Tag Archives: Cattle Drives

Cattle Empire

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 1, 2015

Cattle Empire—Joel McCrea, Gloria Talbott, Don Haggerty, Phyllis Coates, Bing Russell, Richard Shannon, Paul Brinegar (1958; Dir: Charles Marquis Warren)

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In the opening scenes of this late Joel McCrea cattle drive story, John Cord (McCrea) is being dragged through the streets of Hamilton by irate citizens as, bit by bit, his backstory emerges.  He has been just let out of Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona after serving a five-year sentence.  An experienced trail boss, his men had gotten out of control and trashed Hamilton, resulting in extensive property destruction and a few deaths.  Cord himself had ended it in a brawl with local cattle baron Ralph Hamilton (Don Haggerty), from which Hamilton had emerged blind but married to Cord’s one-time fiancée Janice (Phyllis Coates) after Cord had been sent off to prison.

Now Hamilton has sent for Cord for his trail boss skills, at a time when Cord has few other choices. The town has never recovered and is on the verge of blowing away in a drought.  Hamilton thinks Cord is tough enough to get a combined local herd of 4000 cattle to market at Ft. Clemson, at a time when water is even harder than usual to find.  They have to get there first to win an army contract.  There’s also a rival herd managed by another cattle baron Garth (Richard Shannon), which Cord also agrees to lead.  It’s not clear what Cord’s game is, other than various unresolved feelings of revenge—against Ralph Hamilton, Janice Hamilton and various of the townsfolk.  Aside from Ralph Hamilton, the only citizens who treat Cord decently are the aging brothers George Washington Jeffrey (Hal K. Dawson) and Thomas Jefferson Jeffrey (Paul Brinegar), who join the trail drive along with G.W.’s granddaughter Sandy (Gloria Talbott) and a number of other more or less resentful cattlemen.

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John Cord (Joel McCrea) drinks with the Jeffrey brothers (Hal Dawson and Paul Brinegar), two of the few friends he has left in town.

As matters get sorted out, Cord drops out of Garth’s drive, telling him to head for Horsethief Creek because there’s no water at the Dismal River.  Garth suspects that Cord is now trying to distract him and heads for the Dismal; in fact, Cord has been straight with Garth and is taking the Hamilton herd to Horsethief Creek.  Slowly relations with the Hamiltons and the townsfolk develop.  Hamilton offers Cord his ranch and cattle empire (and even Janice, by implication) for getting them through.  Janice in some ways regrets her faithlessness to Cord, and it is unclear how far matters between them go before the ultimate resolution.  It looks like they go quite a way, which was unusual for both a 1950s western and for a Joel McCrea character.  Sandy evinces some romantic interest in Cord, even though he seems significantly too old for her.

Needless to say, Cord gets the herd through.  [Spoilers follow.]  But Garth, thinking Cord was trying to slow down his herd, went to the DIsmal River and lost his herd.  He has now hired gunhands to take away the Hamilton herd at Indian Pass, before they can get to Fort Clemson.  Ralph Hamilton confesses that five years ago, when Cord beat his herd to market, it was he who had turned Cord’s hands loose on the town and started the fight with Cord.  Now Cord has to save the herd from Garth’s gunmen and shoot it out in traditional fashion with Garth himself.  As he leaves, it seems that rather than taking Ralph’s offer Cord will head for new ground in the northwest… and will come back for Sandy.

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It takes a tough trail boss (Joel McCrea) to get the herd to market.

Director Charles Marquis Warren was known more for his screenwriting than for his directorial abilities, although he did direct a few other westerns, of which Trooper Hook (also starring McCrea) and 1956’s Tension at Table Rock (with Richard Egan) are probably the best.  He then moved almost entirely into television work.  That this is worth watching at all is due almost entirely to Joel McCrea, who’s a little more morally evasive than normal for him; otherwise the writing is undistinguished and the acting (other than McCrea) is unremarkable.  The romantic triangle between McCrea, Coates and Talbott is interesting but seems at least partially unresolved.  As noted before, the McCrea-Talbott age difference is obviously significant, but, like Gary Cooper and John Wayne, Joel McCrea could make it work out believably.  The story seems unbalanced, with a lot of development of the various Cord-Hamilton-citizenry resentments and motivations and not enough of the actual arduous drive.  It might have benefited from another 12-20 minutes of cattle drive, if it was done well.  The film obviously utilizes a lot of stock footage during the cattle drive.

