnson wasn't necessarily the first choice to play the lead. According to an October 10, 1952 news item in the Hollywood Reporter, Dale Robertson was originally scheduled to play the Confederate captain, and later Tyrone Power, one of Fox's biggest stars for nearly two decades, was set to star; there is no indication of what happened to those casting ideas.

Jean Peters reportedly tested for the part of the nurse, but it went to Joanne Dru, who was quite at home both in Westerns and on the Red River. She was a memorable tough gal in the aforementioned 1948 Hawks film and had notable parts in John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Wagon Master (1950), along with a few other minor oaters. The crook who steals the guns to sell to the Indians is played by one of the most reliable villains of the decade, Richard Boone, before he turned good guy in 1957 for his own popular Western television series, Have Gun - Will Travel, which ran until 1963.

Screenwriter Sydney Boehm was also borrowed for the project, from Paramount. Studio records note that best-selling novelist and sometime screenwriter Irving Wallace revised the script, but his name doesn't appear in the film's credits. Boehm was a favorite of director Rudolph Maté; the two worked together previously on the Alan Ladd Western Branded (1950), the thriller Union Station (1950), the sci-fi drama When Worlds Collide (1951), and the crime drama Second Chance (1953). Boehm also scripted the noir thrillers Side Street (1950) for Anthony Mann and The Big Heat (1953) for Fritz Lang.

Maté's career as a director was less than stellar, in spite of his exceptional noir classic D.O.A. (1950). His greatest acclaim came from his long career as a cinematographer, starting in his native Hungary with Alexander Korda in the 1920s. He then went to work for the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, contributing much to the highly praised look of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr (1932). Maté came to Hollywood shortly after and worked steadily as a cinematographer through the 1940s on such films as Wyler's Dodsworth (1936), Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), and Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942).

In an inter-office memo to Twentieth Century-Fox production head Darryl Zanuck (which was included in the studio's collection archived at UCLA), producer Leonard Goldstein described the Gatling gun as "America's first machine gun" and "the atom bomb of a century ago." The weapon certainly revolutionized warfare with its potential for mass-killings, although when its inventor, Richard Gatling, fashioned the hand-cranked 200-rounds-per-minute device in 1861, he sincerely believed it would end warfare by making it unthinkable to unleash the horrible carnage the weapon was capable of (which made Goldstein's atom bomb analogy rather apt). But the earliest versions were prone to jamming and only saw limited use in the Civil War, which means this movie may have taken some historical liberties. Less than 20 or so Gatling guns were actually purchased for use during the war, although the U.S. Army did buy the improved version (with ten barrels and capable of 320 rounds per minute) in 1865, so perhaps this is what the writers were basing their story on.

Studio records of a conference between Goldstein and Zanuck also show some sensitivity to the way Native Americans were portrayed in Westerns at that time. The producers decided to make weapon-seeking Indians a renegade gang rather than a "legitimate" tribe of Sioux. "This is an outlaw band of Indians who prey even on their own people," meeting records noted. "These people are not fighting for their land or for their rights or anything noble like that....They steal from both the North and the South. They are taking full advantage of the fact that the North and the South are at war with one another."

In addition to some work on the RKO-Pathé lot, Siege at Red River was shot on location at Moab, Utah, and Durango, Colorado.

Director: Rudolph Maté
Producer: Leonard Goldstein
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm, from a story by J. Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Editing: Betty Steinberg
Art Direction: George Patrick, Lyle Wheeler
Original Music: Lionel Newman
Cast: Van Johnson (Capt. James Simmons/Jim Farraday), Joanne Dru (Nora Curtis), Richard Boone (Brett Manning), Milburn Stone (Sgt. Guderman), Jeff Morrow (Frank Kelso).

by Rob Nixon



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