Storylines In Review

The 'Outpost Command Crisis' Storyline| Introductory Page          

Storyline: A command crisis develops at a remote outpost when danger threatens.

Here, the protagonist may be the outpost’s commander, a 2nd-in-command, or a go-between figure such as a civilian scout.
The protagonist may be [1] the post CO, a realist, chafing against standing orders from above; or [2] the CO may be the antagonist, and the protagonist a junior officer with field experience who takes the initiative, perhaps leaving the post without orders to resolve the crisis. The military crisis may be complicated by an interpersonal one where the protagonist is involved with the wife or daughter of the CO or a brother officer.

Right: An example of each of the two protagonists. [1] In March Or Die, the major commanding the Foreign Legion outpost in post-WWI Morocco has no illusions left and defies his orders, to try and prevent a native uprising - in vain. [2] (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.) In 55 Days At Peking, the US Marines major provides hard-bitten realism and military expertise but still has to work within the limitations imposed by the Legation's many diplomats, headed by the British Consul, who are hoping for a peaceful diplomatic solution.

Both works feature a standard danger in this storyline, that the tribes around the outpost are uniting under some new cause or leader.

The protagonist often saves the day via a heroic breakout mission.

Right: [1] In The Desert Rats (1953), set during the siege of Tobruk, British captain MacRoberts leads an Australian infantry company holding a forward defence position and then in commando raids on enemy bases.
[2 - hover mouse to see 2nd image] In The Sand Pebbles (1966), set in 1920s China, the US Navy maintains a floating outpost on a backwater of the Yangtze, from where it steams upriver to tackle a Nationalist-backed general insurgency. After they break through the Chinese forces boom on the lake, the protagonist, an engineer NCO, finally takes charge and sacrifices himself to act as rear-guard at the upriver walled missionary outpost.


Standard Settings: The setting in theory can be anywhere there is a danger of an attack on the outpost, but the main standard settings used were either a colonial desert outpost in North Africa or NW India, or a US cavalry fort in Indian (usually Apache) territory. While Hollywood studios filmed dramas set on the Northwest frontier of India in eastern California around Lone Pine, their Saharan-set French Foreign Legion outpost stories like Beau Geste were shot among the dune formations of the southern California-Arizona border. US cavalry-outpost stories, which were usually set in Apache territory, were mostly filmed in the scrub-desert canyon country of Arizona or Utah.

The pair of illustrations at right show these variant settings [hover mouse to see 2nd image], from two versions of the same story. The 1939 Gunga Din (inspired by a Kipling poem) was shot in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada, while a 1960s reworking (by Hollywood veteran WR Burnett) of the same story with a US Cavalry outpost setting featuring Sammy Davis Jnr in the Gunga Din role, Sergeants 3, was filmed in Utah.


Standard scenes and motifs include: the protagonist’s frontier-outpost assignment; the arrogant superior; the savvy 2nd officer; the court-martial framework; the brother officer love rival; the rebel leader breaks away; the company march-out; the outpost is cut off; the 'hold the fort' command; the soldiers-morale crisis; the junior officer takes the initiative; the attack on the post; the massacre discovery; the council of war; the 'breakout' mission to resolve the crisis; the relief column en route; the patrol strongpoint; the 'heroic last stand'; the cavalry charge; the honours ceremony.

Right: A pair of examples of the 'company march-out' scene. (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.) In Beau Geste (1939), the protagonists march out from Legion HQ in Algeria to garrison their forward outpost in he deep Sahara, Fort Zinderneuf. In North-West Mounted Police (1940), the Mountie troop forms up at their Saskatchewan post to ride out on the eve of the Riel uprising of 1885.

A standard motif is the protagonist embarking, often reluctantly, on a relationship with the wife of a brother officer, or daughter of the CO. The latter is the case in the storyline's first CinemaScope production, King Of The Khyber Rifles [1953]. Being a 'half-caste' of part-Moslem descent, Captain King is not invited to the regimental ball, which merely increases her interest in him; he speaks the local Pashto language and escorts her out riding, where they take shelter in the ruins of an ancient tomb when a dust-storm threatens. Soon Captain King must put duty before love as the Indian Mutiny begins, pretending to desert so he can infiltrate the camp of the rebel leader with whom he grew up, to kill him.