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The geography of the film is a little hazy.  Cord had been in prison at Yuma, making it seem like Arizona Territory.  But there are also references to the Staked Plains and to arriving at the Pecos, which sounds like maybe Texas-New Mexico.  Fort Clemson, the ultimate destination of the drive, is apparently fictional.  Fans of cattle drive westerns will note that there are several of the standard vicissitudes of trail drives missing here:  no stampedes with related deaths, no bad storms and bad weather interludes, no Indian raids and such.  That’s one reason the drive itself seems a bit light.  McCrea gives a speech about how the hardest part of the drive is coming up between them and Horsethief Creek, and, with the next scene cut, the herd’s at Horsethief Creek without any of the hard going.  It’s not the best of late McCrea westerns, but he makes it worth watching.  Not to be confused with Cattle Drive, another McCrea cattle drive western from earlier in the 1950s.  For the greatest of cattle drive westerns, see Lonesome Dove and Red River.

Shot in color in the Alabama Hills around Lone Pine, at 83 minutes.  This is not often seen these days, since it’s not available on DVD in the United States.  The year following this film, three members of the cast (Paul Brinegar, Steve Raines and Rocky Shahan) joined the television trail drive western Rawhide, with Eric Fleming as trail boss Gill Favor, a young Clint Eastwood as segundo Rowdy Yates, and writer-producer Charles Marquis Warren in control of the series.

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In Pursuit of Honor

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 3, 2014

In Pursuit of Honor—Don Johnson, Craig Sheffer, Rod Steiger, Gabrielle Anwar, Bob Gunton, John Dennis Johnston, James B. Sikking (Made for Television, 1995; Dir: Ken Olin)

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This is a cavalry movie but an unusual one, in the sense that it is set in the 1930s and deals with the death of the cavalry as the army moved from horses to more mechanized forms of equipment.  As it did so, the move affected cavalry veterans who had spent their careers (and perhaps lives) in partnership with horses.  This is one of those films “based on a true story,” which usually means there’s a strong element of fiction to it.  Here, it’s almost all fictional.

Some of these cavalry veterans are part of the unit under the command of Major John Hardesty (Bob Gunton), given the responsibility in 1932 to deal with Hoover’s Bonus Marchers in Washington, D.C.  Many of these marchers were veterans of World War I, who had set up an encampment for the homeless to draw attention to their plight in the midst of the Great Depression.  Under orders from Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur (James Sikking), Hardesty’s cavalry approaches them with drawn sabers to sweep them from the encampment.  [This part about using cavalry against the Bonus Marchers at MacArthur’s orders is factual.]  Several long-time cavalrymen, including Sgt. John Libbey (Don Johnson) and Sgt. Thomas Mulcahey (John Dennis Johnston) return to their barracks rather than participate in such an action against their fellow veterans, and are thereafter exiled to a remote Texas base.

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Top Sergeant John Libbey (Don Johnson) and Lt. Marshall Buxton (Craig Sheffer).

Cut to two years later in Texas, where young Jessica Stuart (Gabrielle Anwar), on her way to the army base commanded by her father, Col. Owen Stuart, almost drives over a young man in the middle of a sandstorm.  He turns out to be Lt. Marshall Buxton (Craig Sheffer), a West Point graduate and son of a former cavalry general, who is in disgrace for punching a superior officer who was mistreating a horse.  Stuart is retiring to Tucson, Arizona, and is being replaced by now-Col. Hardesty.  Hardesty has orders from MacArthur to modernize the unit, which involves getting rid of 500 cavalry mounts.  Specifically, Lt. Buxton is in charge of the men ordered to drive the horses into northern Mexico, where machine gun emplacements and riflemen are set up to slaughter the horses.

After the first hundred horses are driven into a pit and gunned down, Buxton rebels.  Supported by Libbey, Mulcahey and two other long-time cavalry sergeants, they disobey orders and drive the horses north into Arizona–stealing them, in effect, as well as disobeying orders.  Buxton rides to Tucson, where he gets maps and support from the Stuarts.  Jessica Stuart is a reporter, but no U.S. newspaper will tell the story of this incident.  She uses her contacts with a British publication to get the story out.  Col. Stuart, now retired, goes to Washington to try to get MacArthur to change his orders.

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Sgt. Mulcahey (John Dennis Johnston) makes a break for it.

