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Monday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "Seminole" (Boetticher, 1953)

It is a source of no small frustration to the DVD-collecting cinephile that the work of American director Budd Boetticher is so sparsely represented on disc. A straightforward, vivid storyteller with a supremely confident command of mise-en-scene, Boetticher is most highly regarded in some circles for the Randolph-Scott-starring Westerns he made relatively late in his career: Seven Men From Now (1956), The Tall T, Decision at Sundown (both 1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Westbound, Ride Lonesome (both 1959), and Comanche Station (1960). Of these seven pictures, only Seven Men From Now—released as part of a spate of material overseen by John Wayne’s estate (the picture was made for Wayne’s production company Batjac) in uniformly excellent presentations by Paramount Home Video in 2005—has had a Region 1 DVD release.And the pickings are pretty damn slim in the international department, too, which is why the release last fall, by the U.K.’s Optimum label, of Boetticher’s 1953 film Seminole (which he made for Universal’s B unit) caused some excitement. Seminole is an Eastern Western, as it were—it’s set in Florida, and it star Rock Hudson as Lt. Lance Caldwell, a West Point graduate with roots there, and connections to its peaceful Seminole tribe—a tribe that Caldwell’s commanding officer, Major Harlan Degan (Richard Carlson), intends to drive out of the land.Degan’s a variant on Henry Fonda’s Colonel Thursday in Ford’s Fort Apache—a petty martinet who’s not above waging war dishonorably so long as it serves both his “cause” and his reputation. (The character's spiritual puniness is nicely underscored by the fact that Carlson is nearly a head shorter than Hudson.)
Caldwell’s situation with Degan is complicated by his romantic entanglement to Revere Muldoon (Barbara Hale), who, we will learn, is also involved with Caldwell’s erstwhile best friend John Powell. “He could have been the first man of Indian descent to attend West Point,” Caldwell notes wistfully; Revere then informs him that Powell has in fact reverted to his Indian name, Osceola, and is leading the Seminoles. Osceola is played by Anthony Quinn in a rather remarkably wooden and colorless performances.Andrew Sarris describes Boetticher’s classic Westerns as “partly…allegorical Odysseys and …partly floating poker games where every character took turns at bluffing about his hand until the final showdown.”  Seminole, from a script by Charles K. Peck Jr., isn’t nearly that sophisticated: Hudson’s Caldwell is true and stalwart from the start, and he never really gets the chance to face down antagonist Degan, even as the latter leads his men, big cannon in tow, to what we refer to nowadays as a “quagmire.” What intrigue the scenario has resides in Barbara Hale’s role as a kind of sexual double agent, toggling between romantic interests Hudson and Quinn with little seeming compuction. “I planned to spend this evening with you,” her Revere says to Quinn’s Osceola, mere minutes after leaving Caldwell’s side. “Let’s not waste it.”The climaxes of Boetticher’s Westerns, not to mention the set pieces of his bullfighting-themed films (The Bullfighter and The Lady, 1951, The Magnificent Matador, 1955), pit man against nature as well as, or in place of, man against man. Degan and company’s ill-advised foray into the Evergreens to ambush the Seminoles  (“How do you fight a swamp,” Degan cries out in frustration at one point) does the same; the effect here is compromised by being simulated on a Universal backlot, rather than shot on location. Despite that, the sequence is brisk and surprisingly involving...
The Optimum disc, alas, doesn’t do the film many favors, offering up a soft image and some peculiar colors—are those opening credits supposed to be that pink?
The overall experience is, I’m afraid, akin to watching the film on some variant of “The 4:30 Movie,” with the only benefits being that the film’s uncut and there are no commercials. Another frustration for Boetticher fans.***Seminole is available on Region 2 DVD from Optimum.

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