by Jef Burnham
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Fort Massacre, a forgotten little western starring Joel McCrea (Ride the High Country, Sullivan’s Travels), is now available on on-demand DVD from the MGM Limited Edition Collection. After Apache warriors slaughter their company, the unstable Sergeant Vinson (McCrea) finds himself the ranking officer in charge of seeing that the remaining eleven soldiers reach their destination at Fort Crane. But Vinson’s task is complicated by his overwhelming hatred for the Apache people. For he must satiate his mad Apache bloodlust at every turn, which only serves to further thin his troops’ numbers along the way. After his sole Apache prisoner escapes their custody, the threat of a subsequent Apache attack is imminent. With one of their men seriously wounded, the men have no choice but to establish a fort of their own to fend off the Apaches. And they call it: Fort Massacre.
McCrea is terrific as Vinson, the Sergeant who’s more animal than man in his thirst for Apache blood. What’s wonderful about his character is that, unlike so many other descent into madness stories, Vinson is obviously mad from the start. And a great back story validates his mental instability. Of course, straight madness from a film’s open to close is inevitably tedious and boring. To counteract this, the character has these wonderful, fleeting moments of clarity in which he is able to comment on his instability objectively before lashing out once more.
While it may be an exceptional standard western, it is still that, just a standard, 1950’s western. As such, it is indeed plagued by the broad, stereotypical representations of Native Americans we typically associate with the western genre. So be warned. But while the sole Apache member of our group of protagonists is still alive, the Apache stereotype, when juxtaposed with the hypocritically Christian soldiers, actually provides an interesting, if paper-thin, commentary on religion.
Keeping in mind that this is an on-demand DVD-R format disc produced from the highest quality sources available, we turn to the quality of the release itself. The print is surprisingly clean, although the quality of the films’ individual reels vary; and the colors seem to have held up well, even if the picture as a whole could have used a bit more contrast to sharpen up the image. Moreover, I’m happy to say that I encountered none of the interlacing problems that have marred some of the Warner Archives’ non-remastered on-demand pictures. One final point, there are in many scenes lighting discontinuities of varying degrees from one shot to another. This, it should be noted, is not a a flaw in MGM’s transfer of the film, but an obvious oversight at the production level.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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