The cavalrymen take their herd of the remaining 400 horses northward into the White Mountains to try to figure out what to do with them.  Their half-baked plan is to take them to Montana onto Indian lands near the Canadian border, where the army can’t go.  Meanwhile, Hardesty pursues with two units:  a mechanized column that has to stick to actual roads, and a horse-mounted unit that Buxton and his group have to keep avoiding.

Stuart hasn’t much luck even getting to see MacArthur.  He is mostly shown working with a map that delineates the progress of the horses as they move northward, pursued by Hardesty.  Buxton is inexperienced, but he is supported by the sergeants, especially Libbey, often referred to as “top,” as in top sergeant.  Although they maintain their military organization, it is clear that everything is done by consent, and they all buy in.

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Buxton (Craig Sheffer, left) and his sergeants try to figure how to get into Canada.

[Spoilers follow.]  Finally in Montana, they are accidentally discovered by Hardesty’s cavalry.  That unit has orders to shoot to kill, and Mulcahey gets a bullet in the back as he tries to escape. The sergeant of the cavalry unit stops them to bury Mulcahey with full field honors, to the consternation of the officer who had shot him.  It becomes obvious the fleeing horses won’t make it to Indian land without being cut off, and Buxton and his herd head for Canada instead.  At the border they encounter (a) the pursuing cavalry with artillery, with their orders to shoot to kill, (b) Hardesty and his mechanized unit, accompanied by Jessica Stuart, and (c) a unit of Canadian Mounties facing them across the border.  As they make a final sprint for the border, the cavalry unit arranges artillery to fire at them, but the sergeant makes sure the artillery fires high and wide.  Hardesty divulges that he has tried to get MacArthur to change his orders, to no effect.  He receives word that Pres. Franklin Roosevelt has pardoned Buxton and his men.  As Buxton and his remaining sergeants cross the border, the Mounties seem to accept them.  Libbey goes on the the Klondike, and Buxton says he’s going back to face court martial, and perhaps Jessica Stuart.

Craig Sheffer (A River Runs Through It, The Desperate Trail) is decent as Lt. Buxton, but the performance that makes this work is Don Johnson as Sgt. John Libbey, hard-bitten, flinty, tough and motivated by his notions of military and personal honor.  John Dennis Johnston is very good as Sgt. Mulcahey as well.  Bob Gunton makes Col. Hardesty seem like an officious military bureaucrat with no heart, until the very end.  Rod Steiger’s Col. Owen Stuart has an unexplained faux-Irish accent, and Gabrielle Anwer seems too young for the independent reporter she’s supposed to be.  She is not yet the actress she will become later in her career.  Douglas MacArthur and the order-following leader of the pursuing cavalry are the villains, to the extent there are villains.

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Artillery sets up to blast the horses as they near the Canadian border.

This is better than one would expect, but it’s not perfect.  The pursuit from the White Mountains of Arizona to Montana seems like it takes place in one day, although it would have taken weeks.  The filmmakers needed to find a more effective way to depict the sheer length and effort of such a drive northward.  Sheffer’s Buxton sometimes seems confused (as a real young lieutenant would have been) but strangely confident at other times.  Still, it’s worth watching, although it raises questions about the factual background.  Filmed in color in Australia, at 111 minutes.

If the names of the sergeants seem familiar, it’s because they often show up in John Ford cavalry movies (Fort Apache, etc.).  For another western featuring young officers (Jason Patric and Matt Damon) balancing honor against an inflexible military structure, see Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993).

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Cattle Drive

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 3, 2014

Cattle Drive—Joel McCrea, Dean Stockwell, Chill Wills, Howard Petrie, Leon Ames (1951; Dir: Kurt Neumann)

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Neglected poor little rich boy Chester Graham, Jr., is the son of a railroad owner who never has time for him.  In a western desert, spoiled young Chester (Dean Stockwell) manages to get left by a train at a watering stop, and he wanders until found by Dan Matthews (Joel McCrea), who’s chasing wild stallion Midnight while on a cattle drive to Santa Fe.

It’s a fairly conventional story in which Chet learns about people, responsibility, fairness and such while growing up a little bit on the trail.  Color is lent by loquacious chuckwagon cook Dallas (Chill Wills) and responsibility by trail boss Cap (Howard Petrie) as well as Dan.  Periodically, Dan and Chet pursue Midnight again, so Dan can start his own horse herd.  They actually catch him once, but he gets away.

