Allegheny Uprising, starring John Wayne and Claire Trevor, is an overlooked Revolutionary War movie. I first watched the 1939 film as a kid on a local UHF station, but never quite realized how closely it tracked with the memoir of a colonial and Revolutionary War soldier, Colonel James Smith. So, I decided to take a look.
For a significant portion of the last century, no actor signified “the American Century,” more than John Wayne. But, in the 1930s, he was a former-stuntman-turned-B-grade-actor churning out movies as a contract player for RKO Pictures. Born in Iowa as Marion Morrison, Wayne’s family made its way to California during World War I and he eventually attended the University of Southern California as a pre-law student. When an injury sidelined his football career, he did odd jobs in Hollywood for a friend-of-a-friend, eventually taking on bit parts and extra work before getting his first starring break in The Big Trail, a 1930 epic that flopped horrendously. Morrison needed a more impressive name for the movie—Marion Morrison apparently not being heroic enough for the character he would portray. So, Morrison, still in his 20s, suggested Anthony Wayne after the Revolutionary War general himself. The studio passed on “Anthony,” but settled on John Wayne. Newly named, Morrison went back to work, settling for the lead in a bunch of forgettable westerns.
B-movies were not a career builder, but in 1939 John Ford directed Stagecoach with John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. The movie was a hit with audiences and critics. It went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards. John Wayne finally had a landmark film under his belt and was ready for bigger things. His days a contract player making B movies were over. Nonetheless, he had one more film to make in 1939. Trying to capitalize on Wayne’s screen chemistry with Claire Trevor in Stagecoach, RKO cast the two in Allegheny Uprising, based loosely on the memoirs of Colonel James Smith and the Black Boys Rebellion in the years between Pontiac’s War and the American Revolution. Trevor got top billing.
In a nutshell, Wayne plays Jim Smith, the leader of a self-appointed group of frontier militia trapped between malicious Indians to the west and dictatorial British authorities in the east. The movie opens with Smith’s exchange for French prisoners near the end of the French and Indian War. He plays a wild and wooly young man more inclined toward Indian war whoops than rejoining English society. His first words are a bit of impertinence toward British Captain Swanson, played by George Sanders. Swanson is the stereotypical British officer—or at least the 1930s American stereotype of a colonial British officer—more focused on military etiquette and rank than the realities of warfare on the frontier.
With the war nominally over, trade reopens with the Indians. Brian Donlevy, who often played a heavy in his career, is a leading merchant and Indian trader. Nominally based on George Croghan, a legendary frontier trader and explorer, Donlevy’s “Callendar” becomes the chief villain in the movie. When the Pennsylvania governor suspends the Indian trade in response to a new round of frontier violence, Callendar smuggles firearms and alcohol to the Indians under the guise of supplying the British. When Captain Swanson fails to stop the trade in illicit goods, which the locals blame for inciting the Indians to conduct raids, Jim Smith and the “Black Boys” take matters into their own hands. They pursue Indian raiding parties, intercept merchant convoys and destroy contraband goods, which Captain Swanson naturally views as an affront to Royal authority. Callendar adds fuel to the fire by destroying army goods and blaming it on Smith’s Black Boys. Naturally, the captain tries to arrest every frontiersman who questions his judgment, attitude, or confidence in Callendar. Things escalate until the frontiersmen lay siege to a British fort. Smith is eventually framed for murder, arrested, and put on trial. After Smith is acquitted, General Thomas Gage magically shows up and sorts things out, arresting Callendar and relieving Swanson, while Wayne and Claire Trevor ride off into the sunset—bound for Tennessee.
