Tag Archives: Civil War Aftermath

Belle Starr

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 20, 2015

Belle Starr (also known as Belle Starr, The Bandit Queen)—Gene Tierney, Randolph Scott, Dana Andrews, Shepperd Strudwick, Chill Wills, Olin Howland, Louise Beavers (1941; Dir: Irving Cummings)

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Early in her career, the beautiful Gene Tierney appeared in three westerns among her first four films:  The Return of Frank James (1940), with Henry Fonda, Hudson’s Bay (1941) with Paul Muni, and this, with Randolph Scott and Dana Andrews.  Although they were all based on historical persons or events, they had precious little historical accuracy in them.  In particular, this depiction of the west’s most famous female outlaw has almost nothing to do with the historical person, playing her as a kind of Scarlett O’Hara in Missouri after the Civil War.

Scarlett, er, Belle Shirley (Gene Tierney), is a Confederate sympathizer with a lot of unused feistiness as the war ends.  We see the family home as a large-scale southern plantation, which was probably pretty rare in Missouri.  She shows her canniness by tricking ne’er-do-well thief Jasper Tench (Olin Howland) out of a stolen horse.  Her brother Edward (Shepperd Strudwick) returns from the war, as does former romantic interest Thomas Crail (Dana Andrews), now a major in the Union army and the regional military authority.  Crail is seeking former Missouri border guerillas who have not surrendered, such as Sam Starr (Randolph Scott).

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Outlaw Sam Starr (Randolph Scott) and southern sympathizer Belle Shirley (Gene Tierney) seem to be getting along well.

Belle helps Starr escape Crail’s clutches, and Crail is obliged by the occupation rules to burn down her mansion.  She flees to join Starr’s rebellion, and they fall in love and are married.  Meanwhile, Starr’s rebellion continues to grow in size.  Among the new recruits are the Cole brothers from Texas, said to have ridden with Quantrill during the war.  The Coles have fewer scruples than Starr, and they influence him to move more in the direction of robbery and murder.  Belle’s brother Edward comes to warn her about these new activities of Starr’s, and the Coles gun him down.  Belle gives back Starr’s ring and leaves.

Meanwhile, Starr plans to show up at a speech of the carpetbagger governor as a show of strength.  Belle discovers that it is a trap, with Crail’s men waiting for Starr, and she rides to warn him.  As she does, she is shot from ambush by Tench for the reward on her head. The shot is taken as a warning by Starr, and the raid is aborted.  But Starr gives himself up when he hears about Belle’s fate.  He and Belle’s mammy (Louise Beavers) see the body, but claim that it is not Belle so the venal Tench won’t get the reward.  Crail knows as well as they do that the body is Belle’s, but he plays along.

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Gene Tierney as Belle Starr; and the real Belle Starr in a full-length studio portrait probably taken in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the early 1880s.

Tierney had marvelous facial bone structure and extraordinary beauty, but she was not a great actress and this is not her best work.  (See Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and perhaps Leave Her to Heaven for that.)  The writing makes Belle often seem angrily stupid, and the whole thing makes little sense.  Scott and Andrews are good enough, and Chill Wills makes an early appearance as the outlaw Blue Duck (a strangely religious outlaw), otherwise best known on film as the principal villain in Lonesome Dove.  But none of the characters in this film bear much resemblance to their historical counterparts.

The film has distinguished writing credits, with a screenplay by Lamar Trotti (Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky) and story by Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun, Pursued, The Furies).  It just goes to show that otherwise good writers can come up with an occasional bomb.  Director Irving Cummings had been an actor from the earliest days of the movies, but was not terribly notable as a director, having done a number of unremarkable films, along with uncredited work on 1939’s Jesse James.  Music is by experienced movie composer Alfred Newman; the title music had been composed for John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln two years earlier.  The film was shot in color (so it had a good budget for 1941), at the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California, at 87 minutes.

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For a much more interesting depiction of Belle Starr on film, see Pamela Reed in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980).  Although the real Belle Starr was ugly as a mud fence, she has been played on film not only by the glamorous Tierney, but also by Jane Russell, Elsa Martinelli and Elizabeth Montgomery, among others–usually in highly fictionalized form.

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Last Stand at Saber River

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 16, 2015

Last Stand at Saber River—Tom Selleck, Suzy Amis, Keith Carradine, David Carradine, Tracey Needham, David Dukes, Rachel Duncan, Haley Joel Osment, Harry Carey, Jr., Lumi Cavazos (Made for television, 1997; Dir:  Dick Lowry)

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A story from Elmore Leonard is usually a good starting point for a western.  (See, for example, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma [original and remake], Hombre, Valdez Is Coming and Joe Kidd.)  In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot appeared in a series of westerns that were initially shown on Ted Turner’s TNT television station, with higher production values than normally seen in that medium.  Often they were based on stories from the heyday of westerns in the 1950s and 1960s by such masters as Leonard and Louis L’Amour, but also on classics by writers like Jack Schaefer (Monte Walsh).  Tom Selleck not only starred, but often took a production role in getting the movie made, as was the case with this Leonard story from the 1950s.

In early 1865 Paul Cable (Tom Selleck; we seldom hear him called anything but “Cable”) is returning from the Civil War, where he has spent four years riding with Confederate cavalry commander Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.  There are multiple references to Fort Pillow in Tennessee in 1864, where Forrest and his men committed an atrocity by gunning down more than 300 Union prisoners, most of them black soldiers.  Burned out on the war, Cable just wants to pick up his wife and children in Texas and move back to their ranch in Arizona Territory.  Cable’s wife Martha (Suzy Amis) has spent the interim as a schoolteacher and gunsmith, working with her gunsmith father (Harry Carey, Jr. in his final acting role).  It’s not easy to put the Cable family back together again.  Martha is still traumatized by the death of baby Mary three years ago, by not understanding why (and resenting that) Cable went to fight, by seeing that he’s changed while he’s been away (more willing to kill if necessary) and by being uprooted again.  Frictions in the Cable marriage are one of the basic two conflicts that flow through the story.