By trail’s end, not only has Chet grown up some, but father Chester Sr. (Leon Ames) is trying to turn over a new leaf as a parent, too.  Father and son go off with Dan to pursue Midnight yet again.  There’s not one female role, although Dan shows a picture of a girl he hopes to marry in Santa Fe (the photo is McCrea’s real life wife Frances Dee, who never shows up in person).  Even the bad-ish guy Curry isn’t very bad, so much as contrary.

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Shot In color, mostly in Death Valley.  Pretty short at 77 minutes.  Kind of like Cowboy, with an Easterner being taught western ways on the drive, and a lot like Captains Courageous, with a boy learning the ways of men.  Not as complex as either, though.  McCrea and Stockwell had worked together the previous year in Stars in My Crown.

For Joel McCrea in another cattle drive movie from later in the 1950s, see Cattle Empire.  For Joel McCrea and wife Frances Dee actually together on screen, see the underrated Four Faces West.  For cattle drive westerns generally, see our post Cattle Drive Westerns.

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Cattle Drive Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 29, 2014

Cattle Drive Westerns

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‘Steers to Market’ by Maynard Dixon, 1936.

Just as one of the iconic figures of the American west is the cowboy, one of the iconic western stories is the cattle drive, depicting the romance and skills involved in moving cattle from one place to another, usually to market in some form.  The drive is often accompanied by hardships and adventures of various sorts: nasty weather, floods, Indians, outlaws, stampedes, lack of water, etc.  The prototypical cattle drive story is north from Texas to Dodge City (Dodge City, Red River), Abilene or even as far as Montana (The Tall Men, Lonesome Dove).  Sometimes the drive involves an unusual location, such as Canada (The Cariboo Trail), Alaska (The Far Country), Australia (Australia) or even the East (Alvarez Kelly).  Sometimes the story of the drive is accompanied by another typical story, such as the-tenderfoot-comes-west (Cowboy, City Slickers) or a coming of age tale in which a young man or men grow up while learning the ways of the trail and the west (Cattle Drive, The Culpepper Cattle Co., The Cowboys, Lonesome Dove).  Sometimes the animals being driven are horses (The Man From Snowy River, Broken Trail).  Among the movies featuring cattle drives are some of the very greatest westerns (Red River, The Cowboys, Lonesome Dove, Open Range, Broken Trail).

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Nevada (1936)
The Texans–Scott (1938)
Dodge City–Flynn (1939)
Arizona—Arthur, Holden (1940)
Texas (1941)
The Old Chisholm Trail (1942)
Red River—Wayne, Clift, Dru (1948; Dir: Hawks)
The Cariboo Trail—Scott (1950)
The Showdown—Elliott, Brennan (1950)
Cattle Drive—McCrea, Stockwell (1951)
The Far Country—Stewart, Brennan (Dir: Mann)
The Tall Men—Gable, Ryan (1955; Dir: Walsh)
Canyon River—Montgomery (1956; Dir: Jones)
Cowboy—Ford, Lemmon (1958; Dir: Daves)
Cattle Empire—McCrea (1958; Dir: Warren)
The Sundowners—Mitchum, Kerr (sheep, 1960; Dir: Zinneman)
The Last Sunset—R. Hudson, K. Douglas (1961)
Alvarez Kelly—Holden, Widmark (1966)
The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972)
The Cowboys—Wayne, Dern (1972)
Lonesome Dove—Duvall, Jones (1989; Dir: Wincer)
City Slickers—Crystal, Palance (1991)
Open Range—Duvall, Costner (2003; Dir: Costner)
Australia—Jackman, Kidman (2008)

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Thomas Haden Church and Robert Duvall in Broken Trail.

Horse Drive Westerns

Wild Stallion (1952)
Gunman’s Walk (1958)
The Undefeated (1969)
The Man from Snowy River (1982)
Return to Snowy River (1988)
Wrangler (1989)
In Pursuit of Honor (MfTV, 1995)
Broken Trail (2006)

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Gene Hackman, James Coburn et al. in Bite the Bullet.

Endurance Horse Races

Bite the Bullet (1975)
Hidalgo (2004)

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The Tall Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 28, 2014

The Tall Men—Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan, Cameron Mitchell, Juan Garcia, Emile Meyer (1955; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)

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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.

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Ben (Clark Gable) and Nella (Jane Russell) waiting out the blizzard.

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.