History: The early classic outpost-defence story comes from Greek history, in the Spartans and other Greeks defence of Thermopylae, the ‘Hot Gates’ which guard a key pass where the Persian invasion of 480 BC can be held up. The 'Hot Gates' are 3 chokepoints where the neighbouring Phocian Greeks had built a central stone wall. ‘From this wall, we do not retreat,’ orders Leonidas, leader of the Spartan vanguard, in the film The 300 Spartans (1962), and they defend it to the last man. The event inspired poems, novels and films, and later heroic-defence battles sometimes used the name as a comparator, cf the 1836 siege of the Alamo has been called the 'Texan Thermopylae.'

In North America, the besieged outpost forms a large part of the storyline of works claimed as the first Great American Novel and the first Canadian novel. America had frontier forts all along its colonial borders, starting with stockaded fur-trading posts, and there were soon masonry and timber-stockaded ones built as garrisons during the various wars of the Colonial Era.
Fiction works using them as a setting go back to James Fenimore Cooper's much-filmed 1826 novel The Last Of The Mohicans, set in 1757, which has a central section set at a colonial outpost under siege. Focused more on a single outpost but less well-known, was Major John Richardson’s 1832 novel Wacousta, sometimes claimed as the first Canadian novel, on chief Pontiac’s campaign against the British-held Fort Detroit during the 1760s French & Indian War. While there are no direct film adaptations, some motifs appear in film versions of The Last Of The Mohicans.

Right: America’s most famous besieged outpost defence, that of the Alamo mission in 1836 fortified by Texas against Mexico, would become the subject of several films [1954, 1955, 1960, 2004], though only the longest and most expensive, The Alamo [1960], played up the command-conflict aspect between the 3 colonels sharing command – Crockett, Bowie and Travis.

Above and below: The spectacular final battle from the 1960 version. The set was on a much larger scale than the two 1950s productions - Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier [1954] and The Last Command [1955], shown at right. (Mouse over to see 2nd image.)




Below, and right: The Alamo [2004] - This authentic later film version correctly showed the final assault as taking place at night.


The first contemporary-set works seem to belong to the late 19th and early-20th centuries, when Britain maintained remote frontier outposts all across the desert belt stretching from North Africa to the Northwest frontier of India.
The Madhist War of the 1880s, which would culminate in the fall of Khartoum and death of its commander General Gordon, forms the background of the classic 1902 novel The Four Feathers by AEW Mason. This is not a besieged-outpost story in the main, but certain motifs appear here, such as the junior-officer protagonist going off on a mission of his own behind enemy lines, and the forward patrol strongpoint being attacked. (The British of course had their keynote ‘British square’ tactic here.)

The Four Feathers - Filmed first as a silent in 1928, the later 1939 British production [see opposite] was influential as it was the first Technicolor example.

An earlier work which established certain motifs was Under Two Flags, an 1867 best-selling novel by ‘Ouida’, the English novelist Maria Louise Ramé, which introduced the romantic-triangle conflict that became a major feature of US-made films, regardless of setting. While the original novel was not a besieged-outpost Foreign Legion story, it became one in the finale of the 1936 film, a big-budget production made during the interwar heyday of the Foreign Legion film. The remote Saharan-desert-outpost setting had been popularised by the 1924 novel Beau Geste by English author PC Wren, with silent and then sound film versions in 1929 and 1939.
Below, left and right: Zulu Dawn [1979] and its sequel Zulu [1963], dramatising two 1879 engagements taking place within 12 hours of one another.


The ‘outpost of Empire’ story became a particularly British genre during the 1930s, when British rule was seen in Hollywood as a bulwark against insurgent fanaticism of various kinds – including European fascism, a growing contemporary threat leading to WW2. US studios made several hit films on this theme, from The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer (1935), The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936), mainly set in 1850s India, and Gunga Din (1939), inspired by a Kipling poem and his ‘Soldiers Three’ stories, and set on the Northwest Frontier. In most of these stories, the protagonists are daring junior officers who disobey standing post orders to take the initiative and leave the post on a mission of their own.

Right - The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer (1935): junior officers come up against the post bureaucracy.

An early Technicolor example, the 1938 British film The Drum, set on the Northwest Frontier and showing real Indian Army troops in action, would play throughout the war. Most of these stories avoid historical references and appear to be set in the present, on the eve of WW2. An Empire-set film that manages the transition explicitly into WW2 is Sundown (1941) [right], made just before the US entered the war.
WW2 itself inspired a series of films, a few made during the war itself. One that was inspired by earlier examples was the 1943 film Sahara, which credits as a source British author Philip Macdonald’s 1927 novel The Lost Patrol, about a cut-off British cavalry patrol during the 1920s Mesopotamian Campaign, which had been filmed twice before. This had established the patrol strongpoint refuge as a story-setup device, and in Sahara, a "United-Nations microcosm" ad hoc group defend a well against a superior force of Germans just before El Alamein.