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The Cables (Haley Joel Osment, Suzy Amis and Tom Selleck) try to sort things out, now that Paul Cable is home from the war.

The other involves the Kidstons, a family consisting of two brothers Vern (Keith Carradine) and Duane (David Carradine) and Duane’s free-thinking daughter Lorraine (Tracey Needham).  They’re Union sympathizers (Duane had been kicked out of the Union army) who have come to dominate the area while the Cables have been gone.  When the Cables approach their own ranch house, they find it occupied by Kidston men and prostitutes; Martha shoots down two of them when they threaten Cable, and she is appalled that she did it.

Cable is jumped by two brothers of one of the deceased men; he kills one and captures the other, but eventually lets him go.  He takes his family to the general store, where Edward Janroe (David Dukes), a Confederate veteran himself, promises protection for them.  Returning to his cabin, Cable finds Lorraine Kidston there, claiming to have been thrown from her horse.  She makes it obvious he can have a dalliance with her; it is less obvious whether the attraction is real, or she’s just making mischief.  Cable politely resists in any event.

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Daughter of a gunsmith, Martha Cable (Suzy Amis) can both make and shoot guns.

[Spoilers follow.]  As news of the end of the war reaches Arizona Territory, Janroe, who has been smuggling British Enfield rifles across the border with Mexico and then sending them east to the Confederate army, volunteers to take the news to Cable.  But Janroe seems to have become unhinged by this development.  Cable is out working, and in his absence Janroe trashes the Cable cabin.  He then stops by the Kidston ranch, and shoots Duane twice, with no witnesses.  Vern Kidston thinks it’s obvious that Cable did it.

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Cable (Tom Selleck) negotiates with storekeeper Edward Janroe (David Dukes).

When Kidston and his men besiege Cable at his cabin, he’s rescued by Martha taking out yet another of their gunmen.  Cable and Vern Kidston finally talk and figure out that Janroe didn’t give Cable the news, and that if he was out that way he might have been the one to shoot Duane. Heading for the Janroe store, they find that Janroe has (a) abducted Cable’s daughter Clare (Rachel Duncan), (b) shot Luz (Lumi Cavazos), his Hispanic mistress, when she tried to stop it, and (c) taken his stock of rifles to the Mexican bandits along the border.  Cable and Vern head out in pursuit.  The rescue involves an extended chase, Vern shooting Janroe, Cable rescuing his daughter from a runaway wagon, and finally Cable fighting off the bandits and taking a wound himself.  Back at the Cable cabin, indications are that there will be peace with the remaining Kidstons and perhaps between Cable and Martha.

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Cable (Tom Selleck) is pinned down in the rocks by superior numbers.

Selleck was usually good in these high-quality made-for-television westerns, almost single-handedly bringing back the big hat that was more or less authentic to the time of the story.  (Perhaps the best example of a Selleck hat is in Quigley Down Under, which was not made for television.)  Both Suzy Amis (near the end of her acting career at only 35) and Tracey Needham have strong female roles well-integrated with the story (unusual for a western); Amis’ character is both harder-edged and more sympathetic.  David Dukes makes an effective fanatical one-armed villain.  Rachel Duncan and Haley Joel Osment as the Cable children are unusually effective, too. The Carradine brothers most famously starred together in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980) as two of the Younger brothers, but you can also see them together in The Outsider (2002), another made-for-television western.

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Keith Carradine as the more sensible Kidston brother Vern; and David Carradine as Duane.

Dick Lowry was a long-time television director, who also worked with Selleck on one of his Jesse Stone police procedurals in 2011.  This was shot in New Mexico, around Santa Fe, in color at 96 minutes.

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The Tall Stranger

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 9, 2015

The Tall Stranger—Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, Barry Kelley, Michael Ansara, Whit Bissell, Leo Gordon, George Neise, Michael Pate, Ray Teal (1957; Dir: Thomas Carr)

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The stranger of the title is played by Joel McCrea, coming toward the end of his career, and he’s a bit long in the tooth for the role he plays in this combination wagon train-range war story with a convoluted plot based on a story by Louis L’Amour.  But he is still Joel McCrea, and, like Gary Cooper, he can still hold our attention and make us forget about his age.

Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) is heading home to Bishop Valley in Colorado Territory from the Civil War, when he spots rustlers and one of them ambushes him, shooting him and killing his horse.  All he saw of his assailant was a gold-plated rifle, along with fancy spurs.  He wakes up in a wagon heading west; a wagon train had found him, and Ellen (Virginia Mayo), a widow with a young son, had found room for him.  There is some hostility toward him among members of the wagon train.   Bannon was wearing parts of a Union uniform, and most of them are southerners and former Confederates.

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Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) returns home from the war to have it out with his brother (Barry Kelley).

He finds that they are led by a man named Harper (George Neise), and, although they think they are going to California, they are far south of the normal trail, heading for Bishop Valley, from which there is no good trail farther west.  Bannon is unlikely to get much of a welcome from the local cattle baron Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelley), his half-brother.  During the recent war, Bishop’s only son Billy had joined Quantrill’s Missouri border raiders, and Bannon had led the Union cavalry that captured him, among others of Quantrill’s men.  The son had been executed.  Bannon has to fight Bishop before Bishop will listen to him at all, but Bannon persuades Bishop to give him three days to talk the wagon train into leaving the valley.

