The last film by the great Raoul Walsh, opens with cavalry chasing Apache, led by War Eagle, until they got across the border in to Mexico. He is the last Indian "enemy" left. Then recent West Point graduate Lt. Hazard (Troy Donahue) is posted to Fort Delivery, Arizona.
Lt. Hazard's wagon is met by a sergeant and some troops. The prejudiced sergeant at first refuses to take Private White Cloud, a scout, back on his wagon, until order to do so. We get an early message that the movie, made in the middle of the civil rights era, is going to be about prejudice against the Indians. We also see the interesting theme of good Indian vs. bad Indian presented.
Apaches attack a work crew and Lt. Hazard saves the commander's wife Kitty (Suzanne Pleshette, his wife in real life). He gets mixed up in a romance with Kitty, just as his fiance arrives at the fort from back east.
The troops then come upon the bodies of two men buried alive, just with their heads out of the ground. Lt. Hazard says: "There are the bodies of Kroger and Florita. Piper, tell Captain Gray that we will pursue the Indians as long as we have food and water. All right, now take a good look at them. It's going to make killing Apaches a lot easier They were buried alive. Those ants are eating their brains out!" So maybe the movie is not going to be so sympathetic to the Indians!
The troops on patrol later discover some troopers burned alive. The patrol then approaches the Chiricahua camp. They charge and run off the Apaches' horses.Hazard sets a grass fire to stop the pursuing Apaches and they bring the Apache herd back to the fort.
Major General Quaint then arrives from West Point to finish the job he started long ago. He listens to trader Seeley Jones and the Chiricahua who say their property was destroyed by Lt. Hazard. General Quaint pretends to go along him them, but when they leave General Quaint tells the officers that it was all a charade to fool the Apaches.
General Quaint tells them that White Cloud was a great Apache chief who was once his enemy. He now plans to go after War Eagle again. The troops move out, as goofy General Quaint keeps speaking Latin quoting ancient Romans.
White Cloud finds the Chiricahua and tells General Quaint what their strategy is. Quaint won't fall into War Eagle's trap. The troops, with White Cloud's help, outsmart the Chiricahua. The troops massacred the Apaches : it was like target practice, but War Eagle does escape.
General Quaint then decides to try to bring in War Eagle by going to him himself and gain his trust, the way he did with White Cloud. He sends Lt. Hazard and White Eagle out on the mission. When they meet they talk, and they speak in Apache, with the English translation in subtitles.
War Eagle : For many days my eyes watched you. You followed you like the wolf across many mesas, down the canyons. Why?
Lt. Hazard : I search for War Eagle.
War Eagle : I am War Eagle
Lt. Hazard : I come from General Quaint.
War Eagle : I know Quaint
Lt. Hazard : And he knows you.
War Eagle : I do not believe you know him
(Hazard hands War eagle a jeweled lizard that Quaint has given him)
War Eagle : The lizard. What does Quaint want?
Lt. Hazard : Your surrender
War Eagle : You say this to me? Do you know I can kill the two of you! I lift my hand and you are dead!
Lt. Hazard : iIf i do not return General Quaint will find you and you will be dead and all of your people. But if you surrender to General Quaint you will live a long time.
War Eagle : The hang me?
Lt. Hazard : No. you will take your people to the border where General Quaint awaits you. You will not be punished. By his word you will live on your own land. On your own reservation in Arizona. And I promise that I will protect you and give you food and clothing. You will live in peace. And you will remain their chief.
War Eagle : How do I know this?
Lt. Hazard: Because you must trust me.
War Eagle : Why?
Lt. Hazard : Because I'm here. Because I trusted you.
War Eagle : (Asking White Cloud) You are a brother of the Chiricahua. You trust the Blue Coats?
White Cloud nods yes
War Eagle : You are a snake who crawls on his belly. You think you are one of them. But they will spit on you when they no longer need you. You do not believe me! You are a fool!
Lt. Hazard : No. He is not a fool. You are. A man is not a man who lets his people die when it is hopeless. These are your children. Will you let them die because of the anger in your heart. Be like a father who loves his sons. Tell them to live.
War Eagle : I am a father and I love my sons. Tell me again what I must do.
Lt. Hazard : You must trust my promises and surrender.
War Eagle : I hear you speak. I do not hear it in my heart.
Lt. Hazard : We will camp down the mountain.
War Eagle : No! He will stay with me! Then he will see who is the fool and who speaks the truth.
