Famed frontiersman Jim Bowie (Macdonald Carey) has a close call with hostile Comanche Indians when he happens across a bedraggled and injured old adventurer by the name of Dan'l Seeger (Will Geer, who went on to play Grandpa on TV classic The Waltons). It turns out that President Andrew Jackson entrusted former congressman Dan'l to deliver a peace treaty ensuring the security of Comanche land, but someone bushwhacked the old boy and stole the precious document. All Dan'l can recall is one of his assailants wore fragrant perfume. Persuading Comanche Chief Quisima (Pedro de Cordoba) the treaty will stand, Jim rides into town with Dan'l in search of the stolen paper only to clash with the beautiful but feisty Katie Howard (Maureen O'Hara). Not only is the formidable young woman president of the town bank she also runs the local casino. To Jim's dismay, Katie and her brother Stacey (Charles Drake) are part of a large group happy to abandon peace with the Comanche so they can mine silver on their land.
Wait, so Maureen O'Hara is the villain in this western?! Well, no, not really. Essaying another of her trademark fiery Irish lasses, top-billed O'Hara sparks some amusing conflict with Macdonald Carey's bemused Jim Bowie. As the offspring of failed pioneers, Katie initially makes clear she believes struggling settlers earned the right to survive at the Comanche's expense. Yet when close contact with the worldly Bowie and his Native American friends stirs her innate sense of right and wrong she swiftly becomes a staunch advocate for interracial peace. Jim's smirking Fifties sexism gets a bit much to bear as he repeatedly threatens to spank Katie, but he also emerges as the silver-tongued voice of reason. He argues peace with Native Americans will benefit America as a whole so the government can trade with the Comanche.
The real Jim Bowie was a significant figure in American history: frontiersman, Texan folk hero and inventor of the famous Bowie knife. Indeed it is up for debate whether Bowie is more famous for sacrificing his life in defense of Texan statehood alongside fellow folk legend Davy Crockett at the battle of the Alamo in 1836 or being inducted posthumously into Blade Magazine's Cutlery Hall of Fame. Okay, maybe not. But that famous knife does figure in an amusing early scene here where Dan'l tries to take credit for inspiring its design without realizing who Jim is. Future soap opera staple Macdonald Carey essays an affable interpretation of the Bowie myth. He was soon followed by the likes of Alan Ladd in The Iron Mistress (1952), Kenneth Tobey on the seminal Walt Disney TV serial-cum-compilation movie Davy Crockett at the Alamo (1955), Richard Widmark's typically terse take on the character in John Wayne's über-patriotic The Alamo (1960) and Jason Patric in the 2004 version of the story.
Right from the tense opening scene the action in Comanche Territory is robust and rarely pauses for breath. George Sherman maintains a rattling, serial like pace. A solid journeyman, Sherman was largely active in westerns from his first film Hollywood Cowboy (1937) down to his last Big Jake (1971) co-directed with star John Wayne. He hits all the familiar notes for a horse opera, surprisingly utilizing Maureen O'Hara rather than Macdonald Carey for staple set-pieces like the big bar room brawl and wagon train chase. O'Hara also gets to perform a charming Oirish musical number that makes one wonder why no studio ever cast her in a musical? As so often with vintage westerns gorgeous Technicolor photography (in this instance by David Horsley) lend the wide vistas a sprawling majesty that is deeply evocative.
Comanche Territory is no western masterpiece to compare with films by John Ford or Anthony Mann but boasts lively, likeable characters and a witty, intelligent script by Lewis Meltzer and Oscar Brodney with a disarming semi-liberal streak. Interestingly two of Sherman's subsequent westerns, Tomahawk (1951) and War Arrow (1953), also concern heroes trying to uphold peace with Native Americans in the face of white aggression. This goes against the presumption classic westerns were all blatantly racist. Such films likely took their cue from Delmer Davies' influential Broken Arrow (1950) which featured an interracial romance between James Stewart and Debra Paget's Indian maiden. Admittedly to modern eyes casting non-Native Americans as tribal leaders strikes an awkward note. Yet while the Indians are drawn as aggressive the film at least admits they have a legitimate grievance. It articulates both their plight and that of the desperate settlers with an even hand although ultimately lays the blame on white greed. Indeed it is a rare western that climaxes with heroic Indians fighting off evil cowboys. As Dan'l remarks of the villain: "It is fellas like him that give the white man a bad name!"