Cast & Crew
In November 1864, at Greensburg, Ohio, a Gatling gun, on its way by train to be tested by the Union army, is stolen by Confederates, who hope to use it to change the course of the war. Boxes containing the parts of the gun, which fires 250 shots per minute, are hidden in the piano of a traveling medicine show wagon driven west by Capt. James S. Simmons, of the Georgia volunteers, masquerading as Jim Farraday, a traveling salesman from Boston, and his cohort Benjy, really Sgt. Benjamin Guderman of Jim's unit. As they perform the code song "Tapioca" in the towns they visit, they receive messages from fellow conspirators with instructions on where to go next. Upon arriving at a stream in the West, they find Nora Curtis, a Yankee nurse to whom they are both attracted, in a hospital wagon stuck in the water. Nora is trying to take her patient, an Indian woman named Lukoa, to Nora's home in Baxter Springs, where she keeps one room as a hospital ward. Nora explains that Lukoa's husband cannot join them, as the Union army has made it a hanging offense for an Indian to cross the river because Confederates, whom she despises, have taught rebellion to the Indians so they will fight the Union army. Jim and Benjy take the women to Baxter Springs, but although Nora is attracted to Jim, when he says he has hired a substitute to fight in the war, she begins to snub him. When Jim and Benjy sing "Tapioca" in Baxter Springs, shopkeeper Anderson Smith writes a message to give them, but he swallows it when Union soldiers, led by Pinkerton detective Frank Kelso, ride into town in search of the stolen Gatling gun. The soldiers raid Smith's store, and he wounds Kelso before he is shot to death. Suspecting Jim, Kelso, after Nora nurses him back to health, sends a telegram to the Boston Pinkerton office and searches the medicine wagon, but does not find the Gatling gun. After Jim hears a dance hall girl sing the "Tapioca" song, he learns that her new beau, Brett Manning, instructed her to sing it. Manning, who mistreats the girl, tells Jim that he worked for Smith bringing horses through Indian territory for the Confederate forces, but says he is not from the South and has only helped them for the money. He offers to take Jim and the gun through Union lines and they agree on a price. After learning that all vehicles leaving town will be searched, Jim and Benjy hide the gun in Nora's hospital wagon, aware that she plans to take Lukoa and her newborn baby back to her village. The next day, Jim's scheme works, as the baby's cries and Nora's snippiness lead the sheriff to let her go without a thorough search. Jim sends Benjy and Manning to catch up to the wagon and plans to rendezvous with them the next day. After Benjy and Manning stop Nora's wagon, Manning shoots and kills Benjy and has Nora drive to Lukoa's village, where he plans to sell the gun to Chief Yellow Hawk. Jim finds his friend's body and buries him, then pursues the hospital wagon on horseback. Kelso, upon receiving word from Boston that the real Jim Farraday was killed in battle two years ago, leads soldiers in pursuit of Jim. After Manning convinces Yellow Hawk that the gun will give his tribe the strength of ten tribes, Yellow Hawk buys it, then hires Manning to operate the gun in an attack on nearby Fort Smith with many other tribes that he hopes to lead. Jim arrives at the Indian village after the warriors have left. He plans to take Nora back to Baxter Springs and then return to his own home, and although she is grateful, she protests that they should warn the fort. He argues that the people at the fort are the same kind as those who burned his home in Atlanta and killed his brother in battle. They sleep next to each other on the same blanket and are abruptly woken up by Kelso and the Union soldiers. When Nora warns them about the attack on Fort Smith, Kelso reveals, to Jim's chagrin, that women and children live with the soldiers at the fort. Outside the fort, Manning and the Indians set up the Gatling gun behind cover. The Indians attack at dawn, setting fire to the fort and mowing down soldiers with the Gatling gun as they attempt to leave. After an Indian scout at the fort reports to the commanding colonel that smoke signals reveal that perhaps a thousand Indians are approaching, the colonel refuses to signal his major on the other side of the ridge to attack because he fears a rout. Kelso and the Union soldiers arrive with Jim and Nora. After locating the Gatling gun, Jim jumps Manning, and Kelso fights the two Indians operating the gun with Manning. As Manning is about to crush Jim's skull with a rock, Jim knifes him to death. Jim and Kelso turn the Gatling gun on the Indians, and when the fort's colonel sees this, he signals his major to attack. The Union forces, supported by the Gatling gun, force the Indians to retreat. After the battle, Nora argues that Kelso should take into consideration Jim's actions. Kelso, who has learned that General Lee's forces are in full retreat, allows Jim to leave. Jim tells Nora that he plans to return to Georgia and fix up his home before he travels west again, but that he will make Baxter Springs his first stop. Nora says she plans to make it his last, and he counters that it will be his next to last and that she will like Atlanta. They embrace and he rides off as she watches.