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Clint (Cameron Mitchell), Ben (Clark Gable) and Stark (Robert Ryan) face Jayhawkers at the Kansas border.

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.

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Ben finds himself in a stand-off with Stark’s vigilantes in Mineral City.

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.

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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 HawksRed 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 [1937], North West Mounted Police [1940], Rio Grande [1950], Johnny Guitar [1954] and most memorably Shane [1953]), 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

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The Showdown

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 25, 2014

The Showdown—William Elliott, Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, Jim Davis, Marie Windsor, Rhys Williams, Yakima Canutt, Charles Stevens (1950; Dirs:  Dorrell McGowan and Stuart McGowan)

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Not a terribly meaningful title for a cattle drive movie.  Stoic actor Wild Bill Elliott starred in a lot of B-type westerns and crime stories in the late 1940s and 1950s, including several as Red Ryder, but he was kind of stone-faced and not very charismatic.  If you want to watch one of his westerns to see what he was about, you could do worse than trying this one. 

William (Wild Bill) Elliott is Shadrach Jones, an ex-Texas State Policeman looking for his brother’s killer.  The movie opens with Jones digging up his brother’s body, to find that he’d been shot in the back with a small-caliber gun.  Figuring the killer to be one of the hands on a trail drive to Montana, he signs on as the trail boss for owner Cap MacKellar (Walter Brennan) of the Circle K after he has to kill Big Mart (Leif Erickson), the existing foreman.  Marie Windsor (queen of the B-movies) is Adelaide, saloon owner and partner to MacKellar, with perhaps a romantic interest in Jones.  She shows up to go on the drive, theoretically to protect her investment but really to have a female on screen through the movie.

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Adelaide (Marie Windsor) and Shadrach Jones (William Elliott).

[Spoilers follow.]  The drive has the usual vicissitudes (stampedes and related deaths), with the added element of somebody killing various participants as the drive moves along.  Finally an accident gives MacKellar a mortal injury and he admits that he did the shooting of Jones’ brother, leaving a number of loose ends in the plot. 

There are some spots where the background is too obviously painted, and the supporting cast is stronger than the lead.  Walter Brennan gives the best performance in the film as McKellar, the owner of the herd.  Charles Stevens (grandson of Geronimo) is another of his Indian Joe characters.  Harry Morgan is good as Rod Main, a gunhand hostile to Jones from the start.  Rhys Williams is Chokecherry, the one-handed cook and chuckwagon driver.  On the whole this seems slightly better than a B movie, with a better than average script.  A Republic film with a low budget and some noir elements, but it’s better than it deserves to be.  Black and white, 86 minutes. 

Not to be confused with either Showdown (1963) with Audie Murphy, or Showdown (1973) with Rock Hudson, Dean Martin and Susan Clark.  Not to mention Fury at Showdown, Showdown at Boot Hill, etc.

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The Cariboo Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 12, 2014

The Cariboo Trail—Randolph Scott, Gabby Hayes, Bill Williams, Karin Booth (1950; Dir:  Edward L. Marin)

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The plot for this resembles Anthony Mann’s better known The Far Country, which would follow in a couple of years.  A cattleman takes a herd north to mining country in western Canada, only to encounter trouble from a corrupt town boss and his minions, while developing romantic interests with both a woman who runs a saloon and a more plebeian but more obviously honest young woman.  In this case, the cattleman is Jim Redfern (Randolph Scott, at the height of his box office appeal), bringing a small herd to the wild gold strike country of British Columbia with Mike Evans (Bill Williams), and a Chinese chuck wagon cook (Lee Tung Foo). 

Refusing to pay an exorbitant toll on a bridge, they stampede their herd across and meet prospector Grizzly Winters (Gabby Hayes).  The town is run by Frank Walsh (Victor Jory), a bookkeeper-looking boss with more obvious gunmen around him.  Walsh’s men rustle the cattle, and Evans loses an arm in the stampede.  Redfern and Evans find some sympathy with Frances Harrison (Karin Booth), who owns the Gold Palace and has refused to sell out to Walsh. 

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Getting the wounded Evans (Bill Williams) to a doctor.

Although he’s a novice prospector, Redfern finds a gold strike, which he uses to buy into a large herd being brought in from the south.  (The foreman of this new herd is Will Gray, played by Dale Robertson.)  Meanwhile, the embittered Evans both joins and fights Walsh, while he blames Redfern for the loss of his arm.  In the resolution, Walsh’s men try to stampede the new herd, and Evans leads miners to the rescue but is killed. 

