Tag Archives: The Mysterious Stranger

In a Valley of Violence

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 31, 2016

In a Valley of Violence—Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Formiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan (2016; Dir:  Ti West)


Los Angeles Times writer Michael Rechtshaffen refers to this as part of the “The Great Western Revival of 2016.”  In fact, this slender renaissance in the western film genre began the previous year, in 2015, with such entries as Slow West, The Salvation and Bone Tomahawk, not to mention The Revenant and The Hateful Eight.  (See our post on Current Westerns for a more complete list.)  And now Ethan Hawke appears in two westerns released within a month—the remake of The Magnificent Seven and this smaller effort.

Writer-director-producer Ti West is more associated with horror/supernatural films than he is with westerns, but this is a respectable first effort in the genre.  Referred to by some as an “homage” to the western, it does feel like a collection of pieces from other westerns, with an overlay of spaghetti western sensibility.


The rider (Ethan Hawke) talks, but principally to Abbie, his dog.

A lone rider (Ethan Hawke) heading for Mexico encounters a priest going to the town of Denton in the next valley.  Sidelined by a lame mule, the priest attempts to steal the rider’s horse but is foiled by the rider’s small dog, Abbie.  The rider heads for Denton, where he drinks water in a bar while waiting for the local store to re-open.  The townspeople are jittery and one refers to the place as “a valley of violence.”  A local loudmouth named Gilly (James Ransone) picks on the rider’s dog, and we know what that will precipitate.  Rather than shoot it out with Gilly, the rider busts his nose.

The one-legged town marshal (John Travolta) is the ultimate enforcer, Gilly’s father and the cause of the jitters in town.  He is also under no illusions about Gilly’s faults and bullying.  He deduces that the rider has a cavalry background and is perhaps a deserter, but they come to an agreement that the rider will leave town.  As the rider camps at night in the hills south of Denton, Gilly and his three hoodlums kill Abbie and throw the rider from a cliff.


The marshal (John Travolta) instructs a resentful Gilly (James Ransone), while the hotel-keeping sisters (Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan) look on.

However, the rider does not die and makes his way back to Denton, encountering the priest again (he has been thrown out of Denton) and taking his gun and mule.  He also re-encounters Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga), the younger of two sisters who run the hotel in town.  Mary-Anne is seventeen, has been abandoned by her husband, and is desperate to get out of Denton.  The rider tells her his name is Paul, but he declines to take her with him.  She helps him anyway.

As Paul re-enters Denton, he gives the marshal a chance to stay out of the confrontation, which, of course, he can’t take.  One by one, Gilly’s three henchmen are disposed of, with Paul and the marshal continuing their one-sided dialogue.  Unable to stand it any longer, Gilly rushes to the street, facing Paul with the now-unarmed marshal between them (a set-up reminiscent of the great Leone).  Gilly precipitates an extended exchange of gunfire, with the marshal seeming to take the brunt of it from both sides.  Both Paul and Gilly are hit in the leg.  As Paul takes refuge in the livery stable, Gilly hunts him down.  The final shot is predictable enough that we can see it coming.

There are decent performances here:  Ethan Hawke as the traumatized rider Paul does well.  His version of The Mysterious Stranger is not so superhuman as Clint Eastwood’s.  However, we don’t know enough about him to engage fully.  His character is underdeveloped (the problem seems to be in the script), but interesting enough.  Taissa Farmiga, as the younger and more interesting of the hotel-keeping sisters, is quite plain but good.  John Travolta as a quasi-villain is not quite as over-the-top as some of his performances have been in recent years, and he’s more interesting because of that.  John Ransone as Gilly has a more modern feel to him, but the lack of concern for the intrusion modern elements in a 19th-century story is one of the reasons for a spaghetti western feel.  There are several very talkative characters here.  Paul talks, but mainly to his dog; he’s clearly not good with people.  Mary-Anne and Gilly talk all the time, and the marshal seems fond of hearing himself as well.  The larcenous priest (Burn Gorman) talks a lot, too.


Paul (Ethan Hawke) seeks revenge.

