Escape from Fort Bravo: A Decade before ‘The Great Escape’, John Sturges crafted this thrilling, Civil war era POW Escape adventure featuring William Holden and Eleanor Parker

Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), directed by John Sturges and starring William Holden, Eleanor Parker and John Forsythe, is a Civil-war era Western which details an escape attempt by Confederate soldiers from the eponymous POW camp in Arizona.

Made exactly a decade before his classic WWII POW escape drama, “The Great Escape (1963)”, Director, John Sturges’ “Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)” may not have the scale, the sweep, the depth and the all-star cast of the former, but it’s still an extremely well-made, by-the-numbers, thrilling adventure that blends a POW escape theme within the typical ‘Cavalry Vs Indians’ Western. Like “The Great Escape”, “Fort Bravo” also details an escape from a POW camp, but this time the story is set in 1863, during the American civil war- in the unforgiving arid deserts of Arizona (though the film is shot mainly in Death Valley and New Mexico). Also, the hero of our story, the hard-edged Union Cavalry Captain Roper (William Holden), is the man in charge of the POW camp, as opposed to “The Great Escape”, where the Allied POWs were the heroes of the movie. Roper earns his name (and his reputation) in the film’s opening scene itself, where we see him dragging an escaped confederate POW, Bailey (John Lupton) by a rope tethered to his horse, while he rides in front, through the blistering desert. He continues to drag him even after he had reached the fort, and in full view of the rest of the Confederate prisoners. Obviously, Roper intends this to be a lesson to all escaping Rebs. Fort Bravo is a Union military fort as well as a POW camp for Confederate prisoners, where the commander of the fort, the humanitarian Colonel Owens (Carl Benton Reid), doesn’t lock the prisoners up; because to escape from the fort means fleeing across the hostile desert which is occupied by the ferocious Mescalero Apaches – who are willing to kill any white man who sets foot on their territory. But that doesn’t stop some of the prisoners from attempting to escape, and it’s always up to Roper to bring them back; and bring them back he does, he’s the man who finds everyone. But Roper’s actions have been becoming more and more brutal of late, and even his fellow Union soldiers have started to resent him; and so has his superior Owens, who despises Roper’s methods, but desperately needs his expertise; now more than ever because the Apaches are on the warpath, and they may attack the fort any moment. Both Colonel and Captain debate whether to supply guns to the prisoners should the Apaches attack; Roper is for it, because he intends to preserve the fort for America, whichever one is left standing after the war.

Out on a routine patrol, Roper and his men, after fending off a surprise attack from the Apaches, manages to rescue a stagecoach bringing Texas beauty Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker) to Fort Bravo. Carla has come to attend the wedding of her school friend, Alice Owens (Polly Bergen), the colonel’s daughter. Alice is marrying the prim Lt. Beecher (Richard Anderson ), a West Point graduate who disapproves of Roper’s tough attitude and is determined to prove he can be just as macho as Roper while still being human. Carla appears to be smitten with Roper from the moment she laid eyes on him, and she begins to passive aggressively pursue him. Roper too starts melting in Carla’s presence. Her beauty and charm are too much for even a cold, reticent man like him, and he soon falls head over heels in love with her- even to the extend of proposing marriage to her. But what Roper does not know, and it’s revealed fairly early in the film, is that Carla is the lover of Confederate Captain John Marsh (John Forsythe), who’s held captive at the fort. Carla’s real reason for coming to the fort is to formulate a plan to save Marsh – along with soldiers Bailey, the gruff old-timer Sergeant Campbell (William Demarest) and spirited young soldier Cabot Young (William Campbell). Carla’s romantic involvement with Roper is a ruse to turn his attentions away from the prison-break. The escape takes place on the eve of Alice’s wedding. Carla has made a deal with a confederate-sympathizing storeowner to hide the Reb soldiers in his wagon when he comes to deliver the supplies to the fort. Everything goes as planned, except for one little hitch: Carla falls in love with Roper for real, and his marriage proposal completely rattles her. In a desperate move to thwart her burgeoning feelings for the Union Captain, she changes her well laid plans and leaves the fort with the escaping POWs.

Once again Col. Owens turns to Roper to bring back the escaped POWs. Roper doesn’t want to go: he’s sure that the Apaches will get the prisoners before they can cross into Texas. But his mood changes when he realizes that Carla has also gone along with the prisoners, and that, all this time, she was a Confederate spy making a fool out of him. Bitter and disillusioned, Roper once again sets out to track down and recapture this latest bunch of escapees. Beecher goes along with him; afraid that left to himself, Roper might end up killing Carla and the Rebs. Roper does catch up with the escapees, but on their way back to the fort they’re attacked by Apaches, who pin them down in a shallow exposed depression in the desert. From hereon, the film becomes a survival thriller, as the White Americans does their best to stay alive, even as the Natives are closing in fast. Roper frees and arms his prisoners, but even then, it looks like the Apaches will wipe them out. Apache uses innovative battle tactics – like throwing lances to mark out the field of attack and then raining down arrows with mathematical precision- as in a medieval battlefield. Bailey, a proven coward, escapes when one of their loose horses returns in the night. The gang is stuck in the ditch for two days and nights. Roper and Carla watch helplessly, as everyone, except them, gets killed or wounded. In the end, only Roper, Carla, Beecher and Marsh are alive- the latter two are seriously wounded. And just as Roper prepares to sacrifice himself to save others, in rides Bailey with the cavalry. The Apaches flee, and both Roper and Marsh appreciates Bailey for coming through and proving that he’s not a coward.

“Escape From Fort Bravo” is certainly a sumptuous visual feast, thanks mainly to the artistry of the great photographer Robert Surtees- MGM’s in-house camera wizard who photographed such visually stunning epics as  King Solomon’s Mines, Quo Vadis and BenHur. Surtees shot this film on bright, sundrenched locations, and in a new color process called Ansco Color; which makes his efforts all the more impressive because Ansco Color is an inferior color process; it was the American off shoot of the German Agfa Color, used notably by MGM, Ansco would eventually evolve into Metrocolor. One can only imagine how stunning the visuals would have been if it was shot in glorious 3-strip Technicolor and in cinemascope. John Sturges’ shot compositions are almost as good as the great ‘Western’ master John Ford: creamy yellow sand and tawny hills form beautiful backgrounds against which the blue cavalry uniforms stand out magnificently. At times it’s painfully obvious that the movie was, for some part, shot in studios with fake looking backgrounds in it- especially the night sequences as well as the close-ups of the actors during the final siege sequence. It makes the movie look outdated, but that has also become part of the charm of these movies from that time period. The action sequences are all built up and staged with the perfection that we have come to expect from a John Sturges film. This was a breakout film for Sturges: his first color film and outdoor adventure. For seven years, he has been toiling away at the fringes, making B movies likes “The Man Who Dared “. Sturges had originally wanted to make “The Great Escape”, but getting the rights to the book proved difficult, hence the studio offered him the opportunity to make this film.

“Escape from Fort Bravo” turned out to be the first of a series of very successful action-packed Westerns that Sturges would make in his career. Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Hour of the Gun (1967) being the truly great ones in his oeuvre, apart from the classic WWII adventure The Great Escape(1963). This one is not as great as those four, but it has all the elements that would become prominent in Sturges’ more acclaimed later works, especially his talent for creating heightened Character-driven drama within the confines of a generic action\adventure film. Sturges will also go on to develop the themes from this film on a larger scale in his later films- like the POW escape, a disparate group of people coming together to take on a common enemy, or the lengthy third act, where the protagonists tries to escape from a place under siege. Sam Peckinpah, one of Sturges’ ardent admirers, will use the basic plot of this film for his civil war set epic, “Major Dundee“. Sturges’ real skill lies in the picturisation of suspenseful and dynamic action sequences. The best scene in the film is the lead-up to an Apache attack early on in the film. First, Sturges shows the devastation these Apaches are capable of – a wagon is burnt and the travelers are tied to an anthill to rot and die. Roper, upon arriving at the scene of the massacre, provides a decent burial to the dead; but in the midst of the burial ceremony Roper notices a group of Apaches heading towards them. Roper quickly winds up the proceedings and get himself and his men out of there, but they are not out of danger yet. The Apaches are still on their trail, and they expect an attack anytime. The suspense reaches a fever pitch when Roper and his men slowly rides through a narrow canyon, expecting the Apaches to jump them at any point. But the attack never comes; instead, they’re attacked just when they reaches open ground. The attack, as filmed by Sturges, is swift and deadly. The sequence is completely devoid of any underscoring, and Sturges relies totally on natural sound effects like the soldiers’ voices echoing off the Canyon Walls and the sound of hoof beats to build suspense.