For further info on the heyday of these 'outpost of Empire' films, see our historical-review feature page, here: The Outpost Command Crisis | InterTitle Historical Review Part 1

Above, left and right: Sahara (1943)

Most of the WW2-set films were made afterwards, such as The Desert Rats (1953), about the 1942 siege of Tobruk, and Between Heaven And Hell [1956], set on an unnamed Pacific isle c1944-5. The latter turns the storyline’s command-conflict motif into a full-blown psychodrama, with the CO mentally ill. The final act has a single infantry squad holding a forward position, a setup that would recur in 60s US cinema, where the theme of war madness would come to the fore, cf with Hell Is For Heroes [1965], and Castle Keep [1969]. This last, set during the Ardennes offensive of 1944-5, has an isolated 'walking wounded' squad of misfits holding a chateau by an important crossroads, culminating in a pitched battle that has been described as surreal.

Above: Between Heaven And Hell [1956], set on an unnamed Pacific isle. The protagonist is despatched to a forward base as a punishment after he attacks a trigger-happy company officer, and from there he is sent up to a precarious mountain-top lookout position held by a single infantry squad protected only by slit trenches. When this is attacked, he saves the day with a breakout run.

The North American setting of a US Army frontier post during the Indian wars of the later 19th c. only flourished after WWII. Here the post, instead of being an Outpost Of Empire, became one of US ‘Manifest Destiny’, where the native Americans are treated as primitives in the way of 'modern' civilisation.
The postwar cycle was kick-started by the so-called John Ford cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), inspired by or built around the short stories of James Warner Bellah (1899–1976).
While the first film played up the command-conflict motif, with the new CO, evidently modelled on Custer, fatally contemptuous of the Indians as opponents, all three films portray life on a frontier outpost more broadly in terms of a community than previous films - officers, their wives and the non-coms are usually 'colourful' characters. (Some would say 'coloured in' by Irish blarney.) The command-conflict aspect here is usually standing orders which constrain the protagonist from effective tactics until he finds a way around them.



Above: The first film in the so-called John Ford cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache (1948)
Below left: She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and below right, Rio Grande (1950)

A cycle of cavalry-outpost films followed in the 1950s, many reusing the same standing-set forts and cavalry-uniform costumes. The first few were shot in b&w (like 2 of the trilogy above) - cf. Fury At Furnace Creek [1948], Two Flags West (1950), Only The Valiant (1950), Little Big Horn (1951). From 1952, the cycle switched to Technicolor and often widescreen location filming - e.g. Bugles In The Afternoon (1952), The Battle At Apache Pass (1952), Escape From Fort Bravo (1953), The Charge At Feather River (1953), White Feather (1955), The Indian Fighter (1955), Comanche (1956). Director John Ford supplied a couple more minor examples, with Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Two Rode Together (1961). The former was based on a story by James Warner Bellah, as was A Thunder Of Drums (1961).

By the early 60s, the cycle had become comedic, with director John Sturges, who had made Escape From Fort Bravo [above], directing Sergeants 3, a 1962 remake of Gunga Din with the Sinatra ‘Rat Pack, and The Hallelujah Trail, a 1965 roadshow-length attempt at a comedy. This last example depicted the outpost's civilians in its jurisdiction as a community of differentiated but stereotyped conflicting parties (strike-prone Irish teamsters, hard-drinking miners, Temperance women etc). Usually these films focus on just 2 or 3 characters, with the enlisted soldiers being depicted negatively – the grumbling, often drunken, near mutinous soldiery lurking in the background as antagonists, an expression of the officer-protagonist's ‘burden of command’, cf in Custer Of The West (1968).

An example of the makeshift strongpoint which is often besieged rather than the main fort, from Escape From Fort Bravo, 1953, It was made in 3-D to showcase how the Apaches besiege it, "ranging in" the defensive position with lance markers and arrow volleys.

When the 1950s SF cycle of alien-invasion and space-travel films appeared, the storyline was applied here.

