INCIDENT AT PHANTOM HILL (1966) – With the massive Frontierado Holiday just a few months away let’s start getting in the mood with a review of this 1966 western directed by Earl Bellamy.
In the closing days of the U.S. Civil War the Union Army was transporting a million dollars in gold through northern Texas only to have it stolen from them by Confederate forces at Phantom Hill. The gold was not recovered.
Barely two months after the end of the war a former Confederate named Joe Barlow claims to have been part of the southern unit which hijacked the gold shipment AND claims to know where it is buried. In exchange for a pardon for his many pre-war crimes Barlow agrees to lead a U.S. Army detachment to the fortune in gold.
A major complication: The desert region where the bullion is buried is located in the Staked Plains, which were recently ceded to the Comanche Indians in the latest treaty. If uniformed troops are spotted poking around in the area a fresh Comanche war could break out.
An undercover Army detachment is sent in plain-clothes to recover the gold with the shifty Barlow as their guide. And so the stage is set for this underrated second-tier western that I like to call Beau West due to its entertaining blend of French Foreign Legion desert epic appeal with traditional western grittiness.
CAPTAIN MATT MARTIN (Robert Fuller) – Fuller made the jump from television to the big screen as the U.S. Army Captain in charge of this mission. His masculine good looks make up for what he lacks in acting ability, as usual, but he makes a perfectly serviceable hero. With another actor in the lead role Incident at Phantom Hill might have had a higher profile and a better reputation.
JOE BARLOW (Dan Duryea) – Duryea is in top form as a sleazeball who was a career criminal before the Civil War broke out and who enlisted in the Confederate Army just to get out of prison. Needlesss to say he has plans to grab all the gold for himself. With sociopathic cunning he plays the members of the expedition off against each other, heightening tensions and jeopardizing not only the mission but the very survival of the group.
MEMPHIS (Jocelyn Lane) – Lane is a dead ringer for Jessica Alba in this movie and that’s no exaggeration. I actually checked to see if the two were relatives because of the uncanny resemblance Lane bears to Alba in this role. Jocelyn plays Memphis (no last name), a saloon girl who is forced upon Captain Martin’s undercover unit by a Kansas sheriff who is exiling her from his town. Memphis is gorgeous, tough and can shoot a rifle like a pro.
KRAUSMAN (Claude Akins) – Akins plays the regulation hate-crazed soldier whose wife and young daughter were slain by Comanches, leaving him with a desire to wrack up his own body count of those tribesmen. His fiery vendetta threatens to blow the unit’s cover on more than one occasion.
O’ROURKE (Noah Beery Jr) – The man forever remembered as Jim Rockford’s dad plays the broadest Irishman imaginable in one-dimensional “sure and begorrah” style. The villainous Barlow uses O’Rourke’s stereotypical weakness for whiskey to manipulate him.
DOCTOR HANNEFORD (Linden Chiles) – Chiles shines as an Army surgeon who has been left burnt-out and disillusioned by the butcher-shop operations and amputations he was often called upon to perform during the war. He was the only member of Captain Martin’s unit that I wanted to know more about. Barlow shrewdly prods at the good doctor’s emotional scars.
ADAM LONG (Tom Simcox) – Long is the sole surviving Union soldier from the detachment that was ambushed by Rebs at Phantom Hill. He served under Captain Martin’s older brother, who was the officer in charge of the ill-fated Union troops.
HUNTER (Denver Pyle) – Pyle portrays the thoroughly despicable leader of an outlaw gang. He senses something big behind Captain Martin’s supposedly “civilian” band of travelers and leads his men in an attempt to steal the gold once it’s been found.
COMANCHES – Bands of Comanche warriors are largely to this movie what the pursuing posse would later be to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – faceless, menacing, relentless figures in the distance. The Comanches hover stoically on the outskirts of the expedition, picking and choosing moments of weakness to launch their attacks. This actually works out well cinematically since we are spared the over-exposure to them that would yield the typically distracting Hollywood stereotypes. Namely, obvious white extras dressed as Indians and inane dialogue like “Ugh,” “How,” “Many moons ago”and “White-Eyes speak with forked tongue.”
Incident at Phantom Hill minimizes its use of rear screen projection and, from the opening attack on the gold shipment onward the action scenes are very well done. The desert survival elements are rendered nearly perfectly and a viewer can almost feel themselves growing thirsty and hot just watching the film.
If you enjoyed the Charles Bronson western Breakheart Pass then this movie will be right up your alley, especially with the undercover mission elements. +++
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