A quick perusal of the active ingredients of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953) – a ghost town, a small group of criminals bound together by greed yet riven by hatred and petty squabbles, a solitary woman, and the ever present threat posed by marauding Apache bands in the surrounding hills – might bring to mind Quantez, which I looked at here earlier in the year. While these shared features are plain to see the two movies are quite distinct; even if I feel Quantez is the better film all round, that is not to say Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is a poor effort. On the contrary, this is a tight, suspenseful and entertaining piece of work.
The quest for revenge is a common cinematic motif, one which can be found across a broad range of genres. Westerns have made use of it extensively, something about the rugged backdrop and the sense that justice is not yet fully forged and must be seized hot from the flames of a still uncivilized land seems to make for a good fit. The opening of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap looks as though the story will lead us once more down this well trodden path, and then it doesn’t. Four men have just been released after serving a sentence in Yuma prison: Egan (David Brian), Kid (John Derek), Doc (Ray Teal), and McCord (John Hodiak). They represent a selection of types from the cold-hearted tough, the green hothead, the weary old-timer, through to the brooding outsider. McCord is the latter, an innocent man who was convicted of a crime he hadn’t committed and who has done another man’s time, the other man being Egan’s brother. At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that the plot is going to focus on the vengeance aspect. However, it’s soon established that McCord is on to a loser on that score, the guilty man having been gunned down for cheating at cards soon after his fall guy took up residence behind bars. No, the quest in this case is for the spoils of the robbery these men did hard time for, cash which has never been recovered and is probably secreted somewhere in the abandoned town of Tomahawk Gap, deep in Apache territory. During the course of the trek to this potential treasure trove, and following a skirmish with a band of hostiles, the four travelers pick up a Navajo woman (Maria Elena Marques) who has been held captive. Her wounding of the Kid leads to a subsequent fit of remorse and a bond, and ultimately a romance, will develop between them. On the other hand, there is no love lost between Egan and McCord, each warily circling the other, with one eye on the possibility of obtaining great riches and the other on an opportunity to eliminate the competition. Predictably perhaps, the tensions and rivalries which have been simmering all along come to the boil in the dust swept saloon and echoing streets of a dead town, one which is soon to claim a few more souls for its ramshackle cemetery.
Quantez owes much to the nuanced performances of Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Malone, and of course to the artistry of Carl E Guthrie’s cinematography. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap doesn’t have those to fall back on but Henry Freulich still produces some remarkable images using filters and gets a lot of value out of the ghost town set. Where Quantez trades heavily on its themes of regret and redemption and the slow burn atmosphere this movie folds in more incident and complications to jazz up the pace, yet there is a redemptive aspect at the back of it all too. Although Fred F Sears was a fairly prolific director I have to confess that I’m not familiar with much of his work – Earth Vs the Flying Saucers is the only other of his pictures I can recall watching off hand. Anyway, his handling of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is sound and indeed stylish in places, using interesting setups and getting the most out of his small cast.
John Hodiak took the lead as the wronged man and turns in some good work. I’m not sure the writing did him any favors by having his character switch from being motivated by a desire for justice to a more straightforward and altogether less noble demand for compensation. Still, Hodiak carries it off fine. His chief competitor is David Brian, all brashness and bullying, a one-dimensional demonstration of self-absorption, but, again, that’s how the character is written. John Derek’s Kid is rebellious and quick-tempered as well as being suitably callow and credulous. The only other role I have seen Maria Elena Marques play was opposite Clark Gable in Across the Wide Missouri. That movie saw her taking on a part light on dialogue and she is in a similar position here, on both occasions she gave an accomplished performance. However, some of the best work is done by veteran character actor Ray Teal. Often cast as villains, he always added to the entertainment value of any movie he appeared in. The role of Doc is a sympathetic one, a man who has learned something from life, who has has become philosophical about his own shortcomings and solicitous when it comes to the welfare of the Kid. Teal brings a touching warmth to his part and it may well be the best of his long career.
It should not be too difficult to locate a copy of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap. It was released as a good looking manufactured on demand DVD in the US and versions have shown up in a number of European countries too. It’s an attractive movie, colorful and offering a welcome balance of interior and exterior work. Personally, I am a fan of such tightly made and self-contained films, the restricted focus often brings out the best in many of those involved and the typically pared down stories mean the pace is necessarily brisk. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap may not be all that well known but I think western fans will find it rewarding.