Movies about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been around since the police force, itself, was established. There’s an entire webpage detailing the history of the RCMP (aka Mounties) in film which you can find here. Pony Soldier was poised to be an A-list affair with dashing leading man Tyrone Power in the lead. The fine people at Twilight Time have been kind enough to restore this 1952 film into a sumptuous Blu-Ray that hides a lot of the narrative flaws. One can’t expect this to be an Academy Award worthy drama, but it is a beautifully crafted movie with a strong performance from Power, and a way of depicting Native Americans that was far more diplomatic than how American set movies were doing.
In 1876, Constable Duncan MacDonald (Power) is tasked with finding the leader of a tribe of Cree Indians and negotiating the release of two American prisoners.
I’m not a Western aficionado, so I was hesitant to watch Pony Soldier and review it. If you do enjoy Westerns there’s certainly an emphasis on rugged terrain, horseplay, the battle of good and evil, and a love of nature; just set in Canada. The most compelling reason to pick up the Blu-Ray though is the Technicolor, of which this was supposed to show off the effects. This movie is simply stunning in 1080p! The red coats of the Mounties are bright and rich, while the locations (filmed in Sedona, AZ) and the red rocks of the mountains are lush and vibrant. I was awed by the beauty on display, and even minute details like the dust rising from the ground is shown as prominently as if it were a tree. One scene that displays the vibrancy of the transfer is when a house is set on fire; the color of the flames are blindingly brilliant. In scenes where the characters are on the trail, there’s a marked contrast between the sky and the ground where the red of the mountains look beautiful against the blue sky.
Screenwriter John C. Higgins does craft a story that’s contrary to the typical American Western. MacDonald is an idealistic man who reveres the duty he’s been given. He wants to make a difference, but feels he’s restrained by the laws of the RCMP, such as being unable to go into the United States to catch criminals. It’s this adherence to the law, and his desire to do good, that gets him wrapped up in hunting down the Cree and saving the hostages. Pony Soldier removes the jingoism typical in American film, and significantly cuts down on the racism seen in this genre. MacDonald is observant and understands the inherent problem of the disputes between Americans and Native Americans: miscommunication. In one telling scene he details to one of the captives that the whites assume the Native Americans are violent, but that they only attack because they fear whites attacking them first. It’s a vicious cycle with no winners, but the movie says it’s a fear of violence that forever keeps the two groups apart. I can’t think of another Western that openly discussed communication as leading to racism, and I’m sure that part of this movie’s intent is to show that Canadians are progressive in a way American’s aren’t, but I applaud the effort.
In fact, the racism and sexism you do see is started by the villains, or those who are meant to be seen as ignorant. We’re introduced to Natayo (Thomas Gomez) and his knowledge that Native Americans are looking to only scalp “white faces.” Later on, one of the hostages named Jess (Robert Horton) tells the lone girl of the film, Emerald (Penny Edwards) that she’s not “required” to understand what the men are talking about. In the case of Natayo, he’s mainly comic relief; a thief who drinks heavily. With Jess, he’s the American cowboy you’re supposed to know and love. Here, he’s a misogynistic jerk willing to leave Emerald and save his own skin.
The movie isn’t without its flaws, and at only 82 minutes it’s hard to focus on them because the plot moves briskly. Don’t expect this be an action-packed adventurer as the majority of the action happens in the first, and last, ten minutes. The plot revolves around MacDonald negotiating with the Cree. Our damsel in distress, Penny Edwards, is also pointless. She doesn’t have many lines to show us what kind of actress she is, but when she does have to scream and look distressed she’s shrieky and laughable. There’s also the addition of a cute Native American boy who captures the heart of MacDonald. The man’s a Mountie, and he’s going to add single father to the list? It just felt too cutesy in a movie that cast an eye toward a serious topic.
Overall, Pony Soldier is saved by its leading man. I’ve seen two of Power’s films, and while this is no Witness for the Prosecution, Power is an able leading man. He’s got the good looks, strength, and determination for the character. You believe he’ll set things right, and embodies the old-school leading man archetype. In terms of DVD features, there is an isolated soundtrack feature which is great if you enjoy the sweeping composition that plays throughout the movie. It’s a beautiful score that’s punctuated with horns and drums to accentuate the Native American influence. Similar to the Criterion Collection, Twilight Time also includes essays written about the movies. Included is a thought-provoking essay discussing the movie’s issues of racism and how it differs from other Westerns of the era (which I detailed for you above). I wouldn’t consider this a great movie, but it’s good for fans of Tyrone Power, those who love beautiful cinematography, and those who want to see something different in the wild West.
Twilight Time via Screen Archives Entertainment is a great resource for beautiful Blu-Ray transfers of hard-to-find films. If you’re interested in buying Pony Soldier through them, you can do so here.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.