The Stand at Apache River


Something I like to do on this site is feature a mix of the better and lesser known films. When it comes to the latter category there’s no shortage of candidates to be found among the output of Universal studios. Second features or programmers are of course a varied bunch in terms of quality, but it has to be said that Universal, of all the Hollywood studios, had a real knack for producing entertaining westerns on the cheap. These small-scale, unpretentious movies had a polish and tight professionalism to them that’s very attractive. There’s no doubt that these films were constrained by their budgets but that was often turned into an advantage in itself. The Stand at Apache River (1953) is a fair example of a western which both exploits its limitations and simultaneously suffers from them too.

The opening sees a horseman striking out across an expanse of barren country, nervously checking his back trail for signs of pursuit before heading for the rocky high ground and the promise of safety. This man is Greiner (Russell Johnson), a thief and murderer desperate to avoid a date with the hangman. Hot on his heels is Lane Dakota (Stephen McNally), a driven lawman with a personal interest in running down his quarry. When an unexpected skirmish with a couple of Apache leaves Greiner badly wounded, and Dakota without his much needed proof, the sheriff has no option but to seek temporary shelter until the prisoner is well enough to be brought back to face justice. And this brings us to the location where the remainder of the drama will play out – the Apache River ferry station. Dakota’s arrival coincides with that of a stagecoach carrying Valerie Kendrick (Julie Adams) and Colonel Morsby (Hugh Marlowe), the former being an uncertain bride-to-be on her first trip west while the latter is a veteran Indian fighter with a fearsome reputation. No sooner has this little band of travelers gathered at the isolated station than it’s revealed that a group of 50 Apache warriors has broken free from the San Carlos reservation and may be heading their way. This external threat is exacerbated by a number of internal conflicts, among which are Greiner’s eagerness to elude his captor and the friction that arises between Dakota and Morsby over matters of justice and their respective attitudes towards the Apache. When the station finds itself under siege and repeatedly attacked by the Apache all the tensions within are exposed and add to the danger.

While I was watching this movie I found it difficult not to be reminded of Apache Drums for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s the presence of Stephen McNally in the lead and the fact that the title and credits play over the same footage and images as the earlier film. Additionally, both movies have a similar structure, gradually narrowing in focus and confining themselves to a single set as the story progresses. The Stand at Apache River also tries hard to recapture some of the terrifically claustrophobic atmosphere that characterized and elevated the Lewton/Fregonese film but director Lee Sholem doesn’t quite get there. The lighting and cinematography are similar but the same sense of menace isn’t achieved. Where Lewton and Fregonese kept the Apache largely unseen and thus built them up into frightening bogeyman figures, this movie presents them, or at least their leader, as more rounded characters. While this dissipates the threat somewhat, it does offer the opportunity for some consideration of the nature of the conflict between the settlers and the Apache, deftly highlighting the grievances of and injustices towards the latter group. However, this also feeds into what I see as the main weakness of the movie – essentially there is too much going on. You cannot have drama without conflict but it’s also possible to overdo it. The movie only runs for an hour and a quarter and tries to pack in a siege, commentary on settler/native relations, the problems faced by women in isolated frontier settings, and a love triangle to name just a few. In the end, there are too many themes and too little development – arguably, there’s enough material for a couple of movies here.

Stephen McNally and Julie Adams get the most screen time and both of them turn in perfectly acceptable performances. However, the overstuffed plot which I mentioned does work against them and means that their character development is necessarily limited. This is a shame as both of them have interesting back stories, and the acting chops to take advantage of them, but there’s just not enough time to explore it all further. Hugh Marlowe is fine too as the rigid martinet although his role is fairly one-dimensional. There’s also a nice intense turn by Jaclynne Greene as the frustrated and frightened owner of the river station. Russell Johnson (who passed away just last month) and Hugh O’Brian both play potentially interesting characters, though once again it has to be said they really don’t get the chances to show what they were capable of. The only disappointment for me was Edgar Barrier, who I found pretty unconvincing as the Apache chief.

I guess The Stand at Apache River has to count as a bit of an obscure film these days, and it certainly hasn’t been widely available for home viewing. However, there is a nice DVD out in Spain. Many Universal titles from the 50s seem to be in reasonably good shape and The Stand at Apache River is no exception. The print used isn’t perfect but it’s not at all bad either. While there are a handful of instances of age-related damage, they are few and I wouldn’t refer to them as a particular distraction. Generally, the transfer is smooth, colorful and acceptably sharp. The disc doesn’t offer anything in the way of extras but there’s no problem with subtitles either – there’s the option of French, Spanish or none. All in all, the movie provides plenty of entertainment and excitement. With its short running time it moves along briskly and, leaving aside the matter of the crowded plot, should satisfy those into westerns of this era.