Why does this movie seem put together from elements of other westerns?  The opening scene, in which the priest attempts to rob a lone rider, reminds us of a similar opening scene in The Shootist.  The peaceable but possibly dangerous stranger harassed while drinking in a saloon is a pretty common trope (see Silverado, The Gunfighter and many others).  Killing a man’s dog to demonstrate the bad guy’s evil nature and provoke revenge has been used a fair amount (see Hondo and Big Jake, for example).  For a man thrown over a cliff who does not die, see The Last Wagon.  In fact, the protagonist who is all but killed and comes back to exact revenge is a staple of Clint Eastwood’s films, especially A Fistful of Dollars and Hang ‘Em High.  The one-against-several showdown moving through a town has also been used many times since High Noon, most recently, for example, in The Salvation in 2015.  The use of a vengeful woman in the final gunfight, thrown in at the climactic second, is becoming another cliché (most recently, see The Salvation and the remake of The Magnificent Seven).  Now you can feel it coming.

The film was shot near Santa Fe, New Mexico, in color at 104 minutes.  The excellent Morricone-esque score is by Jeff Grace.  Rated R for violence and language.











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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)


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.


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.


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.


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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Nicholas Chennault ~ February 2, 2015

Wyoming—Wallace Beery, Leo Carillo, Marjorie Main, Ann Rutherford, Joseph Calleia, Paul Kelly, Bobs Watson, Henry Travers, Chill Wills (1940; Dir: Richard Thorpe)


This is a Wallace Beery vehicle, with Beery doing his patented old-cuss-goes-straight-through-love-of-a-child shtick, which had worked so well in The Champ with Jackie Cooper almost a decade earlier.  This time it’s set in the west, in Wyoming, to be exact.  George Custer is still alive, so it’s 1876 or so.  And Custer is still a hero, as he would be in the biopic They Died With Their Boots On (where he was played by Errol Flynn), released about the same time.  This is also the first cinematic pairing of Beery and Marjorie Main as a quasi-romantic cantankerous older couple, which they would repeat in Bad Bascomb, among several other films.  It is also a range war story, with Sitting Bull’s Sioux thrown in for good measure.

Reb Harkness (Wallace Beery) and his partner Pete Marillo (Leo Carillo) are former Confederates who have had to flee Missouri, where they are wanted.  Moving west, they rob trains but make the mistake of robbing one carrying Col. George Custer (Paul Kelly) and the officers of the 7th Cavalry, who give pursuit.  Pete takes Reb’s horse and all the money, and Reb falls in with returning Confederate Dave Kincaid, heading for his ranch in Wyoming.  (One has no idea what Kincaid has been doing in eleven years since the end of the Civil War, but he’s still wearing parts of his uniform.)


John Buckley (Joseph Calleia) and Reb Harkness (Wallace Beery) become adversaries in the local range war.

Reb in turn takes Dave’s horse and equipment as they get close to the ranch.  Dave happens upon horsemen making off with his cattle and is shot down.  Hearing the shots, Reb turns back and finds Dave’s body.  He takes it to the ranch, where he meets Dave’s daughter Lucy (the young Ann Rutherford) and young son Jimmy (Bobs Watson).  He also meets, and is taken with, Mehitabel (Marjorie Main), the local blacksmith’s sister.  The town and the Sweetwater Valley are increasingly controlled by John Buckley (Joseph Calleia), who feels free to make off with any cattle in the vicinity and wants to acquire all the land.  Reb hopes to even things by robbing a stage with several of Buckley’s men, returning after selling the Kincaid cattle.  In a shootout, Reb kills them all; he gives the money to Lucy.  When Mehitabel shoes his horse, Reb is even more infatuated with her.

The ineffective sheriff (Henry Travers) is under the control of Buckley; he jails Reb when Reb is captured by Custer and his men.  Reb manages to escape without being shot down as Buckley planned, hiding out at the Kincaid Ranch.  Meanwhile, Buckley manages to get Custer ordered to Laramie while he finishes stealing all the valley’s cattle.  Reb leads the ranchers in taking them back, and Buckley retaliates by offering Sitting Bull’s Sioux guns for taking care of Reb and his allies.  As they are besieged on the Kincaid Ranch, Custer and the cavalry ride to the rescue.  They take Buckley into custody, and look the other way with Reb.  So Reb appears to get away with his previous life of crime, unlike most movies of the time.  Custer says he’s off to the Little Bighorn to deal with Sitting Bull, and we know how that ends.


Marjorie Main and Wallace Beery begin a cinematic association that continues for several more movies.

