THE GUNS OF FORT PETTICOAT starts off with galloping title theme in the jaunty-heroic mode, which no doubt ramped up enthusiasm for what was to follow when I first saw this at a $1.00 Saturday matinee back in the mid-60s. From a 10-year-old’s perspective of the day, this was a pretty enjoyable Audie Murphy western. Fast-forward five decades and, well, that title theme is still fun, but the rest of the 82 minutes are best left in the saddle bags of memory.
Set in Texas in 1864, written by Walter Doniger, this has Murphy deserting from the Union army out West after refusing to massacre Indians at Sand Creek (which is in Colorado, but never mind) and heading home to Texas where he trains a group of women—their men off fighting the Yankees that Murphy just left—to protect themselves against retaliatory attacks by the Comanches. Naturally, the gals are a diverse and feisty group who show their true grit when it comes time to lock & load (except for the religious fanatic, who is a major pain–go figure). As the advertising tag-line for this 1957 entry would have it “GOOD WOMEN…BAD WOMEN…BRAWLING WOMEN…BRAVE WOMEN! They were all soldiers in skirts!”
Murphy co-produced, George Marshall directed, there are some able supporting players and it looks good, thanks to cinematographer Ray Rennahan. It was shot in California (at the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth) and in Arizona (at ‘Old Tuscon’), neither of them resembling Texas, but the movie is riddled with scads of silly errors in geography, costuming, weapons and fact-fudges. The action scenes are a joke—one of the ladies employs a judo-type throw against a conveniently clumsy Comanche—and it has the type of distortions in play that would have Native Americans upset, or more likely, laughing in derision. *
Murphy does his modesty thing well enough, and several of his petticoat brigade are embodied by pros like Hope Emerson, Jeff Donnell, Jeanette Nolan. Bad guys show up in the familiar forms of character actors Sean McClory, James Griffith, Nestor Paiva and Ray Teal. Though Mischa Bakaleinikoff conducted the music score, it was a grab-bag of pieces from fourteen assorted composers, so whoever did that title theme is lost in the dust kicked up by Audie’s platoon of lady sharpshooters.
Box office response from Audiephiles and tykes with toy guns placed it 79th for ’57, with a gross of $3,100,000. With Kathryn Grant (main love interest, part of a Grant-blitz that year with five features), Isobel Elsom, Ernestine Wade, Peggy Maley and John Dierkes.
* The Sand Creek Massacre in late 1864 was perpetrated by a volunteer outfit in Colorado, not the regular army as this script suggests. It was a revenge strike, preceded by 32 Indian attacks on settlers. The unrepentant Col. John Chivington (a Methodist pastor) and his men ravaged the Cheyenne and Arapahos at Sand Creek. The victims, mostly women and children, had not been party to the previous raids. The movie’s Comanches were not involved in any way.