Try and try as we may, that which we wish to do in the world is often limited by what we can do. Just like an old saying that implies we should stack all of that which we covet into one hand as opposed to our own human waste, the reality of our dreams isn’t always as glamorous (or as sanitary). Actor Sterling Hayden was certainly one of those individuals who expected slightly more than the universe had intended of him. While he loathed acting in the moving pictures, Mr. Hayden nevertheless had to keep the dough rolling in so he could pursue his nautical dreams. A seasoned sailor and veteran of top secret WWII missions, all Hayden really wanted to do was sail away and forget about the rest of the world.
Alas, unavoidable things such as taxes, divorces, and even the shadow of a brief association with the Communist Party (through no part of his own) resulted in the man best known for having few memorable roles in film being sometimes remembered for the parts he actually missed – such as the character of Britt in The Magnificent Seven, or the part of Quint in some minor box office hit known as Jaws. And so, with the exception of movies such as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, The Godfather, and The Asphalt Jungle, the bulk of Sterling Hayden’s career was reserved for budgeted silver screen flings such as Arrow in the Dust.
As you may have ascertained by that introduction, the 1954 Allied Artists production in question isn’t a very good one. In fact, it’s a pretty stinky flick; just one God knows how many cowboy pictures cranked out to combat the photoplay takeover via TV sets everywhere. But manufacturing a motion picture just because you had color and widescreen to offer wasn’t always enough to override much-needed theatrical aspects such as talent or fun (something that Hollywood has since perfecting, bringing to us one big boring, talentless, colorful, widescreen spectacle after another month after month). As a result, we have movies like Arrow in the Dust clogging up film vaults everywhere.
Here, Hayden stars as a US Cavalry deserter named Bart Laish (seriously), who, as our story opens, is on the run. Stopping in at a general store set just so we can finally see what 1943’s Batman henchman John Maxwell looks like in color, Laish is soon on the lam once more after the good guys come-a-ridin’ into town. His efforts to ditch the horseback garrison a success, Bart has the unfortunate luck to run into his dying Calvary cousin (Carleton Young), who, while angry that his kin has turned his back on their duty to the United States, nevertheless asks his yellowback brethren to see a wagon train that keeps coming under attack by various angry Native American tribes through to its destination.
Thus, a bad case of conscious soon has Bart assuming the identity of Major Andy Pepperis, and taking command of a slow-moving convoy that includes a hot nurse (Christella Burke), a suspicious guide (Tom Tully), a group of hard-drinkin’ smugglers (including young Lee Van Cleef, who manages to get a fist to the face courtesy of Sterling Hayden in exchange for his bad manners), and one very tired, ragtag group of Cavalry soldiers lead by Keith Larsen and singing cowboy Jimmy Wakely! And this makes way for bad day-for-night shots imaginable (wherein the film processor/editor apparently forgot to include filters, resulting in characters talking about it being past midnight when it’s clearly past noon), an influx of mismatched stock footage, as well as other varying degrees of photographic inconsistencies.
Of course, all of the sore thumbs in the world, freshly severed and strewn onto one very lengthy strand of Quint’s piano fishing wire, wouldn’t stick out more than the insert shots of little wooden Indian men being set on fire and tossed off of a small ledge. Those moments are just pure bliss in an otherwise dull western that features uncredited bits by Sheb Wooley and Iron Eyes Cody (playing an Indian, naturally). Director Lesley Selander manages to put a bit of oomph into some of his action scenes, but undoubtedly took a long nap during the rest of the shoot. It’s a pity, too, as this is the kind of story that could make for a good movie given the right set of circumstances. Sadly, all this Allied Artists production had to offer was widescreen and color.
In the case of this barebones Warner Archive rescue, though, only part of that is true. The surviving source materials of this B-grade mess must have been as exposed to the outside elements as those unconvincing day-for-night shots, as Arrow in the Dust goes back and forth from having a little depth – wherein the Cavalry outfits are blue – to none whatsoever, wherein everyone is not only wearing a different shade of flat, but Sterling Hayden’s eyes look like they’ve been taken over by that black oil stuff from The X Files. Even the sound comes through as a bit funky in some places (including a good old fashioned flutter like some of us used to only hear in classrooms when the A/V kid brought in the projector).
I wish it were a better film. Still, much like comparing fecal matter to personal desires, some good has to come out of every bad situation. In this instance, yet another rarely-seen item has been rescued. Granted, Arrow in the Dust is best reserved for diehard B western fans, but it gives us just a little more Sterling Hayden to admire. And if it adds to the fantasy of what might have been were he to accept the part of Quint, then it’s worth it. I think.