The real James Smith was born in 1737 and captured near Bedford, Pennsylvania by two Delaware Indians in 1755 while on a road-building mission to support General William Braddock’s campaign against Fort Duquesne. He was eventually adopted into a tribe and spent four years moving about the Ohio country before escaping in 1759 and returning to the Conococheague Valley, Pennsylvania, in 1760. By 1763, with the outbreak of Pontiac’s War, the settlers in the valley had decided to take security into their own hands and created a local militia unit through donations and subscriptions. It was a small company, which local leaders selected Smith to lead, also giving him authority to appoint two lieutenants. During the war, Smith and his men took to painting themselves black and dressing as Indian warriors, from whom Smith had learned quite a bit about war while an adopted captive. Eventually, Smith resigned and received an ensign’s commission in the British army, moving up to lieutenant by the time of Henry Bouquet’s expedition back into the Ohio Country. As in the movie, when trade resumed with the Indians, settlers objected to any merchants taking firearms or alcohol west of the Alleghenies. When British authorities proved unwilling or unable to stop the trade, Smith resurrected his old militia unit and imposed a kind of land-based blockade. The Black Boys ambushed a merchant convoy at Sidelong [Sideling] Hill in 1765, burning goods they deemed contraband. When the traders complained to British authorities at Fort Loudon, the commanding officer there sent a party of Highlanders after the Black Boys, captured a few, and imprisoned them in the fort. It didn’t take long before Smith claimed he had raised a superior force and camped outside Fort Loudon, where he started capturing British soldiers. Eventually, Smith and “Captain Grant” worked out a prisoner exchange.
In 1766, after hearing that the British Indian Agent, Sir William Johnson, had procured land west of the Alleghenies, Smith set out for the territory that lay between the Ohio and Cherokee Rivers with a survey party. He eventually explored everything south of Kentucky, including the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Stones Rivers. After a while, Smith’s party continued west into the Illinois Country while Smith turned for home, finally arriving in the fall of 1767.
When violence again broke out in 1769, the militia took matters into its own hands and resumed waylaying merchant convoys bound for the Ohio Country Indians. When the British took these new suspected “Black Boys” into custody at Fort Bedford, Smith resolved to break them out. He and a small group of men marched on the fort and captured it by surprise. On his way home from the event, Smith was implicated in the murder of another man, taken back to Fort Bedford, found guilty and then sent to Carlisle, lest the locals break him out of the Bedford stockade too. When the Black Boys marched on Carlisle, Smith talked them into returning home, arguing such an act would be dishonorable and that he would be acquitted when retried by a superior court. He was.
Allegheny Uprising condenses the events of 1763-1769 into six months or less, placing Smith’s trip to Tennessee at the end, rather than the middle. It also fudges his marital status, as Smith was married during most of that period. Still, specific events hew reasonably close to Smith’s memoir, first published in 1799. He could almost get a screenwriting credit. (A novel, The First Rebel, purportedly formed the basis for the movie.)
That said, Smith’s recollections are themselves suspect. Smith claimed to have kept his journal of captivity contemporaneously. It is indeed quite detailed and lengthy. The Black Boys rebellion portion of his memoir, however, is comparatively brief and contains a few errors. He remembers a Captain Grant at Fort Bedford, likely referring to Lieutenant Charles Grant at Fort Loudon. (Presumably, in the movie George Sanders’ Captain Swanson is the stand-in for Grant.) Similarly, Smith’s self-reported capture of Fort Bedford is questionable. The post’s status after the French and Indian War is ambiguous. There was a British garrison, but it never reported losing control of the fort, no matter how briefly. Of course, that’s not something any British officer would want to advertise to his superiors. So, there is room to accept Smith’s account. In all likelihood, the Black Boys portion of the memoir was composed decades after the events themselves. But, it is generally consistent with recent scholarship, such as Patrick Spero’s Frontier Rebels (W.W. Norton, 2018), and was certainly sufficient for a 1939 Hollywood production.
Unfortunately for Wayne and Trevor, the black and white Allegheny Uprising premiered a week after the Henry Fonda-Claudette Colbert Revolutionary War movie Drums Along the Mohawk. Naturally, it was in color. Worse, John Ford was the director. Drums Along the Mohawk was a success for 20th Century Fox and earned Edna May Oliver an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. RKO’s Allegheny Uprising tanked. Wayne himself called it “an awful stinker.” I always give it more credit than that, preferring it to Drums Along the Mohawk, which always seemed stiff and overwrought. So, if it pops up on your programming guide one rainy day, give it a try and meet the Black Boys as seen through the eyes of John Wayne and RKO Pictures.
James Smith, An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co, 1870, reprint).
Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, John Wayne: American, (New York: The Free Press, 1995).
Patrick Spero, Frontier Rebels: The Fight for American Independence in the American West, 1765-1776, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018).