Talkie of the Week: 7th Cavalry
USA 1956, 75 minutes, technicolor, Columbia Pictures. Director: Joseph H. Lewis, Written by Peter Packer, Based on the story “A Horse for Mrs. Custer” by Glendon Swarthout. Cast: Randolph Scott, Barbara Hale, Jay C. Flippen, Frank Faylen, Jeanette Nolan, Leo Gordon, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey Jr., Michael Pate, Donald Curtis, Frank Wilcox, Pat Hogan, Russell Hicks, Peter Ortiz.
Plot summary: After Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn, Captain Benson returns to Indian territory to bring back the bodies and atone for his absence from the doomed battle.
Review: When Tom Benson returns to Fort Lincoln, he learns about General Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn. The Captain himself was absent from the crucial battle in Indian territory. With Custer’s permission, he accompanied his young bride Martha Kellogg on her journey to their new home. Accused of cowardice and misguided loyalty to his mentor Custer now fallen from grace, Captain Benson volunteers to retrieve the bodies of his fellow men. With a group of unlikely heroes, he returns to what the victorious Sioux consider sacred ground to execute the President’s orders to give the fallen soldiers a decent burial.
7th Cavalry, like many Westerns, is a story based on historical facts but not faithfully so. Adapted from a story by Glendon Swarthout, the film depicts the aftermath of the Battle of Little Big Horn without focusing on General Custer. Although an absentee main character, Custer only serves as a background figure to introduce the film’s actual hero, Captain Tom Benson. Played by Randolph Scott, Benson is the outcast survivor of a battle he didn’t attend but cannot escape. As a soldier, he doesn’t only have to cope with the the loss of his company but also with the downfall of his fallen superior, a man whom he has admired for his decency and expertise. Confronted with mistrust and criticism by a military Board of Inquiry led by the father of his wife-to-be, Benson masters the art of walking the fine line of duty and allegiance, convincingly stressed in Scott’s performance. Supported by a gracefully devoted Barbara Hale as Martha Kellogg, the actor led a decent ensemble in a film that captivates with words rather than action. Calm and slow paced, 7th Cavalry is not a John Wayne Western, nor a movie for an impatient crowd. It is a movie with a charm of its own, made for an audience who doesn’t mind following a wide array of dialog until the hero finally takes off to follow his destiny.
Beautifully cast and shot in Mexico, the film offers a look back at a time when films were not yet dominated by special effects and CGI. Although lengthy and verbose for some, 7th Cavalry has its definite perks for anyone who’s fond of a quieter performance style and demure storyline. Blessed with the talents of Western veteran Randolph Scott, as well as Barbara Hale’s often underestimated naturalness and warmth, the film deserves to be preserved for an audience who appreciates uncelebrated classics and their place in film history.
Get a glimpse of 7th Cavalry here.