The Tall Men—Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan, Cameron Mitchell, Juan Garcia, Emile Meyer (1955; Dir: Raoul Walsh)
Title card: “Montana Territory – 1866. They came from the South, headed for the goldfields… Ben and Clint Allison, lonely and desperate men. Riding away from a heartbreak memory of Gettysburg. Looking for a new life. A story of tall men – and long shadows.”
Brothers Ben (Clark Gable) and Clint Allison (Cameron Mitchell), Texans and Confederate veterans, find themselves in Mineral City, Montana, in 1866 during a blizzard. Ben, who is often referred to as “Colonel” throughout the movie, rode with Quantrill during the war, and the brothers have not found their way home, nor have they found a purpose or much money. They see Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan) with $20,000 and try to rob him. In return, he makes a counter-proposal. He wants to buy cattle in Texas at $3 to $4 a head and drive them to Mineral City, where he can get $50 a head for them. They decide to join Stark in that enterprise.
The three ride south toward Texas and find themselves in Colorado Territory during another blizzard. They encounter a starving migrant group including Nella Turner (Jane Russell), share a meal and keep moving. They find Sioux sign a bit later; Stark and Clint keep moving toward Bent’s trading post; Ben goes back to warn the migrants. The Sioux find them first, and the only survivor is Nella. Ben and Nella wait out the storm in a cabin and trade stories. Ben’s dream is to start his own ranch on “Prairie Dog Creek” in Texas. Nella has grown up on a hardscrabble ranch and wants no more of that life, although the two are attracted to each other. Eventually they make it to San Antonio, Texas, where they are reunited with Stake and Clint.
Ben as the trail boss hires former Confederates and mostly vaqueros headed by Luis (Juan Garcia) to drive 5000 cattle the 1500 miles to Montana. Nella hooks up with Stark, who promises her half of the Montana Territory. Stark brings her along on the trail drive over Ben’s objections, so she’s a continuing source of tension between the two. As they approach Kansas, Jayhawkers demand $1 per head to allow the herd to pass, and Stark is inclined to pay it. Ben isn’t, and the drovers shoot it out with the Jayhawkers with no casualties to themselves.
As they move on toward Wyoming, there are increasing signs of Indian trouble. It is the middle of Red Cloud’s War, and the army in Wyoming Territory won’t let the herd keep going up the Bozeman Trail to the Montana mining towns. Stark is inclined to turn the herd back to Abilene and sell it there; Ben wants to push ahead notwithstanding Red Cloud’s Sioux. As usual, Ben wins. Meanwhile, Clint is drinking more and there is bad blood between Clint and Stark. During one confrontation, Stark demonstrates that he is better with a gun than Clint. While riding point, Clint is killed by Indians, and Ben finds his arrow-filled body tied to a tree.
Ben and Stark find their way blocked by the hostile Sioux. In a stirring sequence, Ben and his men stampede the herd through the Indians, and they soon find themselves outside of Mineral City. Stark goes in to sell the cattle, and Ben follows with the herd. At Stark’s office in the back room of a saloon, Stark divides up the money and then invites the local vigilance committee to take and hang Ben. Ben reciprocates with the support of his more numerous vaqueros, and makes good his exit with his share of the money and Stark’s reluctant admiration. Obviously the two never trusted each other, although they worked together on the long ride from Montana to Texas and the drive back north.
Nathan Stark to the vigilantes: “There goes the only man I ever respected. He’s what every boy thinks he’s going to be when he grows up and wishes he had been when he’s an old man.”
As Ben arrives back at the camp preparing to head back to Texas, he finds Nella there. She has decided Texas ranching with Ben is more to her taste than half of Montana Territory with Stark.
Clark Gable turns in a strong performance as trail boss Ben Allison. Robert Ryan’s Nathan Stark is written to be stiff and not very sympathetic, although he is presumably one of the tall men of the title. His final comment on Ben Allison (above) seems heavy-handed and unnecessary. Jane Russell is not a very good actress, and the time given to development of her character during the movie slows things down. Her recurrent singing quickly becomes tiresome. The part needed either to be smaller or to have a better actress. Russell does not manage to be interesting even during the obligatory bathing-in-the-river scene.
This is not one of director Raoul Walsh’s better westerns, but there are some good touches. For example, the lowering of wagons down cliffs reminds us of a similar scene from Walsh’s The Big Trail twenty-five years earlier. The stampede-through-the-Indians scene is stirring. This cattle drive western is obviously reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ Red River, and interestingly Hawks’ younger brother William is a producer on this film. The screenwriters are Sidney Boehm and the veteran Frank Nugent (who often worked with John Ford), and the writing is mostly unremarkable. The excellent music is by Victor Young (Wells Fargo , North West Mounted Police , Rio Grande , Johnny Guitar  and most memorably Shane ), who died the next year at the age of 56. It was shot in color around Durango, Mexico, which is why some of the trail drive scenes look more like desert than they should for the northern plains.
Although Gable is quite watchable in this, none of his westerns turn out to be all that memorable. He didn’t appear in westerns until the 1950s, when they were more respectable than they had been earlier in his career. He was a mountain man in the poorly edited Across the Wide Missouri (1951), and Lone Star (1952) was better. A King and Four Queens (1957), also directed by Walsh toward the end of his career, is at best undistinguished and not much seen these days.
Based on a novel by Clay Fisher, this is obviously also based on the real-life trail drive of Nelson Story from Texas to Montana in 1866, during Red Cloud’s War. The real Nelson Story seems to have been more admirable than Nathan Stark, although he had his hard edges, too. There are some historical anomalies. If Ben and Clint Allison rode with Quantrill, for example, they never came anywhere close to Gettysburg during the war, although they refer to it. Presumably the town of Mineral City is standing in for the western Montana mining towns of Virginia City and Bannack, which were about the only parts of Montana inhabited in 1866. Those towns had memorable vigilantes, too. The story of a trail drive from Texas to Montana has been depicted much better and with much more complexity in Lonesome Dove, of course.H