Beery was a decent actor, as demonstrated by his ability to depict good relationships with children despite the fact he couldn’t stand them and treated child actors badly.  Eighteen-year-old Ann Rutherford, who had been a child actor, was doing ingenue roles in Andy Hardy movies and playing Scarlett O’Hara’s sister in Gone With the Wind.  She did not get along well with Beery, either, but he was a much bigger star.  This kind of story played better in the 1940s than it does now, and the aging Beery (then 55) played variations on it for the rest of his career.  Malta-born Joseph Calleia was a good actor who often played villains in movies; he has better material in Four Faces West and Branded, however, where he played more ambiguous characters.  The blacksmith Lafe is played by an uncredited Chill Wills.  An alternative early title was Bad Man of Wyoming, simplified to just Wyoming.

Director Richard Thorpe had made 50 silent westerns and worked on into the 1960s.  MGM put more money into the production of this film than it did into most westerns, and it was shot on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  In plot and location, this has eerie similarities to Shane more than a decade later. And it also has similarities to Beery’s own Bad Bascomb (1946) with Margaret O’Brien and Marjorie Main, also shot in Jackson Hole.  To modern audiences it seems kind of old-fashioned, and not just because of the cinematic technology of 1940.  In black and white, at 88 minutes.


The earliest western shot in Jackson Hole is said to have been the silent movie The Cowboy and the Lady (1922), with ingenue Mary Miles Minter.  Part of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1931) had been shot there, with wagons being lowered down cliffs into the valley.  Beery was so taken with the place he built a cabin on the shores of Jackson Lake and even participated in a protest with local ranchers in 1943.

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The Virginian (2000)

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 10, 2014

The Virginian—Bill Pullman, Diane Lane, Harris Yulin, John Savage, Colm Feore, Dennis Weaver, Gary Farmer (Made for television, 2000; Dir: Bill Pullman)

The fact that The Virginian is one of the oldest of western stories reminds us of how recent the history of the west is.  Owen Wister’s 1902 novel was the first western bestseller, and it has been made as a movie several times, most recently in 2014.  The best one is generally thought to be the 1929 early sound version with Gary Cooper as the Virginian, which can be very difficult to find now, since it has never been made available on DVD.  This 2000 made-for-television version is at least the second best on film; it may be the best.


Like some of the older western stories that have been remade multiple times from the early days of movies, the story in many of the versions of The Virginian has not aged well.  Modern viewers may have trouble understanding the motivations of the characters and sometimes even the dialogue.  This effort, directed by its star, Bill Pullman, is a mostly successful attempt to update the characters in terms of making them intelligible to modern viewers while retaining the flavor of a bygone era in the dialogue and interactions of the characters.  It is one of the classic western tales: an easterner goes west, leaves civilization and must learn new ways.  In this case, the easterner is schoolmarm Molly Stark (Diane Lane) from Bennington, Vermont, who comes to Medicine Bow in Wyoming Territory in 1885.

Arriving in Medicine Bow, Molly is taken to the remote ranch of Judge Henry (Harris Yulin in long hair).  When the wagon she’s riding in has problems, she’s rescued by the Virginian (Bill Pullman), one of Judge Henry’s riders.  He appears to be taken with her and is more direct about his interest than a well-brought-up easterner would be.  Judge Henry and other ranchers are having trouble with rustlers who seem to have some connection with rancher Sam Balaam (Dennis Weaver).  When the Judge promotes the Virginian to be his foreman, Trampas (Colm Feore) quits rather than work for the Virginian, and the Virginian’s good friend Steve (John Savage) unexpectedly leaves as well.  While rounding up horses, the badly outnumbered Virginian has to shoot it out with several rustlers and is gravely wounded.  He lies bleeding on the ground, where Molly eventually finds him by following his horse Monty, and she nurses him back to health.  They grow closer in the process.


As soon as the Virginian can ride, he is called upon to lead a band of riders against the rustlers.  They capture two of them, one of whom is the Virginian’s friend Steve and, according to the code of their time and place, must hang the two.  Molly is horrified to learn of the Virginian’s role in this, but they talk it out and continue with their plans to marry.  On the day of the wedding, a rider (James Drury, who played the Virginian in the 1960s television series) delivers a message that Trampas has killed two federal officers who were trying to deal with the rustlers and is now waiting for the Virginian in the Medicine Bow saloon.  Molly insists that the Virginian not go, but a man’s gotta do … well, you know.  As later stories would put it (John Wayne in Stagecoach, Randolph Scott in The Tall T), some things a man can’t ride around.

