BR: Pony Soldier (1952)

April 6, 2013 | By

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Film: Good/ BR Transfer: Very Good / BR  Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time/ Region: All / Released: March, 2013

Genre: Western

Synopsis: A Canadian Mountie crosses into the United States to bring back a rogue Cree band.

Special Features: Isolated Mono Music Track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment




Within Tyrone Power’s filmography, Pony Soldier stands out as a bit of an oddity. It’s ostensibly a simple western tale transplanted to the Canadian-U.S. border, directed by a house technician, and starring one major star with no genuine love interest, nor any epic acts of derring-do (except for a near immolation at the end). It also runs 82 minutes and moves fast due to its no-nonsense editing, and uses some stock footage during an early battle sequence. The film rarely pauses long enough for any deep character moments, which may be a sign Fox wanted audiences to be unaware they were watching a B-movie with slightly better pedigree.

Power was arguably Fox’ greatest male star, and he gives Const. Duncan MacDonald just enough gravitas to make the character and film transcend the inherently average material; there’s also added fun for his fans in seeing the charismatic actor reunited onscreen with veteran character actor Thomas Gomez, after their pairing in the big-budget classic Captain from Castile (1947).

The core story has Power playing a Canadian Mountie, ‘recently’ graduated from Toronto (!), whose by-the books style and determination to find compromise between upset parties leads him on a quest to track down a Cree tribe that illegally migrated from their Canadian reserve to Montana in search of better food and living quarters, and bring them back home before a major international incident is ignited.

MacDonald (Power) and his half-Blackfoot guide Natayo Smith (Gomez) are eventually surrounded by the Cree, and at their encampment they discover one of the leading warriors, Konah (Cameron Mitchell in Indian wig #12), is safeguarding a pair of settlers – former gunman Jess (Robert Horton), and settler-wench Emerald (Lenny Edwards) – as hostages for future negotiations with oppressive white folks.

The Arizona locations look nothing like the Canadian / northern U.S. border, and Gomez’ comedic Indianspeak is preposterous, but there’s an inherent oddness to the whole production that makes it strangely compelling. Part of stems from watching Power deal with material that may well have originated from an unproduced story by Toronto-born screenwriter Garnett Weston (writer of the ill-fated The Viking, and author of the genre classic White Zombie), and seeing how screenwriter John C. Higgins (Seven Cities of Gold, Robinson Crusoe on Mars) worked into the script slightly more adult portrayals of native American / governmental politics. Konah still represents the cliched, mindless, war-mongering savage inherent to westerns, but Chief Standing Bear (Stuart Randall) represents the slowly emerging shift in the genre, as seen in Fox’ Broken Arrow (1950), where dialogue and reasoning between two cultures solved issues.

The overlying stance, however, remains ‘white government knows better than aboriginals’ – Standing Bear capitulates to MacDonald’s arguments as fast as John McCafferty’s taut editing – and the film may well have been conceived as a more exotic western whose token Canadian content was part of the Canadian Cooperative Project. (This aggreement is best assessed as the 10 year sellout deal where the Canuckle government halted legislation favouring the development of an indiginous distribution network, and allowed Hollywood studios to dominate the theatrical landscape in exchange for perfunctory mentions of Canadian locations within its commercial product to boost the tourism industry. It’s end-results stymied what should’ve been an emerging native film industry.)

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a clean transfer of a surviving Technicolor print. Harry Jackson’s cinematography is very beautiful, but like several B-level, 3-strip Technicolor titles from the era (Belles on Their Toes), there are some color registration issues which soften details in wide shots. The mono soundtrack is clean, and it’s fun to hear how composer Alex North transcended the western genre by incorporating chunks of modernism, especially passages that would be refined in masterworks like Spartacus (1960) and Cleopatra (1963). TT’s BR showcases the score as a separate mono music track, which isolates some of the fine nuances North applied to screen action, and the film’s converging cultures.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes pay tribute to Power’s skills as an actor and screen charisma, and she notes how Pony Soldier was part of the star’s final career phase, appearing in increasingly less glossy projects at Fox (King of the Khyber Rifles and The Sun Also Rises excepted) before a career high in UA’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), his final film.

Whereas Cameron Mitchell graduated to bigger roles in more prestigious Fox productions (Man on a Tightrope, The Robe [M], Hell and High Water [M], and Desirée [M]), both Penny Edwards and Robert Horton soon shifted to TV. Workman director Joseph Newman’s career includes shorts, westerns, noirs, and an early Marilyn Monroe film – Love Nest (1951) – but he’s perhaps best known for directing Universal’s sci-fi classic This Island Earth (1955).



© 2013 Mark R. Hasan


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