Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 12, 2021)
Best known for later efforts like The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, director Frank Sturges goes behind the camera for 1953’s Escape From Fort Bravo. Set during in 1863 the Civil War, the film takes us to the titular Union prison, located in the Arizona territory.
Captain Roper (William Holden) runs Bravo with a strict hand. Between the punishment he’ll mete out to any who attempt to leave and the unforgiving desert that surrounds Bravo, few of the Confederate soldiers imprisoned there try to escape.
Roper becomes distracted when sexy Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker) arrives at the base, and she distracts him while senior Confederate officer Captain John Marsh (John Forsythe) flees. Roper then becomes involved with Marsh’s recapture – and his connection to Carla.
That factor makes Bravo more of a romance than the average Western, especially because the Roper/Carla relationship motivates so much of the story. Though I expected these moments to drag, they actually become the strongest aspects of the movie.
Much of that comes from the uncommonly rich performance that Holden provides. Roper turns into an unusually complex character, and Holden brings him to life well.
Most actors would lean toward one aspect of the role and accentuate it, but Holden ensures that Roper becomes a three-dimensional personality, not a stock Western part. He lets Roper develop and adds immense depth to the movie.
We get a theoretical love triangle here since Carla works to assist Marsh, but it seems unbalanced. Bravo doesn’t give us an especially compelling view of Marsh, and Forsythe’s dull performance makes him a weak match against the magnetic Holden.
This means that Bravo sags more than it should when the movie needs to kick into higher gear. In theory, the escape and chase should offer excitement and drama, but in reality, the scenes in which Roper bonds with Carla prove more satisfying since they concentrate on Holden and not just general Western action.
Not that I think the movie’s second half flops, as it manages moderate drama. Still, the story fares better when it accentuates its characters, not the semi-generic “cowboys and Indians” action that we find.
It probably doesn’t help that the film’s sympathies seem out of date. Of course, most stories of the era painted Indians as bad guys for the audience to boo, but it becomes tough to embrace that tone all these years later.
Also, Bravo treats the Confederates in an affectionate manner that rubs me the wrong way. Again, this reflects the sensibility of the period, so I don’t hold it against the movie too much, but I find it hard to bond with characters who fought to disband the United States.
Enough of Bravo entertains to make it a generally interesting movie, but I think it fades more than it should as it goes. This winds up as an erratic effort with some real strengths and definite weaknesses.