The Virginian rides into Medicine Bow, and we can see men, presumably with guns, on top of two or three buildings.  Leaving his own men outside, he walks straight in, leaving it up to Trampas.  Facing off, they agree to have the piano player play the Battle Hymn of the Republic and both draw when he comes to the phrase “His truth is marching on.”  The result should surprise no one, but it’s effective.  The Virginian grabs Sam Balaam, who’s behind it all, and forces him to call off the men stationed on the buildings.  The Judge’s wife tells the Virginian that Molly has gone back to Vermont, not on to Oregon as she has threatened for most of the movie.  In the closing scene, the Virginian, hat and all, appears in Bennington, Vermont, and there is an appropriate, if belated, rapprochement between him and Molly.  Presumably they live happily ever after.  In Wyoming Territory.  (Note that in the final scene, just before the credits, Molly appears to be riding the Virginian’s horse Monty, while he rides another horse, and we know how he feels about Monty.  So his commitment to Molly must be pretty high, too.)


Bill Pullman is good with the Virginian’s little hesitances in speech and old-fashioned dialogue.  Unlike other versions of the story, he is not already Judge Henry’s foreman, previously having come to be held in high regard, and his experiences with a gun are limited.  Diane Lane is decent, if occasionally a little stiff, as Molly Stark; but she’s better than the wooden Barbara Britton, who played Molly in the 1946 version with Joel McCrea.  Colm Feore makes a little more intelligible Trampas’ antipathy for the Virginian.  Partly it’s pride and personal dislike of the Virginian, and partly it’s goading from Sam Balaam.  John Savage is not as warm and friendly as Steve is usually portrayed. Harris Yulin is remote and not terribly avuncular as Judge Henry.  Dennis Weaver does well as the weaselly Sam Balaam.

The production design is good, particularly Molly Stark’s riding hat.  While the film does not always flow entirely smoothly, there are a lot of good small touches, too.  The saloon in Medicine Bow has a bobcat and a peregrine falcon as live parts of the decor.  As the Virginian strides toward the saloon with his life in turmoil, his future in doubt and his relationship with Molly perhaps gone forever, he nevertheless notes Balaam’s men with rifles on the roofs of surrounding buildings.  When he gets closer, he thinks he sees Steve around one corner nod and smile in approval for what he’s doing, although he knows Steve is dead.  The use of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the device for timing the draw works well.

As has become common for westerns over the last couple of decades, this was filmed in Alberta, with good cinematography and frequent shots from above, giving a flavor of the remoteness and wildness of the land.  Since Molly Stark’s school house and cabin are remote even from from Judge Henry’s ranch, it’s surprising that she might not have found herself to be in danger in such a wild and lawless country.  In all, this is worth watching, a worthy update of a western story that some might consider old-fashioned.  It even has a high degree of re-watchability.  Perhaps we can hope for equally worthy updates of Whispering Smith or The Spoilers.  In color, at 95 minutes.


After dealing with Trampas, the Virginian (Bill Pullman) negotiates with Sam Balaam (Dennis Weaver).

For Bill Pullman in another western, he has a brief role as Ed Masterson (Bat’s brother) in Wyatt Earp.  Diane Lane, of course, had a prominent role in Lonesome Dove.  Gary Farmer, who plays the heavy cowboy Buster, was Johnny Depp’s Indian guide Nobody in Dead Man.  For another decent TNT production of an older western story, see Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in Zane Grey’s story Riders of the Purple Sage.


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Nicholas Chennault ~ October 6, 2014

Branded—Alan Ladd, Mona Freeman, Charles Bickford, Joseph Calleia, Robert Keith, Peter Hansen, Tom Tully (1950; Dir: Rudolph Maté)


Alan Ladd made this one just before he revived his career by playing Shane, perhaps his biggest role ever and certainly his best western.  He had been in movies for almost ten years at this point and was not quite as big a star as he had been after his breakthrough roles in This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946).  After Whispering Smith (1948), he moved more into westerns and made several good ones, including this.

“You got any friends?”
“My guns.”
“My horse.”

When we first see Choya (Ladd’s character), he is besieged by the men of a town where he has just killed someone who drew first on him.  He wears two guns in the kind of fancy rig often seen in the 1950s, which mark him as a gunman, and he escapes from his predicament resourcefully.  He is followed, however, by T. Jefferson Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and his partner Tattoo, who want to make him a business proposition.  Leffingwell knows of a south Texas ranching family whose son Richard was kidnapped 25 years previously.  The son had a birthmark on his left shoulder, and Leffingwell proposes that Tattoo give Choya the birthmark.  He will then pretend to be Richard Lavery to win over the ranching family and take over their ranch.  The story’s title refers to him after the tattoo.