55 thoughts on “The Stand at Apache River

  1. Not seen this one Colin I’m afraid – I was thinking of Apache Drums before you mentioned it and very interesting to hear how they clearly used it as a model. Sounds like quite an ambitious little film in its own way – cheers mate.


    • It was a blind buy and new to me too. I really like McNally and Adams so I thought it was worth a shot. Both this film and Apache Drums are adapted from novels – Apache Landing by Robert J Hogan is this case – neither of which I’ve read so I don’t know how much is down to conscious influence.
      Apache Drums is definitely the better film but this one hit the spot for me.


        • She was an enormously attractive presence, wasn’t she? I think she had a great run in the 50s in cinema – I’d love to see Wings of the Hawk – and moved comfortably into TV later on.


          • And 8 years later … really had a good time with an admittedly minor entry that treads familiar ground. I kept thinking that the seemingly endless supply of Indians turned it into a proto zombie movie or at the very least a great source for Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. The DVD, and thanks so much for the help on that, looks really great. Sure, APACHE DRUMS is far superior but this was nicely done – it’s far more entertaining than the entry in Clive Hirschhorn’s The Universal Story would lead you to believe. And Hugh O’Brien gets a great entrance too 😁


  2. Them dang Apaches. If they got paid by the Western, they’d be running this place by now.
    I like that poster. Thanks for the profile – glad that all these movies haven’t been just thrown away or lost.


    • Yes indeed! The sheer number of westerns the Apache appeared in and used their name in the titles is kind of staggering.

      Glad you liked the poster, it’s very eye-catching and a variant of it is used on the cover of the DVD I have. Thankfully, these titles continue to turn up on a reasonably regular basis in Europe.


  3. Hey, Colin, the only main cast member you didn’t mention is the always good Jack Kelly, third part of that romantic triangle you mention with Jaclynne Greene and Hugh O’Brien–playing Greene’s husband, O’Brien makes a late entrance and it adds to the drama. For me, Greene was really the most interesting character in it and I’ve always wondered why this actress was never seen more as she impressed me in other movies too.

    This is a pretty fair account of it. I like it too–I kind of enjoy watching them trying to pack all that narrative material into the time given and throwing diverse characters together in set space and time in a challenging situation generally tends to make for an entertaining movie. Also, it’s visually attractive. I’ve only seen this twice–reading your review made me wish I could watch it again right now! I’ll add that not being quite on the same level as the exceptional APACHE DRUMS is not a mark against it for me.

    I’m very much in sympathy with what you say about Universal’s expertise with Westerns at this level, but although the studio has good Westerns going back to LAW AND ORDER (1932) in the sound period, and can claim the bright beginning of John Ford’s whole career in the Westerns he made with Harry Carey in the earlier silents, I believe you are mainly referring to their 50s films, and for me, even though everyone always knows this is what is meant when one says Universal, I like to refer to those films more properly as “Universal-International”–which was the name that covers all of these (1947-1963 are the U-I years for the studio). When Lew Wasserman and MCA took over and reverted back to the original Universal name, this level of Western quickly got trashed, with only a few good ones, mostly produced by Gordon Kay, left to come out (the last of these was GUNPOINT, Audie Murphy’s final film for the studio, in 1966). They began to rely way too much at reusing footage from earlier, better Westerns and there are a number of direct, inferior remakes that seem tied to that. Moving up to the As, one could eventually expect something better even in these lesser days–so, for example, ULZANA’S RAID in 1972, and even with the change of directors from Robert Totten to Don Siegel, I find DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER (1969) with Richard Widmark to be compelling. In any event, I completely agree with what you wrote about the studio in this piece and it’s very well-said–I’m just adding this to broaden the context a little. Studios don’t remain the same forever–at this point it wouldn’t be hard to lament this in the case of every single one.

    Speaking of U-I in the 50s–and APACHE DRUMS–if there is ever a nice European release of Fregonese’s MARK OF THE RENEGADE, could you let us know? I’m also looking forward to your writing up the same director’s SADDLE TRAMP (same studio) one of these days. I just watched this again recently–it’s a special Western and one of the best roles of Joel McCrea.


    • Blake, you’re quite right about those couple of admissions – I ought to have mentioned Jack Kelly, and I really ought to have referred to the Universal-International westerns, but you knew what I meant anyway. In my defense, I watched the movie last night and it impressed me enough to fire off that piece very quickly this afternoon.