Left: The Thing [1951, remade 1982] - When an alien recovered from a UFO buried in the ice comes alive at an Arctic base, a conflict develops between the scientists and military men as to how to deal with it.
Below: Forbidden Planet (1956) - An interplanetary expedition exploring a previously-established space colony on Altair-4 discover they are unwelcome. The surviving scientist there is hostile, urging them to turn back lest they be torn limb from limb, and the ship's landing-site camp is soon menaced by an near-invisible destructive force, which is only held at bay by a forcefield perimeter.

Fixed fortifications being largely obsolete, the films dramatising the Korean War of 1950-3 tended to focus on a situation where a patrol or cut-off unit occupies a makeshift forward outpost of some kind.
The first two Korean-set American films, both low-budget independent productions written and directed by Samuel Fuller, used this setup. The Steel Helmet (1951) has a unit establishing a forward observation post at a Buddhist temple, while Fixed Bayonets! (1951) has a platoon based in a cave in a snowbound pass to guard it until their regiment can get across the adjacent bridge. The 1956 A Hill In Korea, the first [and only?] British film about Korea, has a recon platoon holed up in a hilltop Buddhist temple, while All The Young Men [1960] has a winter patrol occupying a farmhouse strategically sited in a pass.
The US films typically have a more overt command conflict than the British one. The former has racist white soldiers disputing the authority of a black sergeant, while the latter merely has a couple of weak links among the men, neither of whom causes a command crisis. British cinema would only engage with the command-crisis motif with several films made in 1957-9, set back in the WW2 Burma-Malayan conflict, where command had collapsed, with tens of thousands becoming Japanese POWs.


Above: Sometimes the outpost setting is a stongpoint set up in a vital pass - a military strategy that goes back to Thermopylae in ancient times. Screenshots from Only The Valiant [1951], set at an abandoned adobe-walled fort in New Mexico, and [mouse over] All The Young Men [1960], set at a farmhouse at the top of a Korean pass.

Hills that were fortifiable with entrenchments became features of the Korean and then Vietnam Wars. Pork Chop Hill (1959), scripted by James R. Webb based on an actual such 1953 battle, depicts US infantry trying to retake and then hold such a hill against Chinese troops, with the dugout they nickname the Korea Hilton as their final redoubt.

The postwar era was also a period of colonial withdrawals, and there were some works set back in the conflicts of the pre-war colonial era. The Sand Pebbles [1966] was set in 1920s China (where the outpost is a floating one, an upper-Yangtze gunboat); the hit British film North West Frontier [1959] was set in 1905; the big-budget Anglo-American productions 55 Days At Peking [1965] set in 1900, and Khartoum [1966] set in 1884-5, were fact-based. Also fact-based were Zulu [1964], set in 1879, and its 1979 prequel Zulu Dawn, as well as the Australian-made Breaker Morant [1980], set in 1902 South Africa. A late attempt at a Foreign Legion film, March Or Die [1977], set in Morocco c1920 during the El Krim revolt, was only vaguely fact-based.

Above - North West Frontier [1959]: A large scale assault on a [fictional] garrison in 1905 British India leads to the outer fortifications being captured, and the characters besieged unless they can escape on the last train.
Films set in the postwar era of colonial withdrawals and emergent states are fewer, but include Guns At Batasi [1965], set in a modern-day central African state on the eve of its independence, and The Siege Of Jadotville (2016), on the 1961 siege of a UN outpost in the Congo, garrisoned by Irish troops. After the Vietnam War collapse and withdrawal in the 1970s, this included a few Vietnam-set beleaguered-outpost films, notably Go Tell The Spartans [1978] and We Were Soldiers [2002], both set early in the conflict.
The Falklands War of 1982 was dramatised in the BBC telefilm An Ungentlemanly Act [1992] [below left and right], which focused on the short-lived defence of Port Stanley by the Royal Marines against the invading Argentine task force.

Go Tell The Spartans [1978]. The sign on the French soldiers cemetery adjacent to their former forward base quotes the famous Spartan epigraph about the 300 holding the pass, in obedience to orders.

The most recent major war involving the US and Britain, the US-led coalition invasions of Mid-Eastern countries starting in 1991, also led to a few outpost-crisis stories. The Canadian 2015 film Hyena Road [right] is set around a UN forces base in Afghanistan c2010, and the 2015 13 Hours focuses on the 2012 Benghazi CIA-compound siege [below].

Khartoum [1966]: the final attack, in Cinerama

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