Bishop approaches the wagon train with Stark (Leo Gordon, in a rare good guy role), Bishop’s foreman, and Red.  Harper goads Red into drawing his gun and shoots him; in the melee that follows, Mrs. Judson is killed, although Bannon sees that she was shot from behind with a hollow-point bullet—the same kind with which he had been ambushed.  Ellen is bathing in a stream when she is attacked by Zarata (Michael Ansara), leader of Harper’s rustlers; he has a gold-plated rifle and fancy spurs.  Bannon fights Zarata and seems to be winning, until Zarata grabs Ellen’s son and uses him as a shield, breaking the boy’s arm.

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Young widow Ellen (Virginia Mayo) defends herself and her son.

[Spoilers follow.]  Bannon takes Ellen and son back to Bishop’s ranch, where they are doctored by Bishop’s cook Charley (Michael Pate).  Now Bannon knows that Harper plans to use the settlers and Zarata to take over the valley, and Harper and Zarata’s men attack the ranch.  After a protracted siege, Bannon and Bishop use a makeshift smokescreen to allow Bishop’s men to escape from the bunkhouse and get weapons, swinging the battle in their favor.  Bishop gets Zarata but is himself mortally wounded.  Harper is killed.  In the end, Bannon, presumably the new owner of the ranch and the valley, offers to let the wagon train stay and build a town.  Although Ellen reveals that she has a sordid past in St. Louis with no husband (kind of like Anne Baxter in Three Violent People), she and Bannon appear to have a future together.

This is can be hard to find now, since it’s not on DVD, but it is worth watching. The print I saw (on Amazon) was both grainy and inconsistent in color, and it’s obviously in need of restoration. This is one of McCrea’s better westerns from the late 1950s, like Trooper Hook and Gunsight Ridge (both also from 1957).  Notwithstanding McCrea’s age, the fight scenes with Barry Kelley and Michael Ansara are well-staged and persuasive.  Virginia Mayo is also good here, and there is an excellent supporting cast as well.  Leo Gordon and Michael Pate are particularly good.

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Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelley) and Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) are besieged by Harper and his minions.

Director Thomas Carr had started as a child actor in silent movies.  He was an extra in John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) and became a director of B movies at Republic in the 1940s.  When he made The Tall Stranger, he was near the end of his movie-directing career before going exclusively into television work.  Filmed in color in southern California, at 81 minutes.

Virginia Mayo’s best other westerns are Colorado Territory (1949), also with Joel McCrea, and Fort Dobbs (1958) with Clint Walker, but you can also see her in The Proud Ones (1956) with Robert Ryan, Westbound (1959) with Randolph Scott and in the [inaccurate] Jim Bowie biopic The Iron Mistress (1952) with Alan Ladd.

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Buck and the Preacher

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 5, 2015

Buck and the Preacher—Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Cameron Mitchell (1972; Dir: Sidney Poitier)

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The Buck of the title is Sidney Poitier in his second western, playing a former slave and former buffalo soldier who is now a wagon master helping free blacks move west in the face of night riders who are paid to drive them back to their southern homes to pick cotton.  The Preacher is Harry Belafonte, also a former slave, now a con man who uses a religious background for cover.  As you might guess from those two main characters, this western focuses primarily on black characters, a novelty for its time.

After the Civil War, newly free blacks seeking greater freedom than they can find in their Mississippi delta homeland.  The Pecos River is mentioned several times, so they seem to be in Texas.  At the same time, Deshay (Cameron Mitchell, wearing the remnants of a Union uniform of sorts) and his night riders are paid to terrorize them and drive them back to Louisiana, so they will once again be a source of cheap labor.  Deshay is also consumed with finding and killing Buck, for whom he offers a reward of $500.  Buck, trail-wise and good with guns (he has a special pair of cut-down shotguns in holsters, in addition to his regular pistol) is not so easy to find or kill.

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Black families heading west for more freedom.

When Deshay not only hits a wagon train that Buck has led but lays an ambush for Buck at his woman’s cabin, Buck barely escapes.  In his need to keep moving, he switches horses with the Preacher, whom he catches bathing in a stream.  (The Preacher says he is Willis Oakes Rutherford of the High and Low Orders of the Holiness Persuasion Church, but that sounds much too grandiose for the footloose ruffian he appears to be.)  The wagon train Buck is currently leading is hit by Deshay and his men, and Buck heads for Copper Springs, where Deshay is based; the Preacher tags along.  The two of them attack Deshay and his men while they are sporting at Miss Esther’s, killing eight, including Deshay.

Making their escape, they find that Deshay had spent almost all of the $1400 he had stolen from Buck’s people.  To recover it, they decide to rob both the express office and the bank in Copper Springs while the posse is chasing them.  It’s not without incident, but they are successful, and the robbery nets them $1800 each.  The Preacher plans to return to Illinois, but finds his way blocked by the posse on their heels.  As they run for Buck’s wagon train, the pursuers are blocked by Indians (of an unspecified tribe), who say they will allow the blacks passage through their land but will not fight for them.

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The Preacher (Harry Belafonte) and Buck (Sidney Poitier) prepare an assault.

[Spoilers follow.]  Deshay’s nephew kills the Copper Springs sheriff (who appears not to have anything against blacks) and continues the pursuit with the remnants of the posse.  Buck and the Preacher draw them off but are trapped in some rocks, killing several posse members but are also wounded themselves.  As things look hopeless, their Indian guides begin picking off posse members.  In the final scene, the patched-up Buck, the Preacher and Buck’s woman (Ruby Dee) are headed on their way with the wagon train (and presumably the proceeds of the robberies).

This is watchable, but not as good as Poitier’s first western (Duel at Diablo, 1966).  Poitier was the pre-eminent black actor of his time, and, although he is not a natural in westerns, he brings his considerable acting ability and strong sense of dignity and authority to the role.  Belafonte does well as the skeevy Preacher, playing off that dignity.  Ruby Dee is excellent as Buck’s woman, who wants to be freer than Texas allows and maybe move to Canada, but her role, as that of many women in westerns, is mostly extraneous.

