A very ordinary cavalry Western
“A listless and shabby insult to a splendid book.” (Brian Garfield). Well, that may be a bit harsh. The picture has its plus points: some nice Utah locations (standing in for Dakota Territory) shot in Technicolor by Wilfrid M Cline, for one thing, and then a big budget, a score by Dimitri Tiomkin, some fine character actors in support and the very beautiful (if extremely posh) Helena Carter as female lead.
It has its points, but...
But yes, overall it is a bit of a clunker. That is chiefly because it never recovers from the fatal miscasting of Ray Milland in the lead. Welshman Milland could do smooth urbanite with aplomb but he was no good in tough-guy roles. He was fine blackmailing a Cambridge pal into murdering his wife or winning an Oscar for Billy Wilder but of course big studios in the 1950s had to use him in war films and Westerns; those genres were de rigueur and every star, posh or not, had to climb into the saddle at one point or another. Milland got away with the pot-boiler California with Barbara Stanwyck in 1947 because that was only a semi-Western, more a costume drama. He was no good with Hedy Lamarr in the John Farrow-directed Copper Canyon in 1950, and Bugles was his third oater. Apart from hosting a few Death Valley Days episodes and doing a couple of late TV movies, that was where he left Westerns, and a good thing too. In Bugles he convinces for the first thirty seconds as the cashiered officer but as he goes West and enlists as a private, beats Forrest Tucker in a fistfight and is promoted sergeant, he is simply unbelievable. The film is sunk in the first reel.
Milland: fatally miscast
It’s a peripheral Custer story. Like Lippert’s low-budget but rather classy Little Big Horn of the previous year, it is set at the time and in the territory of the 1876 military fiasco, and a bit like Randolph Scott’s post-Little Big Horn story in 7th Cavalry, Bugles in the Afternoon - the film and Haycox novel - are not directly about the famous last stand. Custer appears briefly and rather colorlessly, impersonated by Sheb Wooley (it’s barely a speaking part)
Custer reduced to a bit part
and General Terry, Major Reno and Captain Benteen (all nonentity actors) also make fleeting appearances. The real action of the movie, though, concerns a triangular relationship between the noble hero Kern Shafter (Milland) and the odious Capt. Garnett (an excellent Hugh Marlowe), two men who hate each other (for Garnett was responsible for Shafter’s unfair dismissal from the Army) and the woman they both love, Josephine Russell (Carter). The outcome is thoroughly predictable: it is absolutely obvious from the first ten minutes of the movie (no spoiler here) that Garnett will be unmasked as a cad and Shafter will be reinstated and get the girl. Boring, frankly.
Warners got Roy Rowland to direct. He had started as a flunky at MGM and married Louis Mayer’s niece. Curiously, he was then promoted. He was OK at crime dramas (e.g. Rogue Cop) and he later directed Stewart Granger (another posh Brit) in a B-Western, Gun Glory. Later still he directed some Western TV shows and some Italian ‘westerns’, so he totted up a total of 50 oaters one way or another, but still, you wouldn’t call him a specialist. The pace of Bugles is alright, though the love-triangle plot forcibly slows the action down.
Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes) and Harry Brown adapted the splendid Haycox novel (perhaps Haycox's finest) into a screenplay. They were both novelists (Mainwaring specializing in hard-boiled crime pulp) but again, neither was what you would call a Western expert. Brown did later work on El Dorado, but that rather proves the point…
Hugh Marlowe should have done more Westerns. He was terrific in the few he made, notably in the underrated but powerful noir Rawhide in 1951, his first. The Jacques Tourneur-directed semi-Western Way of a Gaucho followed, then Bugles. He was good later in Garden of Evil with Gary Cooper and appeared in a few Western TV shows but he was very strong in oaters and he is excellent here as the evil nemesis of Milland.
The excellent Hugh Marlowe. Pity he didn't do more Westerns.
Tucker is excellent (he always was) as the once sergeant, now private who at first resents, then bonds with the new sergeant (Milland). His death is noble and heroic. I wish these actors would avoid ‘Irish’ accents, though. That part is mostly Tucker, not Haycox.
Reliable Forrest Tucker, always good
Good old Barton MacLane is the sympathetic officer friend of the hero, James Millican pops up as a sergeant and I spotted John Doucette in a bit part as a tough barman. Bob Steele the Great is listed as ‘horseman’ but I didn’t spot him, dammit.
Far from a great Western, this one repays a watch and has its points but all in all is on the skippable side.
On the skippable side