Major John David Harkness (George Peppard) is the commander of Fort Bravo, a small and ill-equipped frontier fort. Despite having only 77 soldiers and not many supplies, Harkness has managed to keep an uneasy peace between the local Indian tribes and the settlers who move through the area. The peace, however, is disturbed when an arrogant wagon master (Pernell Roberts) kills the son of the tribal chief.
That’s not all that Harkness has to worry about. A German outlaw (Bo Svenson) is hiding out at the camp. His head scout (L.Q. Jones) suspects that something is forcing the local tribes out of the area. Two settlers from Missouri (played by Barry Brown and Belinda Montgomery) are at the fort and trying to decide whether they should continue westward or return to Missouri. Finally, Harkness’s 12 year-old son, Peter (Vincent Van Patten), has been expelled from his New England boarding school and is being sent to Fort Bravo to live with his father. When Major Harkness refuses to turn the wagon master over to the Indians, they kidnap his son instead.
The Bravos was made for television and originally aired on ABC in 1972. It was apparently meant to serve as the pilot for a television series, one that would have followed the daily adventures of the Major, his son, and all of the men at Fort Bravo (who were played by television mainstays like Dana Elcar, Randolph Mantooth, and George Murdock.) For all intents and purposes, Pernell Roberts, Bo Svenson, Belinda Montgomery, and Barry Brown are all “special guest stars” and are meant to serve as examples of the type of television-friendly actors who would visit Fort Bravo on a weekly basis. That the pilot didn’t lead to a series isn’t surprising. TV westerns may have dominated the ratings in the 50s and the 60s but they quickly went out of fashion in the 70s as networks realized that they could make more money selling ad space for Norman Lear sitcoms and cop shows. In the 70s, the people that advertisers were wanting to reach were watching Archie Bunker and Starsky and Hutch, not George Peppard.
Because of its TV origins, The Bravos is a fairly bland western. It would be a few years before George Peppard would reinvent himself as a grizzled character actor and he’s sincere but fairly dull here. Pernell Roberts is more effective as the headstrong wagon master and perhaps The Bravos would have worked better if Roberts and Peppard had switched roles. In the end, the main reason to see the film is for the chance to see L.Q. Jones play a heroic role for once. A member of Sam Peckinpah’s stock company, Jones brings some authentic grit to his role as the fort’s only scout. Jones played a lot of villains but I always preferred him as one of the good guys.
The Bravos ends with a few major subplots unresolved. Maybe they would have been resolved during the show’s first season but it was not to be.