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Poitier was here making his first foray into directing (he has nine directing credits), and the direction here is mostly unexceptional.  For what turns out to be mostly an action movie, there are several slow-moving sections, particularly in the first half of the film.  But Poitier and Belafonte get points for putting together and executing something that had largely not been done before.  They also get some credit for not making all the whites unrelievedly nasty (e.g., the decent sheriff of Copper Springs, who does not survive the movie).  In keeping with the spirit of the times, the Indians are all noble and oppressed, too.  Shot in color in Durango, Mexico, at 103 minutes.  Rated R for brief nudity (principally Belafonte’s derriere) and mostly for all the violence.

For other westerns featuring black people, see our post on Blacks in a White and Hispanic West.  For a good western featuring con men (one of whom is black) from about the same time, see Skin Game (1971), with James Garner and Louis Gossett, Jr.  For another black con man in Texas before the Civil War, see Ossie Davis (Ruby Dee’s husband) in The Scalphunters, with Burt Lancaster (1968).

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Santa Fe

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 8, 2015

Santa Fe—Randolph Scott, Janis Carter, John Archer, Roy Roberts (1951; Dir: Irving Pichel)

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In the wake of the Civil War, southerners Brit Canfield (Randolph Scott) and his three brothers have lost their plantation in Virginia and head west.  In northern Missouri, they encounter hostile Yankee soldiers and are forced to kill one.  In their escape (Scott leaves behind his beautiful horse Stardust, who disappears from the movie), they hop on a passing train and end up in Kansas.  Brit goes to work for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, but his embittered brothers fall in with Cole Sanders (Roy Roberts), operator of a mobile saloon with a lot of other unlawful activities.

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The Canfield brothers in northern Missouri. Randolph Scott (second from left) is still riding Stardust.

Brit quickly becomes the chief assistant and troubleshooter for Dave Baxter (Warner Anderson), a former Yankee officer who remembers Britt as a capable commander for the opposition during the late war.  Baxter’s clerk, payroll manager and telegraph operator Judith Chandler (Janis Carter) is initially hostile, having lost her husband in the Civil War action for which Baxter remembers him.  Sanders (and Canfield’s brothers) fire up Indian hostility to the railroad, until Britt lets the chief drive the iron horse.  Canfield is continually at war with Sanders, with his brothers caught in the middle.

With the railroad rushing to the Colorado state line to make a bonus, Sanders causes a drunkern surveyor to move the state line designation so that the bonus is imperiled until Brit and Baxter drive the construction through the night for the final 48 hours.  The Denver and Rio Grande threatens to take Raton Pass in eastern Colorado (effectively blocking the Atchison, Topeka) until Brit makes a marathon ride to buy the toll road in the pass from Uncle Dick Wooton first.

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Brit Canfield (Randolph Scott) meets the hostile Judith (Janis Carter). Note Scott’s trademark jacket.

A mysterious gang robs the train carrying the payroll, and Britt recognizes a couple of his brothers.  One of them is wounded and dies of his wounds.  Bat Masterson from Dodge City arrests the youngest brother until Britt creates a reasonable doubt for him, with the help of Judith Chandler.  Baxter sets up a decoy train, but Sanders overhears Britt telling his brothers it’s a trap, and they rob the Wells Fargo safe instead.  While pursuing the robbers, Britt encounters Bat Masterson and Baxter and persuades them to let him join their posse.

At a remote station they trap Sanders and his gang; when the remaining two Canfield brothers balk at killing during the escape, Sanders and his men shoot them.  Sanders and his remaining henchman leap aboard a passing train with Britt in pursuit, and since he’s Randolph Scott, we know how that will turn out.  Baxter finds that Judith has hidden a wanted poster for the Canfields and no longer trusts Brit; although the railroad makes it to Santa Fe (despite the name of the railroad, the original line didn’t go to Santa Fe), but by that time Brit is working for a railroad in Nevada.  When Judith finds out where he is, she goes to join him.  Fade to black.

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Brit Canfield (Randolph Scott) hunts for train robbers in the rocks.

This is one of several movies with Randolph Scott as a railroad troubleshooter (see Canadian Pacific and Carson City, for example) in building a western railway.  The film has a lot of plot and good action, with Scott continually torn between getting the railroad through and trying unsuccessfully to get his brothers to go straight.  There are some loose ends in all of this; it’s not clear why Sanders would profit from sabotaging the railroad, for example.  You’d think he would do best with his mobile saloon if the railroad prospered.  This isn’t one of the better supporting casts for a Randolph Scott western; Janis Carter is a fairly colorless female lead, as was common in those films.  The film starts with misattributing a well-known phrase from Lincoln’s second inaugural address to the Gettysburg Address; and includes windy Manifest-Destiny pronouncements and speeches by C.K. Holliday (Paul Stanton playing the owner of the railroad) on more than one occasion.

On the whole, however, this is worth watching, with lots of good action–one of the better Randolph Scott westerns from the early 1950s.  It would make a good double feature with Carson City.  Shot in color in Arizona by Charles (Buddy) Lawton, Jr., at 87 minutes.  This was one of the last films from director Irving Pichel.  The producer was Harry Joe Brown, who frequently worked on Scott projects, most notably those directed by Budd Boetticher in the late 1950s.

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Three Violent People

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 28, 2015

Three Violent People—Charlton Heston, Anne Baxter, Gilbert Roland, Tom Tryon, Forrest Tucker, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Elaine Stritch, Robert Blake (1956; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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This combines a romantic melodrama with a brother-goes-bad story, all set in post-Civil War carpetbag Texas.  The central question is:  What will happen when a respectable man discovers his new wife’s sordid past?

