The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

The Command (1954) Classic Movie Review 60

The Command (1954) Joan Weldon and Guy Madison

The Command (1954) Joan Weldon and Guy Madison

You hate being a soldier and you hate killing. Yet you do it.

I am continuing the series about people trying to go somewhere or get something done, and there are obstacles in the way.

The main star The Command (1954) is Capt. Robert MacClaw, the Army doctor who ended up in command of a cavalry troop. This role was played by hunk-a-rama Guy Madison. Madison was in the Coast Guard during World War II. He was on a pass in Hollywood when he was spotted by David O. Selznick’s staff. They cast the untrained actor in Since You Went Away (1944). By the time the war ended, Madison was on the way to being a star. He was on television and made a lot of westerns. By the mi-1950s he was finding work hard to come by. He traveled overseas and continued to work until the 1970s when he returned to America. He worked more in American televisions. Madison died in 1996.

Martha Cutting is nursing sick children on the wagon train. This role was played by Joan Weldon. Weldon was born in San Francisco. She started out as a singer. Warner Brothers took her and put her in a series of westerns such as The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953), The Command (1954), and Riding Shotgun (1954). Her most famous movie is, Them! (1954) where she played an ant hunting scientist. She still lives with her husband in New York.

Pvt. Gottschalk was the trooper that was always complaining about Capt. MacClaw. This role was played by Harvey Lembeck. Lembeck was born in Brooklyn, New York. I’m seeing a trend. He was a dancer at the 1939/40 world fair where he eventually married his dance partner. Following his discharge from the Army after World War II Lembeck studied radio arts. On the advice of one of his professors, he chose stage work over the radio. Right out school, he got a role on Broadway in “Mister Roberts.’ In 1951, three movies starring Lembeck were released which are You’re in the Navy Now (1951), Fourteen Hours (1951), and The Frogmen (1951). He went back to Broadway and played Sgt. Harry Shapiro in ‘Stalag 17’. He was also cast in the same role for the movie Stalag 17 (1953), which was directed by Billy Wilder and won William Holden an Oscar for best actor. He played military roles in nine other films from 1952 to 1954.

From 1955 to 1959, Lembeck was on the extremely popular television show ‘Sergeant Bilko’ again playing a military role. In the early 1960s, Lembeck made more television shows and movies. I will always remember Lembeck for the series of roles where he played as Eric Von Zipper, the malapropistic leader of the Rat Pack motorcycle gang in seven Beach Party films, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Von Zipper’s catchphrase was “Him, I like”, or “Him, I do not like”. He also had the power to paralyze people by pointing at his temple but he mostly did it to himself and had to be carried out by his gang. The Von Zipper character was modeled after Marlon Brando’s in The Wild One (1953).

Lembeck appeared in the musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). That same year the Mercury Theatre offered him the teaching job at the actors’ workshop. He began teaching comedy but soon moved to improv as a way of perfecting actors timing.

For the rest of the 1960s and 1970s, he was on all of the popular television shows appearing over 200 times running from The Munsters, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Monkees, Night Gallery, The Partridge Family, All in the Family, Batman and Mork and Mindy.

Lembeck continued to act and teach up until his early death in 1982.

Selected Filmography

You’re in the Navy Now (1951)
The Frogmen (1951)
Willie and Joe Back at the Front (1952)
Stalag 17 (1953)
Between Heaven and Hell (1956)
A View from the Bridge (1962)
Beach Party (1963)
Bikini Beach (1964)
Pajama Party (1964)
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966)
Fireball 500 (1966)
Raid on Entebbe (1977)
The Gong Show Movie (1980)

We have done enough movies that we are getting to the point where actors are repeating and I don’t have to do as much biography. Praise be.
The infantry surgeon Dr. Trent was portrayed by Ray Teal and the Doctor was a horse’s ass. Ray Teal was first spoken about in Episode 14 – Band of Angels (1957).

The uncredited Infantryman that brayed and jeered at the cavalry as they rode into Cashmens was played by Denver Pyle who we first spoke about in Episode 49The Alamo (1960).

Sgt. Elliott was a tough-as-nails cavalry to sergeant. He knew how to fight Indians and how to lead the enlisted men. This role was played masterfully by James Whitmore, a man that was only a decade out of World War II himself. James Whitmore was first introduced in Episode 50 – Battleground (1949).