Choya (Alan Ladd) receives the tattoo that leads to the title.

Choya (Cholla?) is Spanish for a type of cactus, and Choya shares the plant’s prickliness.  That’s the only name he has, along with a spotted and murky past, and he agrees to Leffingwell’s plan, with certain provisos.  After receiving the tattoo, he heads for for the Laverys’ Bar O Ranch and starts by getting a job there.  Leffingwell, meanwhile, has killed Tattoo so as not to share the gains from this con, and has been told by Choya to lay low.

[Spoilers follow from this point.]  Choya gets a job on the ranch, despite suspicious foreman Ransome (Tom Tully), who doesn’t like him.  While fighting with the owner (Charles Bickford), his tattoo/supposed birthmark is spotted.  The family accepts him, including daughter Ruth (Mona Freeman), and he plays along, slowly and apparently reluctantly.  Leffingwell shows up to press the matter.  Choya/Richard is trusted to head a cattle drive to El Paso with Ruth, and he has second thoughts about this con.  Finally he sells the cattle for more than $180,000 and makes sure that it goes back to the family.  He has it out with Leffingwell, discovering that Leffingwell was the baby’s kidnapper and that Mexican bandit chieftain Mateo Rubriz (Joseph Calleia) has raised the child as his own son Antonio.


Choya negotiates with the sleazy Leffingwell (Robert Keith) from a position of strength.

After warning Leffingwell not to set foot in Texas again, Choya heads south over the Rio Grande toward the mountain retreat of Rubriz.  Somehow he charms Rubriz and, while Rubriz is called away, manages to make off with Rubriz’s son Antonio (Peter Hansen), the Laverys’ real long-lost son, who doesn’t really want to go to Texas.  Life is fine for him where he is.

Rubriz was called away to see Leffingwell (we knew he’d show up again), who tells him what Choya’s up to, and Rubriz and his men give chase.  It’s a long way to the Rio Grande, and Choya doesn’t know the shortest paths.  Antonio was wounded in their getaway, and they are trapped in a cave while Rubriz’s men unknowingly camp below.  Choya has taken good enough care of Antonio, and told him enough stories of the Laverys, that Antonio is beginning to trust him and helps him steal horses to sprint for the river, stampeding the rest.  As Leffingwell takes a bead on Choya to shoot him down with a Winchester, the stampeding horses push him off a cliff.  Once on the other side of the river, Antonio faints from his wound and Choya passes out from exhaustion.  They are found there by Lavery and his foreman Ransome.


Having barely made it back across the Rio Grande, Choya (Alan Ladd, with Peter Hansen) prepares to shoot it out.

As Antonio wakes in a bed on the Lavery ranch, Choya explains things to him.  But Rubriz and his bandit band have found him, and Rubriz plans to kill both Choya and Antonio, whom he views as a traitor.  Choya manages to talk him around, though, and it looks like Antonio will have a family on both sides of the border.  As Choya makes yet another escape, he is caught by Ruth, and it looks like this time he will not get away so easily.

Based on a story by Max Brand, the outline of this plot seems a bit contrived.  But it works in part because Ladd manages to be convincing (if short) as the irascible Choya.  The supporting cast is strong, too, especially Robert Keith as the delightfully loathsome and unprincipled Leffingwell, Joseph Calleia as the bandit chieftain and family man Rubriz, and Peter Hansen as Antonio. Calleia, who was of Maltese origin, often played heavies and Mexicans, but he was particularly good when the role called for some ambiguity, as his does here.  He could give his roles an enigmatic humanity, when in other hands they might just be stereotypes.  Charles Bickford, said to be as irascible as Choya and hard to work with on other film sets (see The Big Country, for example), is fine here, as he was in Four Faces West with Calleia a couple of years earlier.  Mona Freeman always played younger than she was in movies, and doesn’t have many nuances to her performance, but she’s fine here.


This isn’t really what his two-gun rig looks like.

Shot on location in Arizona and southern Utah, with Charles Lang doing the cinematography in color in “academy aspect,” full-screen.  Not terribly long, at 104 minutes, it nevertheless moves at what sometimes seems a leisurely pace.  The movie was recently released on DVD by Warner Archive (Sept. 2013).