Capt. Colt Saunders, a former Confederate cavalry officer, is returning to the family ranch in southern Texas after the war.  He sees the oppression by the carpetbaggers but is careful not to get involved himself, until he notes a well-dressed woman about to be manhandled when she tries to alight from a stagecoach.  The woman is Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter), and in the ensuing fight Saunders is knocked unconscious.  Lorna puts him in a hotel room and makes off with $900 she finds on his person, but on second thought she has it put in the hotel safe with a receipt made out to Saunders.  It turns out the hotel and its related saloon are run by her old (and shady) friend Ruby LaSalle (Elaine Stritch), who disapproves of whatever game Lorna’s playing with Saunders.

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Early Days: Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter) and Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) get to know each other.

When he wakes up, Saunders is taken enough with Lorna to marry her impulsively on the spur of the moment.  Arriviing at the Saunders Bar S ranch founded by Saunders’ grandfather, they find that (a) it has been kept running by foreman, gunman and resident sage Innocencio Ortega (Gilbert Roland) and his five sons, (b) the carpetbag government has taken virtually all the Saunders cattle, leaving them only a hidden horse herd, and (c) Saunders’ one-armed black sheep brother Beauregard “Cinch” Saunders (Tom Tryon) has returned to complicate everything else.

Saunders and Lorna go off to visit a neighbor, where instead they find the local carpetbag Tax Commissioner (Bruce Bennett) and his minions, including Cable (Forrest Tucker), a gunfighter.  One of the minions recognizes Lorna from St. Louis, where as a member of Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler’s staff he had once frolicked with her during the war.  It’s a bad way for Saunders to find out, and he doesn’t take it well.  Against Ortega’s advice, he orders her to leave while he’s off on an extended tour of the ranch.

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Carpetbagging gunslinger Cable (Forrest Tucker) gets what he wants.

Thinking better of it, especially when he learns that Lorna is pregnant, he heads back to ranch headquarters early, only to find that Cinch has persuaded Lorna to help him make off with the remaining Saunders horses, which they plan to sell for $30,000.  With the help of Ortega and his sons, Saunders recaptures the herd and takes the horses and Lorna back to the ranch, at least until the baby is born.  Ortega decides he must leave in the face of such stupidity.  Cinch Saunders has been banned from the ranch for his perfidy, but he schemes with the carpetbaggers to take over the Saunders ranch, even as Texas’ carpetbag government is falling apart.

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Hard-headed Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) negotiates with his brother Cinch, with his wife Lorna, and with carpetbaggers.

The baby is born, and Lorna prepares to leave as Saunders had demanded.  Cinch shows up to take over but is double-crossed by the Commissioner and Cable, who plan to leave no witnesses to their shady dealings.  He redeems himself by taking out Cable at the cost of getting shot himself, while Saunders, Ortega and the Ortega sons kill the Commissioner and drive off the other nefarious carpetbaggers.  Cinch dies nobly, and Lorna and Colt Saunders are apparently back together.  And Ortega and his sons (one of whom is played by Robert Blake) decide to stay.

Charlton Heston was hitting the peak of his career, having just finished as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956, not yet released at the time this was filming) and coming up as Steve Leech in The Big Country (1958) and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur (1959).  He manages to convey the competence and implacability of Colt Saunders, although this is not on the scale of those three big productions.  Anne Baxter is good as a woman with a past (The Spoilers [1955], Cimarron [1960] and even The Ten Commandments).  And Gilbert Roland, who had been in movies since the silent era of the 1920s, played this kind of role—a polished Hispanic man of the world, good with a gun—better than anybody else, although here he verges on a stereotype.  On the whole, this feels a little overheated to current audiences, but melodramas are no longer fashionable in movies.  It’s quite watchable, although you wish the characters (except for Roland, who talks a lot) would talk to each other more, and that there was a little more subtlety in the relationship between Colt and Lorna Saunders.  Tom Tryon as bitter one-armed brother Cinch is too much a one-note character.  It would be good if glimmers of something other than the bitterness were shown.  Some of the names (Colt?  Cinch?  Beauregard?) are a bit of a problem.

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Rudolph Maté, who had started as a cinematographer in Europe in the early 1920s, was an experienced director of westerns (The Rawhide Years, The Far Horizons, The Violent Men).  The screenplay was by James Edward Grant, a favorite of John Ford and John Wayne.  Shot in color in and around Old Tucson, Arizona, by Loyal Griggs, at 100 minutes.

It’s not entirely clear who the three violent people are (there would seem to be more than three), but they’re probably Colt Saunders, Cinch Saunders and Innocencio Ortega.  Maybe including Lorna Saunders, since the title isn’t limited to men.  Not to be confused with Maté’s The Violent Men (1955), with Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck and Brian Keith.

For Charlton Heston in better westerns, see him in the sprawling The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck and Burl Ives and in the excellent character study Will Penny (1968).  Gilbert Roland shows up in Anthony Mann‘s The Furies (1950) with Barbara Stanwyck,  Bandido (1956) with Robert Mitchum and as a noble Cheyenne chief in John Ford‘s last film Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

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Ride, Vaquero!

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 4, 2015

Ride, Vaquero!—Robert Taylor, Anthony Quinn, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Jack Elam, Ted de Corsia, Charles Stevens (1953; Dir: John Farrow)

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This story takes place immediately after the end of the Civil War near Brownsville in southern Texas, on the Mexican border.  José Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) is the leader of a large gang of banditos and outlaws, with whom the law in the area (Ted de Corsia) does not have the resources to cope.  Esquedo’s right-hand man is his foster brother known only as Rio (Robert Taylor, with a lot of makeup, showy gun rig and leather cuffs).  With the end of the war, military resources in southern Texas are being beefed up.

King Cameron (Howard Keel) has bought up a lot of land in the area, and at the start welcomes his new wife Cordelia (Ava Gardner) to southern Texas.  Esquedo and his men keep burning ranches to keep out ranchers, settlers and their accompanying law.  Cameron stubbornly keeps rebuilding.  Rio has met Delia and is apparently attracted to her, but he says and does nothing that would give that away.