It’s not that the musical score by Jeff Alexander is not good- it’s actually very good for a MGM movie (and a Western) from the 50s. It’s just that Sturges’ filmmaking in these sequences are so powerful that it work much better without any underscoring. But the film’s main highlight is the lengthy climax- that goes on for almost 30 minutes of this 98 minutes movie; in which the main characters are pinned down in the open desert; and again executed without any underscoring by Sturges, thereby heightening the isolation and extreme danger the protagonists find themselves in. It’s a sequence inspired by the medieval ‘battle of Agincourt’, where we see Apaches using Artillery tactics to aim and fire scads of arrows at once at the enemy. It’s very logical and ingenious how the Apaches close in, and the growing fear and realization of what’s happening to the protagonists is realistic and nail-biting. This film was made at the height of the 3-D craze, and like John Wayne’s “Hondo“, released little later that year, this one too was originally planned to be shot in 3-D. And you can understand why- the raining down of arrows, throwing of lances, Apaches circling their victims and the cavalry charges would have looked really great in 3-D. But the idea to shoot in 3-D was dropped because it was very difficult to shoot outdoors with 3-D cameras, and the craze for this new technology was slowly fizzling out. But Sturges still produces effects on par with 3-D, with his ingenious camera placements, editing, and some truly impressive special effects for its time.

It’s this last half hour that truly makes the film worthwhile; because after a very impressive beginning, the second half of the film becomes meandering- no thanks to the overstretched romance between Roper and Carla. Carla’s character is quite inventive for a Western- a tough, feisty, old-west ‘Mata Hari‘ is not what we usually find in these sort of films. Her character is also necessary to humanize the tough martinet, Roper; otherwise he’s just too stiff and dour for the audience to care enough as to what happens to him. But the romantic angle- and Roper’s characterization- is stretched to the breaking point, with scenes depicting Roper’s fondness for growing roses in his backyard, how fast Roper falls in love (and lust) with Carla, and endless sequences of courtship between Roper and Carla- inside and outside the fort. The film would have been more gripping if this middle portion was tightly edited . That’s one of the problems of casting two big stars like Holden and Parker. They need to have an extended love story, and each one of them had to be provided with substantial footage in the film.

At the time, Holden was making a comeback of sorts as a star- post “Sunset Boulevard,” and his Oscar winning performance in “Stalag 17”. “Fort Bravo” is one was his first true star-parts and he gives a solid performance, though a little too one-note, and I personally believe he’s much better in “The Horse Soldiers” and “Alvarez Kelly” which are both set during the civil war. Parker was also a major star at the time, having already been nominated twice for an Oscar, and she looks luminous in those fabulous gowns. She too is solid as the ‘femme fatale’ who melts Roper’s heart and then runs away with his prisoner. Perhaps her appearance is a bit too anachronistic for the surroundings- always made-up to the hilt, with never a strand of hair or lipstick out of place, she looks more like a princess attending a royal ball rather than a frontier woman travelling through hostile Apache territory. But this too is part of the charm of these old movies, especially an MGM movie, were the first order of business for any star – especially a female star- was to appear glamourous at all times. John Forsyth, unfortunately, is no match for this charismatic star-couple, and ends up getting overshadowed- relegated to the background and never rising to form the substantial third angle of the love-triangle. The humor in the film is provided by the two Williamses: the old Demarest and the young Campbell, who play the bickering Reb couple-always at each other throats and trading barbs. “Escape from Fort Bravo” was a big success at the box office, and for a time there, was even more successful than MGM’s big prestige epic, “Quo Vadis”.  The success of this film led directly to Sturges helming the iconic “Bad Day at Black Rock”, a modern Western with Noir undertones, and another critical and box-office triumph that turned Sturges into an ‘A-list’ director.

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