Pilar Del Rey
J. Robert Bren
W. D. Flick
Harry M. Leonard
Jim Van Horn
The Siege at Red River on DVD
For much of its running time, the movie has the feel of another small-scale Civil War drama: The Raid (1954), which the same studio, 20th Century-Fox, released just four months after The Siege at Red River. (Both films are the work of the same screenwriter, Sydney Boehm.) The Raid is an excellent film that relates the true story of the northernmost battle of the Civil War, in which confederates posed as northerners and infiltrated a small Vermont town before taking it over militarily. The Siege at Red River also involves southerners posing as northerners in order to carry out a military mission, but this tale is set in the midwest and west, as the confederates intercept a new device that could tip the scales in the ongoing war -- the Gatling gun.
Van Johnson, starring here as a confederate spy and arms smuggler, may seem like an unlikely casting choice since he is best remembered for his musicals, but in truth, Johnson was a strong all-around leading man, capable of working well in just about every genre. Realizing this, the makers of Siege smartly borrowed him from MGM, for his character is called upon to fight, to engage in serious dramatics, to show some charm while romancing beautiful Joanne Dru, and, yes, to sing. Johnson masquerades as a traveling salesman, moving from town to town to sell his wares with his confederate partner (Milburn Stone). To attract attention, they get up on their wagon and playfully sing to the townspeople. One of their songs, however, is actually a secret signal to confederate sleeper agents in each town, who now know to transfer covert information to the two men. The singing has a logical dramatic purpose, but it also allows us to accept Johnson in the role altogether -- an economical device indeed. (Plus he sings very well!)
Elsewhere, director Rudolph Mate shows his skill in communicating story and character development with strong visual momentum. In the opening eight minutes, for example, with a bare minimum of dialogue, Mate clearly establishes the characters and their situation as the rebels rob the Gatling gun from a train and make a clever escape. After three more minutes of screen time, we've moved with the southern spies through three states and have been introduced to Joanne Dru, whom Johnson and Stone rescue and accompany to the next town. As minor as this film is, it's a good model of economical visual storytelling.
Rudolph Mate has long been undervalued as a director. He started as a cinematographer, and a good one, with movies like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Cover Girl (1944) and Gilda (1946) to his credit. Then he became a director of such efficient titles like Union Station (1950), Branded (1950), When Words Collide (1951), The Far Horizons (1955) and Miracle in the Rain (1956), which for the most part contain a crispness of tone and pace that match the crispness of the cinematography and overall look.
The Siege at Red River, while no exception, also owes a great deal to its screenwriter, Sydney Boehm. Boehm wrote many fine film noirs, including The Big Heat (1953), and he brings his strong sense of character and plotting to bear here. The narrative flows quickly and logically, yet still yields plot surprises and manages to treat both sides of the Civil War three-dimensionally. The drama also builds in a satisfying way from small-scale incident to large action finale involving cavalry and Indians (footage for this was lifted from Buffalo Bill .)
But Boehm's most clever device is the introduction of a wild card character about halfway through, played by Richard Boone in a way that must have inspired the actor when he played another villain in Budd Boetticher's The Tall T (1957) a few years later. Boone's character is dangerous, unsteady, and volatile, whose only motivation is money, and as such he will work with northerners, southerners, whomever. "The only thing we got in common," he tells Johnson, "is we both bleed if we're cut." You get the sense that Boone is capable of anything at any moment, including betrayal and murder, which makes him very intriguing and allows Boone to almost steal the show.
Fox has not restored or remastered this film, and the image is uneven throughout in terms of sharpness, brightness and contrast. And there's a visible green vertical line along the far right edge of the frame during the early reels and again towards the end. This is frustrating, but it should be said that most reels look very, very good. A restoration one day would be welcome, as the Utah location scenery is spectacular.
By Jeremy Arnold
The Siege at Red River on DVD
Siege at Red River
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
Siege at Red River
TCM Remembers Van Johnson - Important Schedule Change on TCM In Honor To Salute VAN JOHNSON
The new schedule for the evening of Tuesday, December 23rd will be:
8:00 PM In the Good Old Summertime
9:45 PM A Guy Named Joe
12:30 AM Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
2:30 AM The Last Time I Saw Paris
4:30 AM Thrill of a Romance
Van Johnson (1916-2008)
Van Johnson, the boyish leading man whose clean cut, All-American appeal made him a top box-office draw for MGM during World War II, died on December 12 in Nyack, New York of natural causes. He was 92.