Rio to Esquedo:  “Why do you talk to me this way?  You wouldn’t kill anything…unless it was alive.”

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Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) surrounded by loyal retainers Barton (Jack Elam) and Rio (Robert Taylor).

As the conflict between Cameron and Esquedo escalates, Rio is sent to burn Cameron’s newest ranch house, which is well-fortified.  Before the task is complete, a cavalry unit shows up, and Rio and his men have to run for it.  Pursued closely by Cameron, Rio’s horse stumbles and throws him. Captured by Cameron, Rio then promises to help him round up and bring back horses from Mexico in return for Cameron not turning him over to the law or shooting him.  So the central conflict in the film is about Rio and his struggles with the ideal of loyalty.

Rio keeps his promise, to the disgust of Esquedo.  As Cameron leaves on an extended trip to purchase equipment, Rio is in effect his foreman.  Delia insists on being taken to Esquedo to try to talk him out of his war with Cameron.  Despite misgivings, Rio takes her.  The meeting goes badly, but Esquedo allows Delia and Rio to leave; he’s sure that Rio will come to his senses and rejoin him if given time.  Back at the Cameron ranch, Delia kisses Rio, and despite his attraction to her, he is horrified at her lack of loyalty to her husband, and he disappears.

José Esquedo: “The strong will fight the strong for possession of the weak.”
Cordelia Cameron: “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
José Esquedo: “Only six feet of it, Senora.”

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Rio (Robert Taylor) and Cordelia Cameron (Ava Gardner) get to know each other.  And Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) takes aim.

Finally Esquedo loses patience and takes over Brownsville with his men, killing the outgunned sheriff, looting the bank and local saloons.  As Esquedo’s men hear of approaching cavalry, they begin to desert him.  Cameron returns to Brownsville and stands up to Esquedo, although he can’t really match him with a gun.  Finally, Rio takes on the increasingly irrational Esquedo in the saloon where he’s about to kill Cameron and demonstrates finally where his loyalty lies.

John Farrow was not really a great director of westerns.  His best western, Hondo, was at least partially directed by John Ford.  The other two, Copper Canyon and this, are flawed.  Many of the women who worked with him, including Ava Gardner, seemed to despise him.  Howard Keel was not really a terrific actor, especially when he wasn’t singing, but he’s not bad here.  Ava Gardner made few westerns (just this and Lone Star the previous year); her part here seems underwritten.  It’s pretty well known that director Farrow (married to Maureen O’Sullivan, with whom he had seven children, including actress Mia Farrow) and Gardner were having an affair during filming.

We know that Robert Taylor could be very good in the right circumstances (see Ambush and Westward the Women from about the same time, for example).  But here he seems stiff and heavily made up, and his part as the conflicted Rio is not well written.  Still, he manages to be interesting.  Anthony Quinn could be an excellent actor (Man From Del Rio, The Ride Back, Warlock), but here he chews the scenery as an over-the-top stereotyped Mexican bandit chieftain.  Jack Elam is effective in one of his meatier (if brief) roles as Esquedo’s right-hand man after Rio leaves.  Geronimo’s Apache-Mexican grandson Charles Stevens is one of Esquedo’s banditos.

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Rio (Robert Taylor) and a debauched Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) meet over a prostrate Cameron (Howard Keel).

A considerable part of the weakness here is in the writing by Frank Fenton, who could do better (Station West, River of No Return, Escape from Fort Bravo, Garden of Evil).  Still, it’s watchable as the enigmatic Rio works out where his loyalties will lie.  For another character named Rio in a much worse western, see Jane Russell as Billy the Kid’s romantic interest in The Outlaw (1943).

Shot in color by the estimable Robert Surtees near Kanab, in southern Utah, at 90 minutes.  Music is by Bronislau Kaper.

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Like most other movies featuring a strong relationship of any kind between two men (Warlock, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and many others), comments have been made about a supposed homosexual subtext.  If it’s there at all (and it’s doubtful), there’s certainly nothing overt.  It becomes a lot campier if you start thinking about it in Freudian terms.

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Copper Canyon

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 6, 2015

Copper Canyon—Ray Milland, Hedy Lamar, Macdonald Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., Ian Wolfe, Mona Freeman, Hope Emerson (1950; Dir: John Farrow)

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Welsh actor Ray Milland didn’t make many westerns, and the best of the few he did make is probably A Man Alone (1955).  The beautiful Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr made even fewer; this movie, from late in her career, seems to be her only western.  Nevertheless, they both show up in this watchable and busy story of North-South disputes and nefarious doings in a post-Civil War western mining town.

Shortly after the Civil War, a group of Confederate veterans approaches Johnny Carter (Ray Milland), who has a stage sharpshooting act.  They are under the impression that he is Col. Desmond, a former southern commander from Virginia.  Captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp during the war, he escaped with $20,000 the camp commandant had; as a consequence, he’s still wanted by the federal authorities, even though the war is over.

The southerners are mining copper but find themselves oppressed by a corrupt local regime in Coppertown and are unable to get their ore to market.  Carter denies that he is Desmond but shows up in Coppertown to put on his act in the local saloon, run by the beautiful and exotic Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr).  Both Roselle and deputy sheriff Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey) have been sent to Coppertown by the mysterious Mr. Henderson (Ian Wolfe) to keep the southerners from smelting and marketing their ore so he can buy them out cheaply.

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Adversaries Johnny Carter (Ray Milland) and Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr) strike up a closer acquaintance.

Carter strikes up a relationship with Roselle to the irritation of Travis, who has been trying to develop his own interests there.  While Roselle tries to keep Carter involved with her and not joining a miner’s wagon train to Mesa City, he slips out to give the miners cover by pinning down Travis’ attacking men.  Back in Coppertown, he is betrayed and framed for the robbery of the $160,000 in proceeds from Mesa City.  Carter has finally persuaded Balfour, owner of the local smelting facility, to allow the southerners to use it, but Travis shoots Balfour in the back.  With Roselle’s help Carter gets out of jail and stops the cut-rate sale of claims to Henderson.