      I’ll certainly keep my eyes peeled for Mark of the Renegade. As for Saddle Tramp, I have yet to get my hands on a copy but I will eventually and I look forward to watching and, hopefully, posting some thoughts on it too.

      Just to return for a moment to the Universal-International westerns, I’d hate to think what it would be like if we didn’t have them. They’re a wonderful source of entertainment and I continue to discover little gems among them.


      • MARK OF THE RENEGADE has just been released in France by Sidonis,but not
        as part of their Westerns series. It will almost certainly have “forced” subtitles.
        It is up for order on Amazon France.
        Sometimes,but not always, these Sidonis releases turn up in other places.


        • Thanks for that info, John. I think that gives hope for another European release somewhere and may hold out for awhile. I’d rather not have forced subtitles but if turns out it’s the only option for it, I will relent in the end.


  4. It is indicative of what the executives at U.I. expected of ” The Stand At Apache River” when they appointed Lee “Roll ‘Em” Sholem as Director. Sholem was noted for his “speed and efficiency” when delivering product, both in film and television.

    This film was produced to be one of a number of similar Technicolor features used to support U.I.’s more “prestigious” productions at the time. Whereas “Apache Drums” has since received some recognition, it is doubtful that “The Stand At Apache River” will receive similar attention for the reasons you have mentioned.


    • Oh indeed. There should be no doubt that this film is very much a modest production line picture. For me anyway, one of the attractive things about such films is that they have no pretensions towards being anything else. I quite agree that a movie such as this won’t receive much attention, and probably not that much love either if we’re going to be honest, but it remains an entertaining and professional piece of work.
      I think too that it’s important to remember that it was the small westerns, for all their limited ambitions, that played a significant part in keeping the genre going during these years.
      As you say Rod, they were made for a certain purpose, and much of the time they served that purpose, both in terms of economics and entertainment value.


  5. I always appreciate the thoughtfulness (and well-written prose) you bring to your reviews, Colin. To my own mind, the decade of 1950s Westerns that you rightfully explore maintains that one discordant note over time – the lack of Indigenous actors in Indigenous roles.

    Films like Broken Arrow (1950) are important, for example, for taking a more balanced and humanistic approach to Indigenous peoples and yet the two lead Native American roles in that Western were played by non-Indigenous actors.The film you review above, as you note, examines the background for conflict and yet New York City-born Edgar Barrier is the Apache Chief. Further growth in the respectful approach toward Indigenous issues – i.e. with Indigenous people in all Indigenous roles – was still to come (see The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)).

    Lest some think I am applying a current context to the past, it is worth noting that at the beginning of cinema in the early 20th century there were Indigenous actors in Indigenous roles in the silent films of the day. For some strange reason, the industry went backwards racially as it went forward in time in terms of supporting diversity in casting. It is almost akin to exploring the injustice of slavery in “black face” in some ways. I am not Native American and I still find Chuck Connors as Geronimo to be just plain weird!

    The film you review does have a role to play in drawing attention to the issues of Indigenous justice while simultaneously reminding us of the need to support the voices of a given people to tell their own story.

    Thanks for your time,


    • Generally, this is not an issue that bothers me too much Chad, although I’m aware you feel differently. I understand the reasons why this was common practice and I often find that it’s not overly distracting. For me, the question is whether or not I can believe in the actor in the role, regardless of his/her true ethnicity. In the movie under discussion here, that wasn’t the case – mind you, I don’t say Barrier played it as some offensive caricature – and I was taken out of the picture at times as a result.

      I’ve seen the likes of Rock Hudson, Jeff Chandler, Charles Bronson, Debra Paget among others take on native American roles and never felt that the performances jarred – the work they did allowed me (maybe even encouraged me) to believe in them in their given roles – of course everyone approaches such matters in a different way and your mileage may vary. The Stand at Apache River was one of the few times that I felt the casting just didn’t work.


      • Thanks for the time of your comment, Colin. I would just add that in addition to the issue of cultural participation in story-telling and the film industry, there is the argument that there could be very real technical limitations in the acting approach of a non-Indigenous performer toward an Indigenous role. To what degree would Barrier (and other non-Indigenous actors) be able to capture nuances of the cultures, such as linguistic expressions and physical mannerisms, if their background was so very different and their own contact with the group portrayed ranged from limited to non-existent?

        Again, any film can have redeeming qualities but it is on these issues that my assessment often finds Westerns from that era lacking. At the very least, I’m guessing Barrier liked how he was portrayed in the poster you shared….he looked like he had been hitting the gym, ha.

