Western summary: Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958)
A common theme in the Western film genre is a diverse group of travelers banding together against a common enemy, most often Native Americans.
One of the most famous Westerns with this theme is that of John Ford stagecoach (1939). Two lesser known but solid examples presented here in previous posts are Dragon Wells Massacre (1957), which I wrote about here in November 2020, and Escort west (1958), which I reviewed in May 2021.
This month we’re going to see another movie with this plot, Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958). Ambush at Cimarron Pass was a Regal film distributed by 20th Century-Fox. It stars Scott Brady, Margia Dean and Clint Eastwood, who began his film career in small roles just three years earlier.
It’s nice to note that two of the film’s cast members, Eastwood and Dean, are still with us today. Eastwood will be 92 in May 2022 and I was inspired to watch this film thanks to the recent 100th birthday of the film’s lead actress, Margia Dean. Dean was born on April 7, 1922.
Another cast member, Ray Boyle, recently passed away in January 2022. Boyle, who plays Johnny Willows, lived to be 98.
Ambush at Cimarron Pass takes place shortly after the end of the Civil War. Brady plays Sergeant Matt Blake, who leads a small group of cavalry soldiers through Apache territory. Your mission is to deliver a shipment of guns to a fort a few days away, along with Corbin (Baynes Barron), who has been arrested for his plans to sell the guns to Native Americans.
Along the way, Blake and his men are ambushed by a group of men led by former Confederate officer Captain Sam Prescott (Frank Gerstle). Prescott and his men, including Keith Williams (Eastwood), are Southerners who dislike the Yankee cavalry soldiers, but they all have a much bigger problem dealing with Apache Indians. The two groups agree to work together to get to the safety of the fort.
The Apaches soon show up in the area with a woman they kidnapped, Teresa (Dean), and use her as a diversion to steal the group’s horses. The men have to run to the fort with Teresa, their only protection being the guns, which the Indians still want. It’s a real Catch-22: the guns are a means of keeping the group alive, but the guns also attract the Indians who are determined to acquire them.
One by one, several of the men in the group are taken away by the Indians or die of other causes, ultimately resulting in about half the men and one woman attempting the final, most dangerous, and treacherous leg of the journey to the fort do.
Ambush at Cimarron Pass is admittedly a rather mediocre film; It’s not particularly outstanding, but it moves quickly, with a short running time of 73 minutes, and I enjoyed watching it. It’s always interesting for me to see the fresh twists that filmmakers put into a tried-and-true story.
Aside from enjoying the familiar storyline, I particularly appreciated that the film was shot extensively at the Iverson Movie Ranch, which I wrote about in my column last month. Much of the film was shot outdoors in an area that has become fairly familiar to me, and it was fun observing the backgrounds closely and recognizing places I’ve been.
Unfortunately, some very flashy soundstage interiors are interspersed with the exterior shots, but that was par for the course in the era. Luckily, most of the movie was shot outdoors, which gives the movie a more authentic feel.
The younger brother of actor Lawrence Tierney, Brady was a veteran of many westerns, including some of my personal favorites such as The girl who conquered the west (1949), Johnny guitar (1954), and The Storm Rider (1957). He’s solid as commanding Sergeant Blake, a natural leader who risks himself first, whether going in alone to meet up with Captain Prescott’s squad or handing Williams his canteen.
Without much time to work, Eastwood sketches a character who begins with a grudge against the Yankees so deep that he would have killed Blake if he hadn’t been interrupted. He begins to realize that Captain Prescott’s wisdom is correct: you must measure the man, not the uniform. When Sergeant Blake Williams hands his canteen and tells him to hold on to it, he looks at Blake with new eyes.
Dean’s character begins as a traumatized woman who initially shows courage and manages to warn the men about the Indians’ plans to steal the horses, but unfortunately it comes too late. Once she physically recovers from her ordeal, she quickly descends into something of a flirt and appears to be looking for a protector among men.
When Williams asks Teresa to go to Texas with him, but doesn’t propose, she approaches Blake instead, clearly considering him a more reliable man. And if his reaction to her kiss is any indication, she might succeed in landing him.
Dean was a former Miss California who played many small roles in Lippert Productions while westerns like this gave her some of her biggest and best roles. A few years ago, Dean shared career memories with Mike Fitzgerald for the Western Clippings site. In that interview she said: “I thought Clint was a star then, but I never thought he would become the superstar he is today.“
Dean ignored her lead man Brady and said they had a feud, but intriguingly, she shared fond memories of his brother Lawrence Tierney. Tierney was known in Hollywood as a “tough guy” who could be on the creepy side off-screen, but she remembered him as “a very nice guy.”
On the supporting cast, I particularly liked Gerstle as a Southern captain with a good head on his shoulders. The cast also includes Irving Bacon, William Vaughn, Ken Mayer, Keith Richards, John Damler, John Frederick and Desmond Slattery.
The film was directed by Jodie Copelan, whose film career began with The guilty (1947), a solid “B” suspense film starring Don Castle and Bonita Granville (as identical twins!). Copelan alternated between films and television, with his television work spanning many episodes of The Gene Autry Show and The FBI
Ambush at Cimarron Pass was written by Richard G. Taylor and John K. Butler, based on a story by Robert A. Reeds and Robert W. Woods. It was filmed in black and white Regalscope by John N. Nickolaus Jr.
I found Ambush at Cimarron Pass a relatively small but entertaining western that was worth checking out. Eastwood fans will especially want to see it for a glimpse into the early stages of his career.
Ambush at Cimarron Pass is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found on her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she has been writing about film since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film buff, Laura loves classics like Disney, film noir, musicals and westerns. She regularly reports on classic film festivals in Southern California. Laura will be writing all about westerns at the Western RoundUp for CMH.