Using military skills, Carter organizes an attack on Travis and his men at the smelter, with the support of the local cavalry Lt. Ord (Harry Carey, Jr.).  He wins a shootout with the nefarious Travis.  At the end he takes the stage out of town with Roselle, never having admitted that he is Desmond–if he is.  Lt. Ord is promoted to captain.  And Carter and Lisa take off for Sacramento and San Francisco to start a new theater, with $20,000 Carter happens to have in the lining of his gun case.

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Carter (Ray Milland) is captured by Deputy Sheriff Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey).

While pleasant and watchable fare, this isn’t terribly memorable.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of chemistry between Milland and Lamarr, as the attraction of these characters to each other overtakes their competing agendas.  According to stories from the production, the two leads couldn’t stand each other.  Milland doesn’t seem like much of a southerner.  Undeniably beautiful (and reportedly very intelligent as well), Lamarr doesn’t exude much warmth.  There are a lot of characters, many of whom remain underdeveloped. Six-foot two-inch Hope Emerson could be excellent in character parts (see her in Westward the Women [1951], for example), but here she is underused as Ma Tarbet, a bartender and associate of Roselle.  Philip Van Zandt is the cheerfully corrupt sheriff of Coppertown, dominated by his deputy Travis.  Harry Carey, Jr., is fine in one of his young lieutenant roles (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949; Rio Grande, 1950).  Macdonald Carey usually appeared in westerns with much lower budgets and less upscale casts, but he makes an excellent villain here.

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Stars Ray Milland and Hedy Lamarr in publicity stills.

Director John Farrow’s best-known western is Hondo (1953), although there are stories he didn’t finish that one.  This is in lively color, with a lot of plot for its 84 minutes.

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The Stranger Wore A Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 5, 2015

The Stranger Wore a Gun—Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor; George Macready, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Joan Weldon, Alfonso Bedoya, Clem Bevans (1953; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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One-eyed Hungarian director André de Toth had gotten off to a good start in westerns, with the sultry Ramrod (1947), followed by writing on The Gunfighter (1950) directed by Henry King.  He then followed with six westerns with Randolph Scott, of which this is one.  With a cast also including Claire Trevor and early bad guy roles for Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, this could have been great, and it isn’t.  The story and writing (by Kenneth Gamet) just aren’t strong enough.  But if you like De Toth’s work, Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor and Lee Marvin, you nevertheless have to see it.

The title could be attached to almost any western, a genre where all the strangers wear guns.  During the Civil War, Lt. Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott) spies for Quantrill in Lawrence, Kansas, in preparation for the notorious guerilla raid on that abolitionist-sympathizing town.  Disgusted by the indiscriminate slaughter and Quantrill’s callous indifference to the infliction of death and devastation, he drops out, but his reputation follows him.  After the war, Travis is a gambler on a riverboat when he is recognized and attacked.  A mysterious figure saves him with a thrown knife to the back of an attacker.  Sympathetic fellow gambler Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) sends him to Prescott, Arizona Territory, to Jules Mourret.

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Jules Mourret (George Macready) meets Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott).

Prescott is a lawless mining town, where two rival gangs raid the Conroy stage line and commit other depredations.  As Travis arrives (he’s the titular stranger with a gun), the territorial capital is being moved to Phoenix in reaction to Prescott’s lawlessness.  Mourret (George Macready), another former Quantrill man, turns out to be the leader of one of the two gangs and Travis’s knife-wielding rescuer from the riverboat.  Using the name of “Matt Stone,” Travis tells the Conroys that he’s a Pinkerton agent sent to help them.  The attractive Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon), daughter of the line’s owner, is obviously drawn to him.  And Travis finds himself once again working for the bad guys and deceiving decent people, just as he did for Quantrill.

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Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) and Travis (Randolph Scott) renew their acquaintance.  And Dan Kurth (Lee Marvin) displays his skills and determination.

Josie Sullivan shows up in Prescott to ply her trade as a gambler and to see how Travis is doing.  She tells him he’s wanted in Louisiana for the riverboat killing.  Conroy is fairly successful at hiding the gold on his stages, but when Mourret’s men Dan Kurth and Bull Slager (played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine) kill a friend while trying to beat out of him information he doesn’t have, Travis’s allegiances shift again.  He tries to set the two gangs against each other, with some success.  Nevertheless, he has to shoot it out with Kurth; Lee Marvin traditionally doesn’t have much luck against Randolph Scott (see Hangman’s Knot and especially Seven Men From Now).  Mourret and Travis ultimately fight it out in a burning building (see Scott in burning buildings in Hangman’s Knot, Riding Shotgun, and Ten Wanted Men), and Travis wins.  Shelby Conroy is crushed at Travis’ deceit and betrayal, but it turns out Travis really wants Josie anyway.  And she lied about him being wanted in Louisiana.

There’s a lot of plot stuffed into only 83 minutes; it doesn’t develop organically, it feels at the end as if there are a number of loose ends, and there are a number of elements we’ve seen before. Neither the Travis nor the Sullivan characters is entirely admirable, with their shifty allegiances and casual deceit of friends and innocent people.  But it is a good cast and the film is ultimately worth watching.  Produced by Harry Joe Brown, with Randolph Scott as associate producer, in color; shot at Lone Pine.  It was also shot in 3-D, like Hondo and Gun Fury, during the brief period in the early 1950s when studios were experimenting with that new presentation.  That accounts for the occasional lunge toward the camera with a burning torch, gun or spear.

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A gleefully evil Bull Slager (Ernest Borgnine) enjoys the movie’s 3-D effects.

