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Sam Fuller’s TV Work Pt. 3: Iron Horse – Hellcat & Volcano Wagon

In Part 3 of my look at the television episodes directed by Samuel Fuller we’re focused on his third and fourth episodes of Iron Horse: Hellcat and Volcano Wagon. According to Fuller in his book, A Third Face, he only remembers one of the six Iron Horse episodes he made, and these ain’t it! I’d think it’d be hard to forget something you made called Volcano Wagon, but this period in Fuller’s career was a definite rough patch. Even though the following years would bring much artistic frustration and strife, they also finally brought The Big Red One to life and Fuller also met his wife Christa in the years following this stint on Iron Horse. So it makes sense if he wiped out this small bit of forgettable work for hire from his memory banks.

Iron Horse: Hellcat (1966)
First aired: 12/26/1966

Starring Dale Robertson, Arlene Martel, Harry Landers, Vincent Beck, John War Eagle, Tony Young

Written by Samuel Fuller & Oliver Crawford

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Hellcat preserves the general structure of the previous two Iron Horse episodes I’ve seen, in that it involves one of the BPS&D (Buffalo Pass, Scalplock, & Defiance Railroad) employees surveying ahead of the train in order to secure the rights to build the railroad through the land. This time it’s Calhoun who’s out on the trail, and he’s also the only main cast member to appear in the episode. Even the train doesn’t make an appearance! Calhoun is out scouting deep in Indian territory when he comes upon a couple of roughneck cowboys attempting to rape a Native American woman. Once again Fuller chooses to favor long shots of stunt people fighting. Modern filmmaking always favors the more visceral up-close approach to bring the viewer in the action, but stepping back and watching these cowboys wail on this struggling woman feels more real to me. It’s like being a powerless bystander, which really enhances the emotional response. I’ve written many times about Fuller using this technique, but it never ceases to impress me.

The woman, Noshima (Arlene Martel), manages to escape after Calhoun shoots one of the men, but she does so on Calhoun’s horse. He quickly gives chase and catches up to her. The two of them spend the rest of the episode together, learning about one another and dispelling the fears they have about each other’s people. For instance they discuss the killing of buffalo for sport by the white man, as well as the human blood on each of their people’s hands.

I’ve seen a fair amount of western films, but I haven’t seen a lot of western TV from the ’60s. What I have seen (in both mediums), I don’t remember being this frank or open with the issues at hand. Fuller’s own Run of the Arrow definitely comes to mind, but in the more mainstream films it’s a lot of the standard “Cowboys and Indians” stuff. In Hellcat, Fuller presents the Native American culture as something unique and worth examining, even including scenes that involve Native American mysticism. Calhoun is definitely shown as skeptical of this, but he says nothing, and through the course of events it is implied that Noshima’s faith in these practices has saved her life. While I’m sure this depiction is an over-simplification of a broad and nuanced culture, it’s a welcome and unexpected change of pace.

Overall, Hellcat is a more successful episode than Fuller’s written memory gives it credit for. It does feel somewhat padded out to fill the hour-long time slot, but it is definitely the most interesting of the Iron Horse episodes I’ve seen yet.

Iron Horse: Volcano Wagon (1967)
First aired: 01/16/1967

Starring Dale Robertson, Gary Collins, Robert Random, Roger Torrey, Tommy Durkin, Arthur Peterson, Lane Bradbury, Kelton Garwood, Lynn Wood, Donald Briggs, John Hart, Brett Pearson, Richard Sinatra, Dean Harens

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Based on the episode title, I had fairly high expectations for Volcano Wagon… which is probably why it was one of the worst Iron Horse episodes yet. Nearly everything about the story felt contrived and ridiculous, and there was very little in the way of Fuller’s style or influence.

Volcano Wagon opens with Barnabas (Robert Random) calling out for a kid named Georgy (Tommy Durkin). The BPS&D is currently camped at the base of a mountain to construct a tunnel, and right at this moment they’re preparing to set off a huge keg of dynamite just inside the tunnel. Barnabas finally spots Georgy and he’s skipping — skipping!!!! — into the tunnel (and presumably his death). Barnabas calls for O’Brien and Nils to go in after Georgy, the dynamite blows, and now all three of them are stuck behind a huge pile of rubble. You’d think a kid living in the Old West would have better sense than to just skip head-first into a literal powder-keg situation, but good ol’ Georgy thinks with dumb movie logic so he is blissfully unaware.

In order to get them out, Calhoun and Barnabas must head to a nearby town where they know some nitro glycerin is being stored. In the town they run into a fiery preacher who asks them to repent because the nitro is apparently representative of the damnation that God will deliver to the sinners of the world. The people of the town drank the preacher’s Jesus Juice, too, because instead of trying to help Calhoun get the nitro safely back to the cave-in, they actively sabotage him! The sheriff refuses to allow the nitro on the train because it passes through a few towns on the way, and the train could explode and take the towns with it. Huh? Isn’t the train the safest and smoothest method? No, a rickety wagon across dirt roads is clearly the better option! Big thanks also go out to the guy who sold them the wagon, for unscrewing one of the caps holding a wagon wheel on, making the journey that much more dangerous.

The preacher has a daughter and as you might expect, she has been brought up under the sheltered wing of the word of God. She develops feelings for Barnabas over the course of the episode, but she’s scared to venture into unknown territory. While I was watching this all seemed unrelated to the struggle at hand, but it later dawned on me that she was the polar opposite to little Georgy who started off this whole mess. His parents weren’t watching him at all, and clearly didn’t shelter him enough so that he would learn to avoid the about-to-explode tunnel. The world is a scary place, filled with danger, and it should be feared and respected. But when done to extreme it becomes irrational and ridiculous. I’m not sure the writers intended this little buried life lesson, but it’s the only explanation I have for the way the story plays out.

In any case, for all its damnation and explosions, Volcano Wagon was a dud.

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