        Thanks again for your time, Colin.


        • Chad, this is kind of related to what you speak about here. Paul Newman wasn’t playing an Apache in Hombre but rather a white man raised among the tribe. Even so, he has that stillness about him that I’ve been told is characteristic of the tribes of the southwest. OK, that’s a later era western but it does show that mannerisms and the like can be acquired if necessary.


  6. Chad makes a very interesting point about the casting of white actors in Native American
    roles throughout the Fifties. Sadly how little has changed sixty plus years on.
    Interesting also that Chad also refers to Eastwood’s casting of Native American roles in
    his masterpiece THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES.Eastwood has always been way ahead of the
    Hollywood pack in his casting of ethnic roles.
    I wonder how many other directors would have cast Adam Beach as Ira Hayes in his superb
    FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. Certainly a long way from the days of Tony Curtis who played
    Hayes in THE OUTSIDER;an interesting film nonetheless.
    It’s also very sad that Adam Beach is the only Indigenous actor that can be called a major star
    these days. Sadder still when the recent Godawful LONE RANGER was made they had Jonny
    Depp play Tonto;although Depp does keep going on about his Native American “roots”
    Like so many of today’s celebs it’s fashionable to claim to have some distant Native American
    ancestry.At least in the Fifties Jay Silverheels was the “real deal”
    I as a Brit find it depressing that there are so few Native Americans in the world of entertainment
    and in also more importantly, politics.
    I think Blake has said elsewhere that he does not use the term “Native American” all I can say
    Blake, is that I am a stupid Limey……I don’t know any better.!
    Colin,you may have noticed that Llamentol in Spain are about to release CONQUEST OF
    COCHISE and I think it’s a film that may be of some interest to you.
    No I am not going to refund you money if you don’t like the film because it’s not very good.
    It has John Hodiak this time playing Cochise and he does a pretty good job I thought.
    It’s a Sam Katzman production and the production values are slightly better than normal.
    The painted backdrops in the many Indian camp scenes look cheap and tacky even by Sam’s
    standards. Where the film is of interest is it’s rather progressive (for the time) take on inter-
    racial relationships.If you go in with low expectations you may enjoy this film. I have to say that
    the Sony MOD looked gorgeous.



    • Yes John, I think the real issue is the dearth of Native American/Indian (delete as applicable) actors, especially those of sufficient status to be handed a significant role. Going back to the 50s that lack is even more obvious, and I feel it’s that rather than any underlying prejudice on the part of filmmakers that led to the casting of white performers in these roles. It’s also worth remembering that had these guys not been cast, then the films probably wouldn’t have been made at all. That’s not a situation I can say I would prefer.

      I did see Conquest of Cochise listed on the Spanish sites too. Not being familiar with it, I did a little research and have read a number of less than favorable comments. Despite that, I will probably pick it up somewhere down the line.


  7. Colin-please ignore/delete the last comment I thought that my last post vanished and I was
    dreading having to re-do the post!
    Anyway now to get back on-topic, sort of: Universal Westerns.
    It’s good that so many Universal Westerns from the Fifties are now available on DVD especially in France, Germany and Spain. The downside is that many of them, for now are only available from Sidonis in France with their dreaded “forced”subtitles.
    There are very few Universal Westerns on my “wants list” especially compared with a couple of years ago.
    I thought that I would list a few that to my knowledge are not available anywhere on the Planet; to my knowledge that is.

    This was supposed to be released by Sidoins but has now been withdrawn (for now) I presume because of quality issues.This is a shame because it’s a film that I really want.

    Three Joel McCrea Universal Westerns still not available. I have been able to source excellent “off air” copies of the first two and a fairly decent copy of the last one.

    Someone sent me a lovely “upgrade” of this film so that will more than do for now. At least it proves that the film exists in good quality. Good,fun movie and a nice early supporting role for Lee Van Cleef.

    The only Universal Audie Murphy Western made in black and white.

    Another stark,violent black and white Western directed by R.G.Springsteen. This film earned an X certificate in England. It was paired with DR TERRORS HOUSE OF HORRORS in England.

    As has been mentioned quiet a lot on Toby’s blog a few of these CinemaScope Universal Westerns only seem to exist as 4 x 3 pan & scan versions. The three I am most concerned about are:
    WILD AND THE INNOCENT (universal France)


    • A mouth-watering list there John. I’m hopeful that with a little patience we’ll get to see most if not all of these sooner or later.

      And I share your disappointment with P&S versions of scope films – these days I find them unwatchable.