He was born Charles Van Dell Johnson on August 25, 1916, in Newport, Rhode Island. By his own account, his early childhood wasn't a stable one. His mother abandoned him when he was just three and his Swedish-born father offered little consolation or nurturing while he was growing up. Not surprisingly, Johnson found solace in singing and dancing lessons, and throughout his adolescence, he longed for a life in show business. After graduating high school in 1934, he relocated to New York City and was soon performing as a chorus boy on Broadway in shows such as New Faces of 1936 and eventually as an understudy in Rodgers and Hart's musical, Too Many Girls in 1939.
Johnson eventually made his way to Hollywood and landed an unbilled debut in the film version of Too Many Girls (1940). By 1941, he signed a brief contract with Warner Bros., but it only earned him a lead in a "B" programmer Murder in the Big House (1941); his contract soon expired and he was dropped by the studio. Johnson was on his way back to New York, but as luck would have it - in the truest Hollywood sense - friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz introduced him to Billy Grady, a lead talent scout at MGM, which was currently Ball's new studio. Johnson was signed up and almost immediately MGM had a star on its hands.
It might have been slow going at first, with Johnson playing able support in films such as Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant and The War Against Mrs. Hadley (both 1942). By 1943 the studio capitalized on his broad smile and freckles and starred him in two of the studio's biggest hits: A Guy Named Joe and The Human Comedy. Those two films transformed him into a boxoffice draw with a huge following, particularly among teenage girls. A near fatal car accident that same year only accentuated the loyalty of his fans, and his 4-F status as the result of that accident created an opportunity for him when so many other leading actors of the era (James Stewart, Clark Gable) were off to war. Johnson was quickly promoted as MGM'sleading man in war heroics and sweet romancers on the big screen: The White Cliffs of Dover, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (both 1944), Thrill of a Romance, the episodic Week-End at the Waldorf (both 1945), and a musical remake of Libeled Lady entitled Easy to Wed (1946).
Hits though these were, it wasn't until after the war that Johnson began to receive more dramatic parts and better material such as supporting Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the political farce State of the Union (1948). other significant roles included the well-modulated noir thriller The Scene of the Crime, the grim war spectacle Battleground (both 1949), the moving domestic drama Invitation (1952) in which he played a man who is paid to marry a woman (Dorothy McGuire) by her father. Before he left MGM, he closed his career out in fine form with the sweeping musical Brigadoon, co-starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse; and the lilting soaper The Last Time I Saw Paris (both 1954) with Elizabeth Taylor.
After he left MGM, the parts that came Johnson's way weren't as varied, but he had his moments in The Caine Mutiny (1954), the beguiling romance drama Miracle in the Rain (1956) with Jane Wyman; and his lead performance in one of the first successful made for-TV-movies The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957). By the '60s, Johnson returned to the stage, and played the title role in London's West End production of The Music Man. He then returned to Broadway in the drama Come on Strong. He still had a few good supporting parts, most notably as Debbie Reynolds' suitor in Norman Lear's scathing satire on marital differences Divorce American Style (1967); and television welcomed his presence on many popular shows in the '70s and '80s such as Maude, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat and of course Murder She Wrote. There was one last graceful cameo in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), yet for the most remainder of his career, Johnson worked mainly on the dinner theater circuit before retiring from showbiz completely by the mid-90s. He is survived by a daughter, Schuyler.
by Michael T. Toole
TCM Remembers Van Johnson - Important Schedule Change on TCM In Honor To Salute VAN JOHNSON
The working titles of this film were Arapaho Trail and Gatling Gun. According to a October 10, 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item, Dale Robertson was originally scheduled for the lead. Tyrone Power was later scheduled to star. Other news items list Jean Peters and Peggy Maley as a possible co-stars. Van Johnson was borrowed from M-G-M for the production, and writer Sydney Boehm was loaned from Paramount. Studio records credit Irving Wallace with a revised script and Leo Townsend with a continuity, but it is not known if any of their material was used in the final film. Location shooting was done at Moab, UT and Durango, CO, and some filming was shot at the RKO-Pathé lot. It is possible that the 2d unit assistant director, listed in contemporary sources as "Harbert Glaser," is actually Herbert Glazer.
In an inter-office memo to Twentieth Century-Fox production head Darryl Zanuck, included in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, Goldstein described the Gatling gun as "America's first machine gun" and "the atom bomb of a century ago." The portrayal of the Indians in the film was discussed during a conference between Goldstein and Zanuck: "It was decided to make them a renegade gang of Indians, rather than a 'legitimate' tribe of Sioux. This is an outlaw band of Indians who prey even on their own people.... 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."