A stretch in the cavalry

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New Mexico has long been engaged with the movie industry, beginning in the early decades of the 20th century. Some of the first silent films, dealing with tourism and the founders of the Taos art colony, are preserved in the collections of the State Archives.

Recently, I came across my file of a movie shot here in 1963. It was the film version of Roswell author Paul Horgan’s western novel “Distant Trumpet,” based on the Apache wars.

Horgan, of course, is best known not for his fiction, but for his two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, one a history of the Rio Grande, the other a biography of Archbishop Lamy.

I happen to own a file on the filming of “Distant Trumpet” because I had been hired as an extra and was able to take notes and pictures. The experience provided me some historical insights.

In May 1963, Warner Bros. posted a notice in the University of New Mexico student union seeking 100 young men with longish hair who could ride a horse in a U.S. cavalry film production. It noted that a casting call would soon be held in Gallup. I showed up on the appointed day and was fortunate to be selected for the thrill of a lifetime.

The sandy flats backed by soaring redstone cliffs east of Gallup had been selected by veteran director Raoul Walsh as the site for some of the movie’s main action scenes.

Upon arrival there, I was directed to a large wardrobe tent and issued a blue uniform plus equipment. On my shirt sleeve was a little gold insignia, indicating that I was the trumpeter for the film!

Thereafter, whenever a troop signal was needed, I was told to pretend blowing a trumpet I’d been given, and the call would be dubbed in back in Hollywood.

Owing to luck of the draw, I got to ride up front with the cavalry officers, played by professional actors and a few cowboy extras.

One of them, a “captain,” later made a memorable comment as the double-column snaked its way over the barren terrain, then stopped. He glanced over his shoulder to look back at the men in splendid formation and said seriously, “By gosh, with them, I could conquer the whole Apache nation.”

Hearing that, I was reminded of a similar belief of Gen. George A. Custer who in 1876 was convinced that he and his Seventh Cavalry could beat all the Indians on the northern plains, starting with the Sioux. Over-confidence led to the annihilation of his 225-man force at the Little Big Horn.

Director Walsh afterward made a mistake that cost him money in lost time and much aggravation. Prior to filming, Warner Bros. had gone to the Navajo capital at Window Rock, Ariz., and arranged to employ 200 Indians — men, women and children — to play the role of Apaches.

Once on location, Walsh discovered that virtually none of them spoke English. So he hired Jimmy King, an ex-Marine who had been a Navajo Code Talker in World War II. His job was to receive the director’s orders, then translate them into Navajo for the clan leader, whose people these were.

On a hot afternoon, the director was shooting a scene in which the Indian extras were acting as a large band of Apaches on the move.

A few men were on horseback, but most of the people were walking, carrying their possessions. The Navajos and Apaches are closely related, sharing similar facial features, so I thought this reenactment looked quite authentic.

Walsh wanted the Indians to move faster and told them so, curtly, which was translated by King. At once the clan leader gave a signal. All the people suddenly dropped their burdens and followed him to a stretch of high ground and sat down, where they patiently awaited further orders.

The movie director was stunned. He was accustomed to barking commands and having them promptly obeyed.

Interpreter King explained that the leader was offended and would not return until he was ready. That only happened several hours later.

Throughout, Walsh had sweated and muttered, “Don’t those Indians know how much this delay is costing us?”

The incident reminded me how many times in frontier history miscommunication between Indians and Anglos had led to unhappy results.