  8. Colin,

    As someone who was around and remembers the films of the 50’s, I must say it is refreshing to read so much enthusiasm and love for the westerns of that era.

    There was such an abundance of films of this genre, that, at our local theatre, at least, many were allocated to “supporting” features – only the more “appreciated” were given the status of “main feature”; it got to a stage that my Mother would bemoan “yet another Western” – in contrast, my Dad appreciated them, as they kept him awake! My Dad was a hard-worker.

    I might mention here, that Television did not “officially” arrive in Australia until just before the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 and in our State – 1959; accordingly, “movies” remained the main form of mass entertainment up until that time; our family were regular “attendees” in those days.

    I recall a number of the films that John K has mentioned, especially “The Yellow Mountain”, probably because of the fact that an “ex-Tarzan “, Lex Barker, took the main lead.

    Colin, I hope that my reminisces are not too boring, but I could not resist commenting upon the enthusiasm of both yourself and your correspondents.



    • Rod, your comments on the billing of those movies and your contributions in general are far from boring – on the contrary, they’re most welcome.

      I have a handful of westerns with Lex Barker. I always liked his Tarzan movies too; to be honest, I think I prefer him in the role to Weissmuller.


  9. G’day Colin, with the discussion turning towards whites in native American roles I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Tomahawk, a film you actually put me onto!

    There is that great opening scene where tribal leaders and reps of the US Government come together to discuss a treaty (well, to all intents and purposes anyway). All the chiefs look very authentic to me, and there is a poignancy to their presence that hangs over the rest of this film that deals so much with racial issues. You can’t help look at these old men in 1951 and feel the history they must have seen. Having said that, the main speaking part of the Cheyenne girl with Van Heflin is played by a white lady.

    Quick shout out to Rod. I’m a couple of years older than Colin and still feel like I’m playing catch up with a lot of these superb Lost Treasures of the Golden Age. I really enjoy your comments and have great respect for your insights and knowledge, more so now I know you’re an Aussie!

    Best from always sunny north Queensland
    Chris B


    • Hi Chris. As you say, there certainly were parts for genuine native actors in films of the era – there were plenty in Ford’s movies – but few were available to take on the more substantial parts. Regardless of that, the sentiment expressed by the movie is the thing – and a significant proportion of these films made a pro-Indian point very effectively, whoever played the parts.


  10. Just like to say I found Rod’s memories of early TV in Oz far from boring – it is part of the social history of all of us. I love hearing it.

    Don’t really want to get into the race thing except to say that I am a great believer in parts being given on merit and if that means a white actor playing Indian it is not a problem for me personally. A few days ago I watched Michael Pate playing an Apache chief in “Hondo” and not only was he excellent but he was an Aussie to boot!! (I never knew that until I saw him interviewed for the “extras” to the DVD and heard his accent).


    • Don’t really want to get into the race thing except to say that I am a great believer in parts being given on merit and if that means a white actor playing Indian it is not a problem for me personally.

      Jerry, that’s broadly similar to my own take on the whole issue. If the performance is strong and convincing, then I’m not especially bothered by who the actor is. I only mentioned it (in passing really) in relation to this movie as I thought Edgar Barrier wasn’t ideal in this particular role.


  11. Your post inspired me to pull out my recording off cable TV and catch up with this movie — really enjoyed it, though I do agree there was not enough time for all the story threads. I’ll have a post on it up later tonight and link back here. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for the inspiration to watch another enjoyable Universal Western!

    Best wishes,


    • That’s great Laura – I’m pleased to hear I spurred you on and that you were in a position to see the movie. It may not be a classic but it is enjoyable and packed with incident, and has that almost indefinable yet very recognizable Universal-International look.


    • Thanks. There’s lots of good stuff in it, maybe too much in all fairness.
      It’s not the best known or most widely available title but certainly worth an hour and a quarter of your time if you do run across it.


  12. Colin

    Thanks for the heads up on this one. As a McNally fan I’m always on the look for anything he is in. I have his entire 1961 series THE CORRUPTORS here on disc. Check out the review I have up for the first episode. “The Million Dollar Dump”. It stars Peter Falk, Walter Matthau and the pretty Arlene Martel. Gritty stuff.


    • Sounds like the kind of show I’d like.
      McNally was extremely watchable and really versatile – sound as hero, villain or sidekick. I was pleasantly surprised to see him turn up in an early episode of The Rockford Files I was watching recently.


    • Yes, it’s very much a 70s show, in a good way, yet the writing and (lots of the) performances don’t really feel 40+ years old. I’ve been having a good time revisiting this show.


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