BUGLES IN THE AFTERNOON, more like “Nap After Lunch”, unless you’re a connoisseur of second-string 50s westerns. Competently directed by journeyman Roy Royland, the screenplay was shared by Daniel Mainwaring (Out Of The Past) and Harry Brown (Sands Of Iwo Jima), derived from a well-regarded 1943 novel from Ernest Haycox. *
Kicked out of the service after a fight with a fellow officer, ‘Kern Shafter’ (Ray Milland, yawn) rejoins later, only to find himself in the same outfit with his former foe (Hugh Marlowe, snore), the about-to-be-immortal 7th Cavalry. Naturally, a girl figures between the two (Helena Carter, zzzz). But Custer calls…
Not the Last Stand for Bland Milland (ouch!, sorry) but there’s not much here to get excited over. The supporting cast includes Forrest Tucker, playing a good guy instead of the rascals he was generally given. Former model Carter (miscast, her diction ringing false alarms) was only in a dozen films, her last the most well-known, the classic Invaders From Mars.
After the John Ford cavalry trilogy, which started with the Custeresque Fort Apache, there was a run of Custer-oriented material for a while. They include Sitting Bull (fairly large-scale, shot in Mexico), Little Big Horn (okay small budget affair), Chief Crazy Horse (the best of the batch, done in the Black Hills), Warpath (decent) and the clearly indicated 7th Cavalry (a dull cheat). This movie avoids the expense of a big wipeout by having Milland view the massacre through binoculars, using a few clips from They Died With Their Boots On. Custer himself is only around for a few lines, and is played by Sheb Wooley, also on view that year in High Noon; he would later warn us about a “one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater“.
The basic story isn’t all that bad, and the action scenes have some vigor—and to be fair to Milland, he was a former cavalryman, an excellent horseman and a crack shot—but authenticity (not a big factor in that era) goes out the mule-chute by, among other things, having the Dakota Territory locale being swapped by producer & studio for the scenic desert canyons of Utah. Dimitri Tiomkin does the score, but you’d never know it from his other exciting soundtracks; this is his least notable. Most creditable item, other than the stunt work, is the cinematography from Wilfrid M. Cline. Supporting hardy Tucker would find a new brush with glory donning the blue duds of a ‘pony soldier’ 13 years down the trail on TVs F-Troop.
This matinée fodder made $4,200,000, marking 79th place in 1952. With Barton MacLane, George Reeves, James Millican, Hugh Beaumont, John Doucette, Harry Lauter, Bob Steele, and John War Eagle.
* Ernest Haycox wrote the book, one of 24 he penned along with being a prolific spinner of over 250 short-story yarns, mostly western or otherwise historical. Eleven were made into films, the most famous being Stagecoach (from “Stage to Lordsburg”), the most successful were Union Pacific and Canyon Passage. Asked what made a successful writer, he said there were three stages: “The first is to break into print somewhere with something and get money for it. The second is to consolidate in that field…to such a point that your stories will be good enough to sell whenever written. The third stage is the desire to do something permanent, something at least bordering on the field of literature. The first two stages can be accomplished by sheer muscle and sweat. The third is an entirely different problem.”
Writer D.B. Newton said of Haycox he “very nearly succeeded, single-handed, in doing for the standard Western what Hammett and Chandler did for the private eye detective story—made it respectable.”