War between the Sioux and the Army protecting whites on their way to Montana gold is on the horizon and Van Heflin may be the only man on the range to stop it in Tomahawk. A thrilling and thoughtful western, Heflin leads a great cast in this beautiful Technicolor classic. KLSC delivers a sold Blu-ray with a healthy transfer, solid audio, and a fine audio commentary to buttress bonus features. Worth A Look
There is peace between the United States Army and the Sioux Nations. Only now gold has been found in Montana, the and easiest road cuts through their lands. With the fever striking whites pushing west, the army established a military outpost on Sioux lands inflaming tensions even further. Legendary frontiersman Jim Bridger (Van Heflin), his friend Beckworth (Jackie Oakie), and Bridger’s Cheyenne companion Monahseetah (Susan Cabot) are stationed at the fort as scouts. Friendly to the Sioux, it’s the hope of Colonel Carrington (Preston Foster) that Bridger can mediate before disaster strikes. But with the prejudiced hot-headed Lieutenant Dancy (Alex Nicol) leading the troops, any chance for peace is likely to end in gunfire.
There was a time when the Western was the most popular genre of the day. Cheap and relatively easy to produce, Hollywood could simply redress an old set, swap some hats and gunbelts on the cast, cook up a new sixty-page script and you’d have a new product ready to film. While there were a number of classics that highlight the genre, a lot of them were churn-and-burn fillers simply made to fill up theater screens and put butts in seats. 1951’s Tomahawk wasn’t done on the cheap, but it doesn’t rise to the level of classic either. Directed by genre veteran George Sherman, the film’s loosely historical setting and events give some weight to the film, but a number of paint-by-number tropes hobble this film’s best efforts.
Van Heflin was no stranger to the dusty trails and delivers a commanding level-headed portrayal of the legendary frontiersman Jim Bridger. I don’t know a ton about the man, I’ve only read about him in passing with some side mentions as possibly being involved with the Hugh Glass incident and then advising the fateful route for the Donner Party. So I don’t know if any of this film is accurate to him at all, but it helps ground the story. Not Heflin’s best Western, but he does hold the film strong.
A weakness of the film is Alex Nicol’s Lt. Dancy as your stereotypical villain. This isn’t a fault of the actor, Nicol plays it with menace and you love hating him, but he’s also incredibly one-note. It leaves you to simply wait for the inevitable big showdown between Bridger and Dancy. Thankfully when it comes it’s a fine final battle with a justified comeuppance.
Another weak spot for the film is screen beauty, Yvonne De Carlo. As the beautiful waylaid entertainer Julie Madden, she offers little to the plot other than good looks. Playing the obvious love interest her character might not quite be so one-note as to be annoying, but her presence doesn’t really add anything to the film we’re not already getting from other characters. She stands as a pseudo-love interest with an empathetic ear, but that’s about all she’s given to work with.
The best asset of the film is shooting on location in the Black Hills area of South Dakota. So many Westerns were content to shoot on studio backlots and recycled sets, the rolling high hills and mountains made this little show scenic and beautiful to look at. The scenery is so beautiful that when Heflin and De Carlo have a post-action scene heart-to-heart, it’s painfully obvious they dashed over to a studio soundstage set for this intimate moment.
At just over 80 minutes, Tomahawk is an entertaining and earnest Western. Far from a genre classic, it’s still a fine adventure. With a respectable portrayal of the Sioux tribes, it’s a film that at least meant well - even if Susan Cabot was the furthest from being a Cheyenne maiden (for a very sad read, look up her life’s story). With a little stronger script and stronger characters and a little more robust runtime, this film probably could have been a grand entry. As it stands it’s an entertaining film, and better than average for the time period.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Tomahawk rides its way onto Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Pressed on a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard case. The disc loads to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
A modest success for its time, Tomahawk comes home to Blu-ray with an overall pleasing 1080p 1.37:1 transfer. Given the scenic locations and the big climactic battle, it’s a shame the film wasn’t made later into the 50s, it really could have made great use of a big widescreen format. As it stands today, this is a nice transfer. It does look to be sourced from an older master, film grain can sometimes appear a bit chunky and unresolved, and there’s a little bit of telecine wobble, but overall it looks quite good. Details are sharp and relatively clear and clean. Closeups and middle shots yielded the best looks at facial features, costumes, and set design - enough so you could appreciate what looks like fake facial hair a young Rock Hudson was sporting for his small role. The best asset of this transfer is the beautiful color saturation with lush vivid primaries. There’s a little color banding here and there, but nothing too serious or consistent to get huffy about. Black levels are overall solid, but there are a couple of instances where those dark navy blue uniforms can get swallowed up in the For a film that saw its theatrical run over 70 years ago, it’s looking pretty good on disc. A new restoration or a fresh scan wouldn't hurt, but fans should be happy with it.
On the audio front, Tomahawk enjoys a nice DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. Dialog is clean and clear throughout without issue. The only thing that was a little odd was you could tell when dialog had been rerecorded, it’d have an odd canned echo quality. Thankfully those issues are relatively small. Free of any snaps, crackles, or pops, the mix overall sounds good with a nice big open soundscape for those action sequences and an effective score from Hans Salter who composed a lot of the famous stock and library music that’d appear in any number of low-budget and B-movie horror and sci-fi films.
Tomahawk is a solid, entertaining Western. Simple and uncomplicated, Van Heflin leads the show as the famous Jim Bridger - the only man of reason in a crazy situation. At a little over 80 minutes it gets in and out without much fuss. Better than average, it means well and offers some value but not the greatest the genre ever produced. KLSC gives this film a respectable Blu-ray release offering up a solid transfer and audio. Bonus features are a bit slim, but the commentary is a nice listen if you’re up for it. Worth A Look