Claire Trevor (Stagecoach, Allegheny Uprising, The Desperadoes, Best of the Badmen) was coming to the end of an excellent Hollywood career.  Her performances in Stagecoach, Dead End, and Key Largo (an Oscar winner for her) are great ones.  Here she seems to be better than her material.  Joan Weldon never really balances her as a competing romantic interest in this film, although Trevor plays the sort of character who normally shouldn’t win in the end.  Weldon will show up to better effect in 1957’s Gunsight Ridge, with Joel McCrea.  Lee Marvin was starting his memorable career as a heavy (Hangman’s Knot, Seven Men From Now, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and Ernest Borgnine regularly showed up as a bad guy as well (Johnny Guitar, The Bounty Hunter, Vera Cruz).  Two years later they both turn up as bad guys working for Robert Ryan in John Sturges’ excellent Bad Day at Black Rock.   Alfonso Bedoya’s performance as the Mexican head of the gang rivaling Mourret’s bad guys seems fairly broad and stereotypical now.  If you’re a Scott fan, you’ll be delighted by the appearance of his beautiful dark palomino Stardust and his worn leather jacket, both of which show up here.  Although the directing in this film is nothing dazzling, De Toth went on from this to make the quintessential early 3-D horror movie:  House of Wax.

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Thunder Over the Plains

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 26, 2014

Thunder Over the Plains—Randolph Scott, Lex Barker, Phyllis Kirk, Charles McGraw, Hugh Sanders, Elisha Cook, Jr., Henry Hull (1953; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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Cavalry, carpetbaggers and quasi-vigilantes clash in 1869 Texas, before the state was re-admitted to the Union following the Civil War.  Captain (and native Texan) Dave Porter (Randolph Scott) and wife Norah (Phyllis Kirk) are finding Texas not entirely comfortable after he fought for the Union in the late unpleasantness between the states.  In part Norah’s discomfort is not only because she isn’t a native Texan like her husband, but perhaps also because she seems much younger than he—30 years, maybe?

Porter’s commanding officer Lt. Col. Chandler (the fussy Henry Hull) is mildly sympathetic to Porter’s concerns, but mostly he doesn’t want to mess up with the brass in the two years before he can retire with his pension.  Porter doesn’t really want to exterminate the local vigilantes led by Ben Westman (Charles McGraw, with the subtle name for his character) because he sympathizes with them to some extent.  Elisha Cook, Jr., is Joseph Standish, a corrupt tax assessor, being run by the more corrupt developer and cotton broker Balfour (Hugh Sanders).

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Bad guys Standish (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and Balfour (Hugh Sanders) with hands up (note the expensive clothes, obvious evidence of corruption).

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Dave Porter (Randolph Scott) tries to talk things out with wife Norah (Phyllis Kirk), but she’s having trouble seeing it his way.

Matters are further complicated when cavalry reinforcements arrive, led by handsome young Capt. Bill Hodges (Lex Barker, fresh off several performances as Tarzan), who knew Norah in a former life.  He’s a smug, by-the-book type who cares nothing about the locals but only about black-and-white orders.  Westman is falsely accused of the murder of Henley, a Balfour informer, and Porter tries to buy time to find the real guilty party (Balfour).  But Hodges starts shooting prematurely and also dishonorably makes a play for Norah, and Porter finds himself a wanted man for having released Westman from custody.  Fortunately, things work out as they should, after some angst for the Porters.

Norah Porter (Phyllis Kirk):  “Whatever became of Frances Bilky?”

Capt. Bill Hodges (Lex Barker):  “I don’t know.  She married a colonel, I think.  Maybe it was a general.  At any rate, she outranks all of us.”

Norah Porter:  “But that’s wonderful!  Now she’ll have her lifelong ambition to lead the cotillion.  Well, I guess that’s what I always wanted too.”

Hodges:  “You don’t have anything like that around here, do you, Captain?”

Capt. David Porter (Randolph Scott):  “Oh, I don’t know.  The Indians come down once a month and dance for us.”

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Smug Capt. Hodges (Lex Barker) prematurely starts the violence. Perhaps a Tarzan yodel would be effective here.

Westman’s friends abduct the corrupt Standish, intending to trade him for Westman before he can hang, but Col. Chandler is having none of that.  Dave Porter is about to get Standish to provide written proof that Balfour killed Henley when the increasingly sleazy Hodges raids the camp and shoots Standish, apparently trying to get Porter.  When he brings in Westman’s men and Porter, they manage to escape.  While Porter finds Standish’s evidence, Balfour and three henchmen try to kill him.  Of course they fail.  He is, after all, played by Randolph Scott.  And Hodges gets sent either (a) back to Washington in disgrace, or (b) to an assignment in dangerous Indian territory–Chandler gives conflicting signals about which it is.  And a little voice-over narration neatly wraps up Reconstruction in Texas and returns its government to the locals much more congenially than it actually happened.

The title has no apparent relationship with the movie’s content.  Randolph Scott always looked good in a cavalry uniform, with his straight-backed bearing and obvious rectitude.  Fess Parker has a brief part here (and in The Bounty Hunter) before becoming more widely known as Davy Crockett on television.  There is heavy-handed voice-over narration at the start and end.  In all, this is a decent job by one-eyed Hungarian director Andre de Toth, although it’s not his very best work.  That would be Ramrod (his first western, with Joel McCrea) and Day of the Outlaw (his last western, with Robert Ryan).  But this is one of the better efforts from his Randolph Scott period in the early 1950s, when De Toth and Scott made six westerns together.

Screenwriter Russell Hughes also did Anthony Mann’s The Last Frontier and Delmer Daves’ Jubal, as well as giant bug movie Them.  Cinematography was by Bert Glennon.  In color, at 82 minutes.

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For another movie about Texas during the carpetbagger Civil War aftermath, see Three Violent People, with Charlton Heston and Anne Baxter (1956).

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