A Renegade down the River
With his small group of men Capt. Harper (William Talman) makes it to the fort having avoided attack from White Cloud's Ute Indian who lay in wait. The fort is depleted of men and supplies having been under major attack and there are just a few men inside including prisoner Brett Halliday (Dana Andrews), a former cavalry soldier who deserted to join the Indians but has returned claiming that White Cloud is planning something big which he disagreed with. But Capt. Harper and many others, including Laura Evans (Piper Laurie), have issue with Halliday as whilst defending the Ute he killed soldiers. With their hopes of getting out of the Fort by land nigh on impossible they decide to do the never been done before, make it down the river in the Grand Canyon on two basic boats.
When I read a synopsis for "Smoke Signal" I thought to myself well it sounds typical; soldiers under attack, their is a woman involved and they are pinned down in a fort, even the deserter aspect felt quite familiar with the animosity towards him by those who lost relatives at his hands. But then I read the last sentence which mentioned the escape by river down the Grand Canyon and it made me sit up as I had never come across a traditional western which took us by river down the Grand Canyon before. Now before you get excited we are talking a 1950s western so we are often talking boats in a studio in front of a big screen with the river projected on it but it is still entertaining with some ingenuity when it comes to motives of the major players.
The daft thing is that "Smoke Signal" despite having the USP of the river escape ends up quite a traditional escape from the Indians movie. We get the dangers of the great outdoors picking of some people, the Ute Indians picking of others, issues over trust, a man riddled with hate that he will ignore the truth which is in front of him, some romance and just a touch of humour. For the most there isn't anything new going on here but it does a good job of making us question if Brett Halliday is trying to help Harper and his men or whether he is in fact leading them in to a trap whilst also making us question Capt. Harper's orders as he seems blinded by his own hatred of Halliday.
What I will say about "Smoke Signal" is that when director Jerry Hopper and cinematographer Clifford Stine gives us some scene setting shots of the river and the Grand Canyon the movie has a real majesty. Sadly those studio shots in front of a projection are cheap looking and the close up work is just standard which is a shame. And it is also a shame that the characters and the acting are also quite ordinary with Douglas Spencer in the part of a fur trapper ending up stealing many a scene with the most entertaining performance.
What this all boils down to is that "Smoke Signal" is one of those westerns which takes a regular storyline and with a couple of changes makes it entertaining. As such whilst for the most "Smoke Signal" is forgettable some of the cinematography will impress and stay with you long after the rest of the movie has gone.