Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Overlooked Movies: Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953)

Not only had I never seen this Western movie, I don't think I'd ever even heard of it until we watched it recently. It's certainly a little unusual for the time period in that there are no real "good guys". Four ex-cons are released from Yuma Prison and go after the loot from a hold-up that was hidden before they went to prison. The twist is that one of them (played by John Hodiak) wasn't even part of the robbery. He was just an innocent cowboy swept up by the posse when the others were captured. The actual fourth man who was in on the job got away, and the others are supposed to meet him and claim their shares of the loot. Hodiak wants a share, too, because he did the time even though he didn't do the crime.

But the fourth man is dead, and nobody knows where the money is, except that it's supposed to be hidden in the town of Tomahawk Gap, and there are Apaches on the war path, and when they get to Tomahawk Gap it's a ghost town, deserted except for a crazy old geezer who's taking care of the graveyard, and they also have a girl on their hands, a Navajo prisoner they rescued from the Apaches, and it's a question of whether they'll all kill each other before they find the loot or will the Apaches get them?

That's a long sentence, but that's the way the plot tumbles out in this movie, not always making complete sense but never slowing down, either. In addition to Hodiak, the guys after the money are David Brian (a suitably despicable villain), veteran character actor Ray Teal, and an incredibly young John Derek. The crazy old geezer is played by another great character actor, John Qualen (with no Swedish accent this time), and yet another great character actor, Percy Helton, has a small part early on. This is a good cast, and the production values are high for the most part. Lots of good stunt work during the Indian battles. The fistfights are embarrassingly bad, though, with the actors clearly missing each other by a foot or more.

This could have easily been one of those hardboiled Western novels published by Gold Medal in the Fifties, by Lewis B. Patten or William Heuman or Harry Whittington. The bleak tone it achieves works really well. I'm not sure why I never ran across AMBUSH AT TOMAHAWK GAP before, but I'm glad I watched it now.


Peter Brandvold said...

I saw this a long time ago and really enjoyed it. I'm going to have to look for it again.

Walker Martin said...

I saw this a couple years ago and gave it a high rating. I thought it was excellent and tough according to my notes.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the few movies I've found that really delivers that tough, terse style found in the best hardboiled western novels.
I keep looking, reading reviews and watching old westerns with the right kind of reputation, but, surprisingly, not many deliver.

Anybody care to recommend some lean hardboiled western movies?

John Hocking

Walker Martin said...

Any western with Robert Duvall in it usually comes across as tough and hard boiled, especially the great mini series, LONESOME DOVE. Some of the Randolph Scott films in the fifties are tough. Same with Clint Eastwood in the Italian westerns.

Unfortunately many westerns have characters that are just too clean cut, too good looking, too closely shaven and nice. And forget about the pretty girls that cowboys are always stumbling over. These faults are especially noticeable in the TV series from the fifties and sixties.

James Reasoner said...

The Randolph Scott films directed by Budd Boetticher definitely seem hardboiled to me. So does RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. And sticking with Randolph Scott, one from the late Forties directed by John Sturges and written by Alan LeMay, THE WALKING HILLS. It's a contemporary Western that's always reminded me of the Bob Zane stories by Erle Stanley Gardner collected in WHISPERING SANDS and PAYDIRT.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, gentlemen.
Here are some of the westerns I've seen that seem to best embody the hardboiled tone I seek.

The Law and Jake Wade
The Tall T
Seven Men From Now
Ride Lonesome
Commanche Station
Winchester '73
The Man from Laramie
Fort Dobbs
Ambush at Tomahawk Gap

And here's a couple bonus Spaghetti westerns that I feel achieve the same effects, but may test some viewer's tolerance for non-American western fare.

I Want Him Dead
Johnny Yuma

And here are three westerns that I've been hunting, since I suspect they'll deliver the goods. The last two are fiendishly hard to find in any home-viewing format.

Ride the Man Down
Coroner Creek

Again, if anybody has any lean, fast, taut western films they'd like to suggest, I'm all ears.

James Reasoner said...

A friend of mine was telling me about FORT DOBBS not long ago. That's one I've never seen. Haven't seen the two Spaghetti Westerns you mention, either. I'll have to look for those. I know I've seen RIDE THE MAN DOWN and CORONER CREEK on TV many years ago but don't remember anything about them. Not ROUGHSHOD, though, don't recall ever hearing of it. GUN THE MAN DOWN is pretty good. I posted about it a few years ago: https://jamesreasoner.blogspot.com/2011/06/tuesdays-overlooked-movies-gun-man-down.html

James Reasoner said...

Have you seen SIX BLACK HORSES with Audie Murphy and Dan Duryea? It's another Burt Kennedy-scripted film. Been a long time since I saw it, but I remember liking it a lot.

Fred Blosser said...

Many to choose from.

LAW AND ORDER (the 1932 version, with Walter Huston and Harry Carey Sr. as thinly disguised Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday)

The bleakest, hardest boiled Euro-Western that I know is CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES, starring and directed by Robert Hussein. There's a watchable print, free, on You Tube.

James Reasoner said...

BLOOD ON THE MOON is really good. Based on the novel GUNMAN'S CHANCE by Luke Short.

michael said...

You're missing out 3 other Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann westerns: Naked spur; Bend in the river; and The far country. All excellent!

James Reasoner said...

Yeah, those Stewart/Mann movies are great. I've watched them all again in the past year or so, and they really hold up.

S. Craig Zahler said...

This depends on how you define hard-boiled, but I'll echo some westerns mentioned (and am agreed on Stewart & Mann / Scott & Boetticher) and add a couple more tough westerns:

Man of the West
The Tall T
The Big Gundown
Face to Face
Seven Men from Now
Ride Lonesome
The Man from Laramie
The Gunfighter
The Jack Bull (TV)
Stranger on the Run (TV)
3:10 to Yuma (original)
Winchester '73
The Naked Spur
Death Rides a Horse

And as a New Yorker, I can proudly state that I have seen every one of the theatrical movies projected on the big screen at revival houses, most with restored 35mm prints...

Anonymous said...

Appreciate all the attention and input.
What most interests me is finding lesser known, lower budget and lower profile gems.
Shorter, tighter, terser, and tougher, with sharp dialogue and hardboiled conflict.

After blundering into a few (like Ambush at Tomahawk Gap) I'm convinced that there have to be more out there. So I'll keep reading reviews and watching obscure old western movies.

James: I haven't seen Six Black Horses, but it doesn't look to have had a US release in any home video format. I'll get it one way or another.

Fred: Been meaning to catch Pursued for a long time. You just made me buy it.

Craig: Hat's off to your inclusion of The Big Gundown, one of the very few Spaghetti Westerns that can stand beside the Leone films. Even fans of Spaghettis seem to overlook it.


S. Craig Zahler said...

The Big Gundown is my third favorite Spaghetti Western after Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. It's terrific, and I'm glad you dig it.

Dunstin said...

"Have Gun - Will Travel" TV show

Good 70s Westerns for people who don't like 70s Westerns:

MY NAME IS NOBODY (produced/partially directed by Leoene)

Anonymous said...

Try Rough Night in Jericho and Five Card Stud.
Tiziano Agnelli