Pillars of the Sky (1956)
Striking an impressive look on camera is steal haired Jeff Chandler riding into camera range in his military blues at the opening clip of this George Marshall feature. Once again we have a western casting it’s light on the racial tensions between the military and the Indians confined to reservations overseen by an unforgiving government.
It’s the Oregon territory of 1868 where Chandler is cast as a military sheriff of sorts entrusted to keep the peace between the tribes and the military fort that nestles up alongside the reservation. Things are going to heat up when new commander Willis Bouchey arrives with orders to clear cut a road through the reservation to make travel easier for settlers and to construct a fort at the half way point.
Chandler wants the Indians treated fairly and isn’t fond of the fine print on treaties that he deems are there to take advantage of the tribal chiefs. He immediately butts head with his new commander. Much to the delight of Keith Andes. Andes is an old enemy who won the hand of the fair maiden over Chandler years previous. The problem is she still yearns for Chandler.
The lady is none other than screen siren Dorothy Malone.
Old pro Ward Bond plays a missionary/jack of all trades on the reservation who is going to have to act as peace keeper when the chiefs demand an audience with Bouchey. It will all be to no avail when renegade Michael Ansara swears war upon the whites should the army set foot upon his lands. To ensure they don’t, he’s taken two women hostage. Yes you guessed it. Dorothy Malone and John Ford regular Olive Carey.
Chandler knowing the land takes off with his small platoon of scouts and Bond to get the women back before Bouchey leads his troops into the threat of battle. It’s all done fairly easily which allows the script to launch into the soap opera part of our story. It’s a good thing I get caught up in westerns because let’s be honest, no sooner is Dorothy out of harms way, she begins a sultry sexy attack upon the very desirable Chandler. All this while camping out on the trail before they even find they way to safety.
As morning comes, Chandler makes the decision to join up with the core group of soldiers and follows Bouchey into battle with little hope of anyone, man or woman coming out alive as they face off against the horde of braves led by Ansara. Michael Ansara seemed to be cast in roles like this frequently during this stage of his career. To me he’ll always be most associated with his role as the Klingon Kang in the Day of the Dove episode of Star Trek back in the sixties.
There’s a well filmed battle sequence approaching the fade out and the solution that will lead to peace is one of sacrifice and ultimately justice.
Aside from a few later roles, I’ve never been much on Dorothy Malone and this cliched role is a solid reason why. She’s not much more than window dressing and always seems to be a character lusting after the male lead in the film. Maybe it’s the fact that she isn’t really my type. Hard to argue though with the fact that she copped an Oscar and had a lengthy career.
Jeff Chandler on the other hand fits this role to a T. Military or strong minded roles were his forte. He does a fine job here and his scenes with both Ward Bond and Lee Marvin come off best.
Yes Lee Marvin is in here as a veteran soldier with an Irish brogue. Sure it’s a cliched character but perhaps Victor McLaglen wasn’t available. Someone has to adopt the Irish accent for these tales of frontier life in the cavalry. Marvin once again proves why he was a solid addition to any film as he climbed his way to starring roles and legendary tough guy status.
By this point in his career, Ward Bond was a veteran of close to 300 films. He was a natural in front of the camera and really one of the best character players around. This time out he’s the wise elder who supplies the conscience for Chandler as Jeff battles his inner demons and desires for the married Malone.
I found this to be a surprisingly religious film throughout as many of the Indians have been converted to Christianity. That in itself serves as a major focal point at various stages in the film and is used heavily at the climax.
Not really a bad film and the cinemascope works in it’s favor for this Universal International release. It has a John Ford feel to it and had Ford been at the helm I am sure it would be better known and not to be unkind to Marshall perhaps a bit better. Marshall was a first rate director but I believe his best efforts were more of the light hearted variety like Destry Rides Again, Houdini or The Sheepman.
Easily the best line in the film comes when a soldier describes Chandler to commander Bouchey, “If you had 100 more like him you could ride into hell and put out the fires.”