Lt. Hazard : By the time the sun comes up I want your answer
The next day War Eagle said : "I surrender. Not because I am afraid but because I am tired of war. Always I wanted peace. But your men in Washington, no, they sent soldiers. They killed out women and children. They destroyed our men with bullets and whiskey. They took our land, our freedom. They drove us like animals."
Lt. Hazard : "Those days are over"
War Eagle : "My heart has found faith in your words. I dream of my Arizona Valley. The trees with nuts, the bushes with berries, the antelope standing where water runs."
Lt. Hazard : "That's right War Eagle. You're valley. Let's take your people home."
As Lt. Hazard brings the Indians in they are met by troops, and there is a new general in charge. The officer in charge says the Apaches are going to be sent to Florida. He calls Hazard a "stinking Indian lover", when he defends them. Lt. Hazard hits the officer and rides in to the fort. Lt. Hazard is called to the war Office in Washington. Hazard in promoted to captain by General Quaint and given the Congressional Medal of Honor for ending the Indian Wars. Lt. Hazard wants White Cloud, who has been sent to Florida, to get credit too. He tell the Secretary of War he will resign if it is not fixed. General Quaint also offers to resign.
The Secretary of War calls President Arthur, to try to get the Indians returned to Arizona. General Quaint talks to the President and gets things straightened out. The Chiricahua were sent back to the reservation in Arizona.
Beautifully filmed, with good production values but it had a rousing musical score that detracted from the movie, overwhelming it at many times. It also had a needless love triangle that just got in the way of the plot. It also had Troy Donahue giving the speech to convince War Eagle to surrender, and like War Eagle said : "I hear you speak. I do not hear it in my heart." That's probably because Troy could not act, and that really hurt the movie.
One telling point of the movie is that neither White Cloud nor War Eagle, who both had significant roles, are listed in the credits on IMDB. The movie pointed out that the Indians were victims, but it also pointed out that there was nothing they could do about it. They had to depend on the promises of the white men, but even if those promises were sincere, they would soon be overturned by others.
Ultimately the movie supported Manifest Destiny. The Indians were savages and in the way, and they had to be removed one way or another. If you couldn't beat them in battle negotiate them to the reservation. War Eagle got in a good speech, telling the history of the Indians in America in a nutshell, but the positive ending of the movie just didn't fit in with what really happened.
A movie made right in the middle of the Civil Rights era, probably shouldn't have had as a message that it is better to give up your rights when it is easier to surrender then it was to fight. War Eagle had just said the White Cloud: "You are a snake who crawls on his belly. You think you are one of them. But they will spit on you when they no longer need you." But then the movie has them ride in together in the end. War Eagle has now also joined in with the whites. Is Raoul Walsh saying that the the Civil Rights movement in America should go the way Martin Luther King envisions, and not the way of Malcolm X? It makes this Western much more interesting if we look at it this way.
NY Times Review
By BOSLEY CROWTHER
Published: May 28, 1964
IT takes a heap of loafing to make a Western film so dull you even lose interest in watching the horses and the stunt men doing their stuff. But that's about what it comes down to in Raoul Walsh's most recent in the genre, a deadly bore called "A Distant Trumpet," which opened at the Palace and other houses yesterday.
By the time you've spent a half-hour watching lumpish young Troy Donahue drag himself with an utter lack of fervor through the standard situations of this film, you won't care whether Suzanne Pleshette gets him before femme fatale Diane McBain does or whether the Chiricahua Indians beat both of them. As a matter of fact, you'll probably hope they do.
Seldom has there been a Western picture on which so much money was spent - so much shooting done in Arizona, so many extras and horses used - but from which so little excitement, energy or colorfulness exudes. It's as though Mr. Walsh and everybody were bitten by tsetse flies and went through the business of shooting the picture in a state of drowsiness.
The only bright thing in the picture comes when "Shavetail" Lieutenant Donahue, attached to isolated Fort Dependence in Arizona in 1883, finally gets through to Chief War Eagle to ask him to surrender peacefully, and the chief's conversation in his native language is translated with English subtitles at the bottom of the frame. But the humor of this is missed by those who made the film. They play it as straight as the expression - the only one - on Mr. Donohue's face.
Also involved in this tedium are James Gregory wearing a Chester Alan Arthur beard and Kent Smith wearing a shoulder-length haircut Trying to conceal your identities, men?