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In a 1971 Playboy interview, John Wayne said: "I've only played one cautious part in my life, in Allegheny Uprising (1939). [It was a] rather dull character." Wayne biographer Randy Roberts later quoted Wayne even more succinctly: "an awful stinker," Wayne said of the picture.
Truth be told, Allegheny Uprising has its flaws but is still an entertaining film. The plot moves along quickly and economically, making up for a lack of depth in the characters. Plus, it's always intriguing to watch actors like John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Brian Donlevy and George Sanders play variations on their distinctive personas. (Was there ever an actor better at conveying contempt than George Sanders?)
Allegheny Uprising is set in colonial Pennsylvania before the Revolutionary War. Local settlers are outraged that their people are being killed by Indians using guns sold by white traders, and they convince the British commanders to outlaw trade with the Indians. The businessmen don't like this, however, and surreptitiously include some weapons and rum in a military wagon train delivering supplies to a fort. (As one businessman whines, "What's the government for if not to protect business? Certainly not to interfere with it!") The settlers find out about the scheme, and Jim Smith (John Wayne) leads a group of men disguised as Indians to ambush the wagon train. Now it's time for the traders (led by Brian Donlevy) to complain to the British, and an effete, by-the-book British officer (George Sanders) is sent to guard the supply wagons at all costs.
This story is based on a true incident and is interesting as a depiction of the kinds of tensions which led to the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the movie had a few outside factors working against it. One week before it opened, John Ford's better Revolutionary War-era movie, Drums Along the Mohawk, was released. Furthermore, WWII had just broken out in Europe, so it was not the best timing for a movie critical of the British.
Claire Trevor is top-billed over Wayne, a sign that for the moment anyway, she was still a big star and Wayne hadn't quite arrived yet - this despite the fact that Stagecoach had been released eight months earlier. Stagecoach marked Wayne and Trevor's first pairing, and in that landmark picture they underplayed their romance effectively. In Allegheny Uprising, Trevor is rather shrill, though that's likely due more to the script and director than to her skills. (Director William Seiter, while experienced, was no John Ford.) Still, Wayne and Trevor make a good team. Trevor's spunky energy essentially makes her worthy of Wayne, much like his later leading ladies Maureen O'Hara or Angie Dickinson. The duo would team up once more, in Dark Command (1940).
Brian Donlevy was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® in 1939 - not for this film but for Beau Geste. The Oscar® went to Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach. George Sanders' role in Allegheny Uprising was originally to be played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Sanders stepped in when Hardwicke did The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) instead.
Producer: P.J. Wolfson
Director: William A. Seiter
Screenplay: P.J. Wolfson, Neil H. Swanson (novel)
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Film Editing: George Crone
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Anthony Collins
Cast: Claire Trevor (Janie MacDougall), John Wayne (James Smith), George Sanders (Capt. Swanson), Brian Donlevy (Trader Ralph Callendar), Wilfrid Lawson (Mac MacDougall), Robert Barrat (Magistrate Duncan).
BW-81m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold