Don't ya just hate it when them thar renegade Apaches go on the warpath? I mean, jeez, you'd think it was their country or something.
In its defense, the Western adventure film "Apache Rifles" (1964) does strive for something more than merely pitting the "good" white man against the "savage" red man. In fact, it's the other way around in the film, and there's a rather significant and touching moral involved in the story. It's just not quite enough to save this yarn, starring Audie Murphy, from being much more than ordinary, one of the last traditional Westerns Hollywood made in a genre quickly running its course.
Audie Murphy, for those of you too young to remember, was the most-decorated combat soldier of World War II, winning thirty-three awards including the Congressional Medal of Honor. At the end of the war, Hollywood beckoned. And why not? Murphy was a young, handsome, popular, real-life hero. He was perfect for the kinds of roles Tinseltown usually cast him in for the next twenty years. He made mostly B-pictures, doing his first movie in 1948 and his last in 1969, dying in a plane crash in 1971. However, he did make several exceptionally good films: "The Red Badge of Courage" for John Huston in 1951; his own autobiography, "To Hell and Back," in 1955; and "The Unforgiven," again for Huston, in 1960. And it's interesting to note that the actor's diminutive size (5' 5") didn't seem to hamper his career. What did hinder it, apparently, were his rather modest acting skills, a reported volatile temper, and the adverse psychological effects of his war experience.
Anyway, in "Apache Rifles" he plays Captain Jeff Stanton (inexplicably referred to as "Jeff Preston" on the keep case), a cavalry officer in the Arizona territory, 1879, whom the army assigns to bring back a group of runaway Apaches to the reservation. The Natives, lead by a real-life character, Victorio (Joseph A. Vitale), have left to make war on the white man because of greedy gold miners invading their promised reservation land.
The thing is, Capt. Stanton is a notorious Indian hater. Because of circumstances surrounding his father, Stanton has carried a personal grudge against Native Americans most of his life. Apparently, that is why the Army charges him with the capture or killing of the defecting Apaches.
Also in the story we have a beautiful missionary, Dawn Gillis (Linda Lawson), working among the Natives, who just happens herself to be half Indian. This brings up an interesting diversion in the movie: Two men fall in love with her: one, Red Hawk (Michael Dante), the son of Victorio; and our hero and Indian hater, Captain Stanton. I'm not sure the love triangle adds anything to the story, but it can never hurt to have a romantic interest in any movie. Plus, both Ms. Gillis and a humane army surgeon, Captain Thatcher (J. Pat O'Malley), try to get Stanton to understand the plight of the Apaches and sympathize with them, although that is an uphill battle.
So, it's the Native Americans vs. the miners, with an Indian-hating hero and a couple of charitable supporting players looking on. The villains of the piece are the white men, including the politicians who support their rights to mine anywhere they like, reservation land or not.
A solemn-voiced (and uncredited) narrator makes the whole tale sound like a documentary, which sort of takes what little fun there could be out of it. Combine that with the fact that Murphy was not the most charismatic or rousing actor in the world (the character he plays comes off as almost nondescript), and not even so experienced a director of B-movies and old-time serials as William H. Witney ("Zorro Rides Again," "Dick Tracy Returns," "The Lone Ranger Rides Again," "Adventures of Red Ryder," "Drums of Fu Manchu," "Adventures of Captain Marvel," "King of the Texas Rangers," "North of the Great Divide," "Shadows of Tombstone," etc.) could do much with it.
Indeed, the two best things about "Apache Rifles" are that at least it doesn't portray Native Americans as entirely villainous, making it clear they were the ones imposed upon; and that the filmmakers shot the entire movie on location around Mojave and Red Rock, California, making for some colorful and arresting scenery.
The mistreatment of Native Americans depicted in the film and the bigotry displayed by both sides in the movie's conflict are not unlike some of the conditions existing in our own day, with only the names and races changed. It's a pity the film didn't explore these relationships in anything more than cursory fashion, the film soon falling into tired action clichés.
VCI video engineers digitally restored the film in 2010, retaining its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and transferring it to DVD using an anamorphic encode. The first thing one notices is that the colors are somewhat faded, although close-ups look fine and skin colors are quite natural. Most important, there are few or no major signs of age--no ticks, lines, flecks, or fades. The filtering did leave intact most the of the film's inherent grain, however, which is good because it makes the film look, in fact, like a film and not like a digitally shot TV show. Object delineation, though, is rather soft, so be aware you are not getting a new movie in high def here.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound is quite ordinary, or perhaps "mediocre" would be a better description. There's a bit of noise accompanying most of the soundtrack, appearing to get noisier as the film goes on. Still, the midrange is smooth and makes for easy listening, even if there is very little bass or treble extension, a limited dynamic range, and, of course, no surround sound in this monaural affair.
The first bonus item among several is a brief stills gallery from the movie. After that is a short featurette, "Museum of Lone Pine Film History: A Retrospective," about four minutes on the museum now located in Lone Pine, California, where Hollywood has shot over four hundred films in and around the area. After that is another brief featurette, a little over four minutes, "Cut to the Chase: Remembering William Witney," in which actor Michael Dante (Red Hawk in the film) reminisces about the film and its director. Then, there's "Please Hold the Spaghetti: Apache Rifles and the End of the Conventional Western," a twenty-three-minute featurette on the changes in the Western movie genre during the time of "Apache Rifles."
The extras conclude with twelve scene selections; a trailer gallery of other Westerns available from VCI; and English as the only spoken language.
By the time of "Apache Rifles" in the mid Sixties, the Western began to change and then slowly fade out of the moviegoing scene almost altogether. The coming of the so-called "Spaghetti" Westerns and the efforts to demythify the Old West with things like "A Fistful of Dollars," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "The Wild Bunch," and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" pretty much put an end to the kind of outdated Westerns exemplified by "Apache Rifles." It may have been for the best; the few instances of Western film since the Sixties and Seventies have been all the better for a slowing-down process, with "Silverado," "Unforgiven," and "Tombstone" standing out all the more. Even 2008's "Appaloosa" benefited from a loosening of the old Hollywood Western conventions.
Nevertheless, for fans of old-fashioned Westerns, "Apache Rifles" isn't bad, and at least it knows which side to take.