Finally Col. Janeway was a hardcore infantry commander that was past his prime. Although his health was failing, he pushed himself as hard as he pushed his men. This role was well played by Carl Benton Reid. Reid was a character actor that specialized in playing stern authoritarian figures. Carl Benton Reid was first mentioned in Episode 26 – Time Limit (1957).


The Command (1954) is sorta based on Dr. Leonard Wood. Wood was in the 1886 campaign where Geronimo was captured. When all of the officers in Infantry Company were killed, he took command and for this and other actions he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He formed the Spanish-American War Rough Riders with Theodore Roosevelt. He rose to be Chief of Staff of the Army. Fort Leonard Wood army base in Missouri is named after him. It is known as Fort Lost in the Woods, Misery to anyone who has ever been there.


The local Arapaho Indians are rampaging and a small troop of cavalry is chasing a group. Capt. Forsythe orders his troops not to follow the fleeing group. Suddenly an arrow strikes him in the chest. The troop doctor, Capt. Robert MacClaw (Guy Madison) tends to the troop commander but he cannot save the wounded man. Just before he dies, the commander orders the doctor to take over the troop and get them back to Fort Stark. He also tells top Sgt. Elliott (James Whitmore) to make sure it happens.

When the commander dies, Sgt. Elliott tells the men that Capt. MacClaw will be in command. One of the men, Pvt. Gottschalk (Harvey Lembeck) is very outspoken about the command. Gottschalk complains about how many Indians they have seen on this patrol. As the troop moves towards the town of Cashmens, they see Indian smoke close behind. In the town, there is an infantry unit. Sgt. Elliott has the men clean their uniforms and ask Capt. MacClaw to wear cavalry epaulets instead of medical epaulets. He agrees. They ride into town and receive a heckling from the infantry, from an unnamed Pvt (Denver Pyle).

Since he does not have command experience MacClaw does not report to the senior infantry commander. MacClaw gives Forsythe’s watch to Sgt. Elliott and takes a book on cavalry tactics for himself as Forsythe had no family. MacClaw also says he is getting out of the Army in a week. A civilian woman Martha Cutting (Joan Weldon) comes into the tent looking for a doctor. They recommend that she go to the surgeon with the infantry command. She says she has and he says the disease the little boy on the wagon train has is grippe. Grippe is officially Bornholm’s disease and is caused by a virus. It causes great pain in the rib areas but is usually not fatal. I prefer the other name, the Devils Grip.

Just before she leaves Col. Janeway (Carl Benton Reid), bust in and gives MacClaw an ass chewing for not reporting in. Janeway mentions that he was going to meet General Crook, who is known by the Indians as Nantan Lupan or Gray Wolf. He also mentions that the troopers are in the 7th cavalry so it would seem this is taking place just after the battle of the Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand as it is sometimes known. The Colonel orders the troops to escort wagon train along with the infantry. MacClaw almost admits he is a doctor but does not.
That night MacClaw sneaks over to the wagon where the sick boy is located. The parents of the boy are scared and Martha is downright hostile. Martha won’t let him in the wagon. When MacClaw finds out that one kid has already died he forces his way into the wagon. MacClaw says it could be smallpox and Martha says she can recognize smallpox because her father was a doctor.

That night Sgt. Elliott gives MacClaw a lesson on Indian fighting and MacClaw reads about cavalry tactics. In the morning the wagon train, the infantry, and the cavalry move out. The Capt. sends Gottschalk out towards the mountain. They see a hedge line of Indians and one of the troopers was killed. The Indians charge as the two men make it back to meet the troop. The Indians stop a distance away. MacClaw won’t let the men pursue. They see smoke from behind and know Cashmens is burning.

Col. Janeway is giving MacClaw another ass chewing for engaging the enemy. Right in the middle of the rant he grabs his chest and falls into his chair. MacClaw goes to get the infantry surgeon Dr. Trent (Ray Teal). Trent is a real horse’s ass and he rebuffs MacClaw when he tells that the Colonel is sick. MacClaw goes into the wagon and examines the sick boy. He tells Martha again that it might be smallpox. Just at that time a band of Indians attack with flaming arrows but are driven off by the Army. MacClaw goes to see Col. Janeway about the attack. The Col. allows the cavalry to hang behind the wagon train to prevent attacks. Dr. Trent examines the sick boy again and quarantines the wagon for smallpox. The sick wagons are forced to camp and move separately. He goes to the sick camp. Martha admits the first boy that died had a rash and she had lied about it. MacClaw tells Martha he is really a doctor. He vaccinates Martha and they establish that each is single. He tries to get Martha to travel with the main wagons but she refuses. He also tells her to destroy everything that comes into contact with the sick.

The next day the sick wagons are attacked. They steal one of the sick wagons before the cavalry can come up to stop the attack. MacClaw thinks Martha has been kidnapped but he finds her okay. MacClaw asks Col. Janeway to bring the sick wagons closer. Dr. Trent jumps down MacClaws throat and tells him to mind his own business. The Colonel orders the wagon train to pick up the pace. The infantrymen start throwing away equipment to make their load lighter.

That night, the sick kids lose their rash. MacClaw has a plan and before he leaves him and Martha get all kissy-faced. They make a fake deserted camp and the Indians ride down to scavenge. The troopers pop up from behind sagebrush and kill most of the band of Indians.

The infantry is getting weaker as the Indians wait for their chance. The cavalry mounts are breaking down as well. MacClaw goes to see Col. Janeway who is getting sicker. He shows him a discarded infantry rifle and the colonel goes on another rant and collapses. He calls for Dr. Trent who rudely steps in and pronounces stroke. The senior Major refuses to take command so it falls to Dr. MacClaw. MacClaw finds out that they have to cross through a pass and that is where they expect the Indians to attack. MacClaw sends Sgt. Elliott out to keep the Indian scouts away. They double up the wagon and send most of the infantry and wagon trainers ahead to the pass on foot. They load 40 infantry sharpshooters in the empty wagons and wait in a defensive circle. They also mount a howitzer in one of the wagons. The plan is to make the defensive wagons travel in a wedge.

Martha and MacClaw play kissy face again before she leaves for the pass. MacClaw makes some of the troops put on women’s clothes to fool the Indians. Gottschalk who dress like a woman in this movie has another drag scene in Stalag 17 (1953) as well.

In the late morning, the Indians attack the camp. They start going ring around the wagon. Both sides are taking pretty heavy loses when the cavalry mount their horses and the wagons with the sharpshooters head out. In one scene an Indian gets knocked off his horse. He gets run over by four horses and a wagon. This was not a planned stunt but it looked good so they left it in. He broke bones and ribs. There is also the use of the Wilhelm Scream. The wagons form their defensive formation but the Indians don’t follow right away. The wagon with the cannon fires and many of the Indians are taken down with grapeshot. The Indians attack again, this time avoiding the cannon. MacClaw gets de-horsed and jumps on one of the horse pulling a wagon. Sgt. Elliott brings up his horse and he jumps back.

They finally make it to the pass and the infantry and wagon trainers waiting there opens up on the Indians. In a pure case of badassery MacClaw fights sword against tomahawk, and then sword against lance, then he takes a lance away and throws it into another guy’s hip. MacClaw gets knocked to the ground and is about to be scalped when Sgt. Elliott steals a tomahawk and makes a killing throw. After the battle, Gottschalk tells MacClaw what a great job he did and salutes him.

MacClaw examines one of the Indians and he has spots. He finds a rag from the stolen wagon and he determines the disease was chicken pox. He chews Martha out for not destroying clothes used on the sick. Their fight is interrupted by a request to see Colonel Janeway. MacClaw tells the Colonel that the Indians have chicken pox. Dr. Trent gets snotty again. He fesses up that he is a doctor. Colonel Janeway says he owed $10 for command duty.

He goes back to Martha and he says he thought she may have left the rags on purpose. But you know she is too good for that. They play kissy face and the movie ends.


There has been a consistent rumor that at some point Americans or maybe British gave smallpox infected blankets to the Native Americans in an early form of biological warfare. I have looked for this on many occasions but have only found one reference. During the French and Indian War, the British Commander, Jeffery Amherst, wrote to Colonel Henry Bouquet that it would be beneficial to their military plans to infect the Indians. Colonel Bouquet stated that he would carry out the plan but there is no evidence that it took place.

World-Famous Short Summary – Wagon train moves through Indian territory

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Beware the moors

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