In color, but a curiously flat color.  The plot’s not as coherent as it might be, and the end is abrupt.  Serviceable, but not as good as The Far Country or Scott’s later work with Budd Boetticher.  This is Hayes’ final film, and he’s not as obnoxious as in some of his earlier Roy Rogers vehicles.

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Promise the Moon

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 8, 2014

Promise the Moon—Henry Czerny, Collette Stevenson, Aidan Devine, Shawn Ashmore, David Fox, Gloria May Eshkibok (Made for television, 1996; Dir:  Ken Jubenvill)

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Better than most of the lower-profile and made-for-television western productions in the last twenty years or so.  The title doesn’t tell you much about this western.  It’s set in the ranch lands of western Canada of the 1920s. It’s still frontier, to a significant degree, and the financial times are hard.

Wilbur Bennett (Richard Donat) owns the Four Arrows ranch and is suffering health and financial problems.  With his dying request, he sends his foreman Royal Leckner (Henry Czerny) to Chicago to collect his long-neglected and presumably mentally-impaired 15-year-old son Leviatus (Shawn Ashmore) from a sanitarium, where he has been since birth.  There Leckner finds the young man surviving under deplorable conditions, with Sophie Twelvetrees (Gloria May Eshkibok), an Objibway woman who is also a patient, as his only protector.  The three of them ride in a cattle car back to Canada. 

Meanwhile Jane Makepeace (Colette Stevenson), a prim young Englishwoman who has been serving as a secretary to unscrupulous banker Sir Robert Butler (David Fox), declines his advances and has to find another situation for herself.  Desperate, she takes her accounting and business skills to the Four Arrow ranch, where she hopes to make herself necessary and maybe even get paid by helping them put their business affairs in order.  She also becomes the intermediary for Sophie and Levi to Leckner and the rest of the world. 

PromiseMoon2 Facing bleak futures.

The remainder of the movie centers around whether Jane will be allowed to stay, whether Levi will ever become functional and whether Leckner will succeed in keeping the ranch afloat financially and out of the clutches of the nasty banker.  Also on the fringes is Wilbur’s brother James Bennett (Aidan Devine) who feels aggrieved by the very existence of young Levi and is nefariously helping nasty banker Butler behind the scenes. 

It turns out Levi is deaf, not mentally deficient.  Leckner, Levi, Makepeace and associated ranchers make a cattle drive to Pendleton to produce the money they need to keep the bank and Butler at bay.  The ending is much as you’d expect, but with an interesting shootout in a hospital.

The story has something of a Hallmark feel about it, since it’s about the formation of a family by a group of unrelated strangers and has an interesting and, to some extent, unexpected (by everyone except the viewers, who are thinking “Why else would we be watching this?”) romance at its core.  But it plays out well, and the central performances by Czerny and Stevenson make the film better than anticipated.  And the pacing, editing and storytelling are good here, too.  Based on the book The Four Arrows Fe-As-Ko by Randall Beth Platt.  Filmed in Canada.

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This is an unheralded and underrated Canadian production, somewhat like The Grey Fox and Gunless in that respect.  They’re also worth more attention.

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Cowboy

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 21, 2014

Cowboy—Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, Brian Donlevy, Victor Manuel Mendoza, Richard Jaeckel, Strother Martin (1958; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Tom Reese:  “And all that hogwash about horses!  The loyalty of the horse!  The intelligence of the horse!  The intelligence?  You know a horse has a brain just about the size of a walnut.  They’re mean, they’re treacherous and they’re stupid.  There isn’t a horse born that had enough sense to move away from a hot fire.  No sensible man loves a horse.  He tolerates the filthy animal only because riding is better than walking.”

This is a standard tenderfoot-and-cattle drive story with a good cast.  Hard-bitten Tom Reese (Glenn Ford, at the peak of his career as a leading man) is a cattleman who buys his cattle in Mexico (Guadalupe, on the trip in this movie), drives them north to Wichita to the railroad and then sells them in Chicago. 

CowboyMendozaReeseMendoza and Reese on the trail.

