Ambush at Tomahawk Gap

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.

31 thoughts on “Ambush at Tomahawk Gap

    • There are shared plot points, but the movies do different things and have a different sensibility. I like Quantez but I know some people find it lacks a bit of pace in parts. This film keeps going at a faster lick.

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  1. Always good to have you back riding the high country, Colin. I think you paint an accurate and appealing picture of the type of western this is.
    Former actor, Wallace Mcdonald, produced a a whole raft of films for Columbia, mostly westerns or crime and I have enjoyed many of them, programmers all. Fred F. Sears similarly directed a goodly number of programmers and series westerns (the Durango Kid) and was a most efficient workhorse.
    I like “AMBUSH……” quite a lot and in many ways and for several reasons it is my kinda western! I agree completely about Ray Teal; after years of playing character roles extremely well he was rewarded in later years with the good part of Sheriff Roy Coffee of Virginia City in “BONANZA” on TV, as Sergio says.

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  2. I saw this some time ago and quite enjoyed it. Ray Teal always ‘added to the entertainment value’ of a film. I like him best in The Burning Hills.

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  3. Colin
    Jeepers, another one I have never heard about. This is becoming a regular thing, LOL., springing new titles on me. I love hearing about these new films, well new to me anyway.. Keep them coming my good friend.

    Gord

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  4. Weekend movies

    1-Found a nice looking copy of this weeks review by Colin of AMBUSH AT TOMAHAWK GAP It will be a first time watch.
    2- WALK A CROOKED MILE 1948 Dennis O’Keefe, Louis Hayward. This is also a first time watch.
    3 – Several episodes of RAWHIDE to finish off the weekend. These will be dvd re watches from the first season.
    Gord

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    • Walk A Crooked Mile is a better than a pretty good picture; well-acted, directed, and structured. Hayward and O’Keefe got along well and five years later Dennis had set up The Diamond Wizard in England under the EADY plan thinking Louis was still a British citizen, but he was not, that film went ahead, shot but not released in 3-D with Phillip Friend playing the other lead.
      The EADY plan was set up to co-finance foreign production in Britain while encouraging the participation of local talent. That came down to limiting the number of Americans, in this instance, O’Keefe and leading lady Margaret Sheridan. While Sheridan was not a big star, American money came with her.

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      • We Brits benefitted then (and now) from the EADY plan and some enjoyable films resulted.
        As for Gordon’s weekend viewing – some good watches there. I love “RAWHIDE” and “WALK A CROOKED MILE” is very good, as Barry says, with Hayward and O’Keefe making a good pairing. I look forward to hearing from Gord on all of his choices.

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  5. Just finished AMBUSH AT TOMAHAWK GAP. a much more violent film than I was expecting. Nice to see Teal with more than a walk on part. He does some nice work here. Director Sears does his usual to the point work. The man pumped out 54 films between 1949 and 1958. He had a sure hand with mid budget and low end films like, THE 49TH MAN, CELL 2455 DEATH ROW, PECOS RIVER, MIAMI STORY, ESCAPE FROM SAN QUENTIN, THE WORLD WAS HIS JURY, UTAH BLAINE.and RUMBLE ON THE DOCKS. No Oscar material, but more than a few solid efforts.
    Gord

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  6. Just finished WALK A CROOKED MILE 1948 with Dennis O’Keefe, Louis Hayward, Ray Burr etc. A well done Red Scare film with. nice work from the whole cast and crew. Director Gordon Douglas and cinematographer George Robinson deliver a suspenseful film with a nice collection of dark and gray tones. I’m a fan of these type of films so how on earth did this one slip by me?

    Gord

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    • Just patiently standing by for what Gord was going to say about WALK A CROOKED MILE. No surprise here…..I knew he would like it. Of course, I’m in agreement with Barry and Jerry, that it is a very good film. Quote Barry, “well-acted, directed, and structured.” What we are viewing has all those attributes. The “structured” part of this formula I find to be interesting. So I got to throw some love out to Producer Edward Small. Because Small was competing with larger studios he was known to be selective in choosing source material and individuals necessary for a successful production. Enter Screenwriter George Bruce. Before we can have a good film we must have a good story. In this case, we do have the basis of a story written by Bertram Millhauser. But, it is the screenwriting and dialogue skills of George Bruce that provides for the initial basis of the film’s success. Just some thoughts.

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    • I like Teal. His parts did blend in well……kind of a theme player. But, the guy I really like is Jay C. Flippen…….his screen presence always made a movie better.

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  7. Scott
    You and Barry nailed WALK A CROOKED MILE. right on the noggin! Well done all the way through with great story, fine acting and tight direction. One of the better surprises that I have come across in a long time.
    Gord

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    • Yes Gord it WAS a great story back then and had lasting power up until a few short years ago. Now it’s just a sad reminder how much our systems of government have failed us…….us being the West.

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    • These classic movies we so enjoy are more than just stories to fantasize about in filling in the day. For many baby-boomers they are a chronicle of historical events that are meant to be taken as redemptive, thought provoking and setting of a moral compass of what is right and what is wrong. Quite simply, these films are our history books and encyclopedias. Consequently, these films have evolved into a major influence in shaping who I’ve become and the society from which I belong. Many of us are living out our last days. In just two generations that have proceeded me, I’m amazed how little those know or much less care about the lessons learned throughout our history. It’s a scary thought that there are individuals that would prefer to wipe clean the historical aspects of our existence. Sadly, I would expect someday, the powers to be will ban these films in their attempts to silence and control the populace. Just more of my troubled thoughts of a time that is quickly passing by.

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