Guy Madison, during his long-running stint as television’s Wild Bill Hickok, made movies, too, and he is pure gold as Capt. Robert MacClaw in Hollywood’s first widescreen western, The Command, from James Warner Bellah’s Saturday Evening Post novel Rear Guard. Madison’s gracious, wry, intelligent acting beautifully compensates for James Whitmore’s hokey, fatuous Sgt. Elliott, a crusty, crochety Walter Brennan-facsimile. Whitmore, whom Harry Truman’s spirit is giving hell for all eternity, was no Guy Madison—and no Walter Brennan.
David Butler directed, following a long string of musicals and low comedies. He does little more than keep things going. But what “goes” here is a fascinating situation expertly written by Samuel Fuller, no less, along with Russell S. Hughes. Its medical officer, MacClaw is impressed into becoming, despite his lack of combat experience, the cavalry company’s commander upon his predecessor’s death. He must battle two things: Indians, through whose territory the company escorts a wagon train from the East; an outbreak of sickness that he fears is smallpox. In a sense, he is also battling two perceptions of him: the troop’s concern he cannot measure up to the requirements of this new job of his (once he dispenses with the rule book and trusts his intuition and instincts, he does measure up); doctor’s daughter Martha Cutting’s dismissal of his medical remarks. Cutting, part of the wagon train, is tending to a sick child, and MacClaw wants to help but is obligated to hew to his current position and not disclose his medical training. Cutting’s father is deceased; romance with MacClaw will intriguingly offer her a potential substitute. Moreover, the film ends with a stunning ambiguity pertaining to Martha’s motive in doing something that mirrors part of the genocide that the U.S. government inflicted on Native populations.
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