As the movie opens, Reese and his men are arriving at a luxurious Chicago hotel to spend a week or more enjoying the cash from the most recent sale.  Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon, just entering his period as a major leading man) is a night clerk at the hotel and harbors romantic notions of the cowboy life, in addition to an infatuation with the daughter of the major Mexican cattleman in Guadalupe.  In a hard night of gambling, Reese loses more money than he expected to and borrows Harris’ bankroll of $3800, agreeing to make Harris his partner in the next cattle drive.  The next morning when Reese tries to return the money, Harris is adamant that he wants to stick with the deal for partnership and has quit his job at the hotel.

There are the usual cattle drive episodes:  the stampede, snakes, raiding Comanches (meaning this had to be before 1876 or so, when Comanches were put on a reservation in Oklahoma), fights in bars, tenderfoot riding the wild bronc and such.  Harris is the tenderfoot in question, and he grows in both trail skills and responsibility, as he and Reese have a falling-out over how to handle the men, and Reese is badly wounded by the Comanches.  It turns out the young Mexican woman is now the wife in a marriage arranged by her parents, devastating Harris.  By the time they return to Chicago with the cattle, Reese and Harris have established a mutual respect and perhaps a continuing partnership. 

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The supporting actors here are good, particularly Brian Donlevy in one of his last screen roles.  Donlevy plays Doc Bender, an aging former marshal of Wichita and gunhand trying to figure out where he fits into the increasingly civilized west and what his connections are while he makes a few bucks as a cowboy.  Strother Martin and Richard Jaeckel are also good as trail hands, and Victor Manuel Mendoza as Mendoza, the segundo to Reese.  While Ford is a natural in westerns, Lemmon isn’t, although he’s fine in the tenderfoot role.

This film looks good, bigger than most of Daves’ work.  It seems short, at around 90 minutes, with the wrapup and re-establishment of the relationship between Reese and Harris particularly abrupt.  Worth watching but not as memorable as it may seem at first.  In color, shot in New Mexico.

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Wrangler

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 5, 2014

The Wrangler (MInnamurra, Outback, The Fighting Creed)—Jeff Fahey, Tushka Bergen, Steven Vidler, Richard Moir, Shane Briant (1989; Dir:  Ian Barry)

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This slow-developing tale feels like it wanted to be a large-scale family saga, but the first hour of financial maneuvering and character development feels turgid and not entirely clear.  It didn’t have the budget, running time or editing to be a bigger story.  Set at the time of the Boer War in South Africa (ca. 1898), this is a low-profile Australian production with a largely Australian cast. 

Tushka Bergen is Alice May Richards, a once proud but now financially beleaguered rancher left on her own when her father dies.  (She’s not entirely alone, but her mother and brother aren’t much help in trying to save the ranch.)  She has to ward off a takeover of the family ranch Minnamurra by Allenby (Shane Briant), a ruthless neighboring rancher.  With the help of two men who are romantically interested in her—American businessman Ben Creed (Jeff Fahey), who turns out to be good with guns, and illiterate but expert drover Jack Donaghue (Steven Vidler)—she stages a last-minute desperation drive to get her herd of horses to a port where Lord Kitchener is willing to buy them for a price that will save her ranch and, better yet, enter into a contract for many more horses, helping to insure the continuing survival of Minnamurra. 

WranglerFaheyTushkaCreed and Alice May Richards.

Creed’s trading company has been ruined by sabotage that seems to point again to Allenby.  But the big rancher is willing to use violence to stop Alice in getting her horses to Kitchener.  Needless to say, the drive ends in triumph for Alice, and she chooses the faithful and heretofore underappreciated Creed.  Alllenby suffers no apparent punishment for his nefarious deeds other than losing his chance at Minnamurra and being dumped into a sack of grain when the horses run into the ship. 

Jeff Fahey is the only member of the cast seen much in the US (e.g., as Brian Dennehy’s principal bad guy in Silverado), and he’s pretty good here.  Not released theatrically in the US.  Filmed in New South Wales.  Short, at 92 minutes.  Cinematographer Ross Berryman won an Australian award for this.  It’s better than one might have expected, but it would have been better yet if the story had focused more on the horses and less on the financial shenanigans.  Or if it had had enough time and tight enough editing to make the Allenby shenanigans clearer. 

The main plot line is very similar to the first two-thirds of Baz Luhrman’s 2008 epic melodrama Australia.  For another story about a horse drive (this one from Oregon eastward across Idaho to north central Wyoming) to sell animals to the British for the Boer War, see Broken Trail (2006).  For another Australian horse film, see the better known The Man from Snowy River.

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