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Shadow on the Mesa

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 18, 2014

Shadow on the Mesa—Wes Brown, Kevin Sorbo, Gail O’Grady, Greg Evigan, Shannon Lucio, Micah Alberti, Barry Corbin, Meredith Baxter (MfTV 2013; Dir: David S. Cass, Sr.)


This was made for the Hallmark Channel, so you know some of what you’ll find here: a certain kind of beautiful nature cinematography in establishing the mood and setting, the triumph of right over evil (could be a given in most westerns anyway), some kind of affirmation of the value of human relationships.  Not bad stuff, really.  And that’s all here.

Wes Rawlins (Wes Brown) is a bounty hunter, and a proficient one.  As he returns from his latest trip, he receives the news that his mother has been murdered—beaten to death.  She had been rescured from Comancheros thirty years previously, taken in by the kindly Rawlinses (Barry Corbin and Meredith Baxter), and, when her son Wes was born seven months later, they raised him as part of their family. Now Wes hears that not only was his mother killed, but not long before her death she had finally found Ray Eastman, Wes’ father, “down Palo Duro way,” and had written him a letter. Wes decides to pay him a visit and find out why he abandoned his family and what he had to do with his mother’s death.


Rawlins (Wes Brown) and foster parents (Meredith Baxter, Barry Corbin) at the grave of his murdered mother.

So Wes comes to town as the Mysterious Stanger with a Gun.  As Wes enters the local saloon, a loud-mouthed young man is causing trouble and Wes backs him off.  Turns out that both the loudmouth and the local sheriff are sons of Peter Dowdy (Greg Evigan), a neighboring rancher who wants Eastman’s land.  He is in fact conspiring with Eastman’s wife Mona (Gail O’Grady), and it was she who gave Dowdy the letter leading to the death of Wes’ mother.  Dowdy’s men killed her.

Wes rides in to the Eastman ranch, where Ray (Kevin Sorbo) has a bad leg and is on crutches.  He gives Eastman the news that Mary Rawlins has died, and from Eastman’s reaction is inclined to leave it at that and ride on.  The next morning as he leaves he encounters Eastman’s headstrong daughter Rosalie (Shannon Lucio), and they further have an encounter with Dowdy and two of his gunmen.  When the gunmen try to kill Wes, he takes them out and returns with Rosalie to the Eastman ranch.


Rancher Ray Eastman (Kevin Sorbo) and daughter Rosalie (Shannon Lucio) are determined to resist their greedy but powerful neighbor.

The Dowdy sheriff son keeps driving off Eastman cowboys and throws one in jail to lure Wes into town.  Wes breaks him out, and things get more violent.  Wes breaks the news to Eastman that he, Wes, is Eastman’s son, and he bonds with the existing Eastman son (Micah Alberti) and daughter.  Rosalie overhears her mother talking with Dowdy and discovers what’s been going on between them. Wes orchestrates the defense of the Eastman headquarters and goes looking for missing cowboys.  In the course of rescuing one, Wes and his new brother kill four Dowdy gunmen, including the loudmouth son.

Back at the Eastman ranch, Dowdy, having killed Mona as she pleaded for more time to work something out, is attacking the few defenders.  Eastman and his few remaining men take out some of them but things are going badly. Then Wes and his brother ride in and even the odds.  With some well-placed dynamite and good shooting, all but the Dowdy father are taken care of.  At the end, Dowdy tries a hidden gun on Wes, but that’s not going to work.  Eastman forgives the deceased Mona, Wes has a new family, and he rides off into the sunset.


Greedy and corrupt Dowdy (Greg Evigan) attempts to take the ranch by force.

Kevin Sorbo is the best-known name in the cast, but he is not the main character.  That would be Wes Brown as the bounty hunter Wes Rawlins.  The writing is a bit clunky, but it’s not that bad.  Wes seems impossibly invincilble, but that can be okay in a western.  (See any of Clint Eastwood’s characters, for example, especially in spaghetti westerns.)  At least he doesn’t talk too much.  There’s lots of killing for a Hallmark Channel western.  In terms of production design, Wes’ hat and facial hair seem too modern.  A pleasant enough western, but not terribly memorable.  Short, at 79 minutes.


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Tension at Table Rock

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 15, 2014

Tension at Table Rock—Richard Egan, Dorothy Malone, Cameron Mitchell, Angie Dickinson, Royal Dano, DeForest Kelley, Billy Chapin, John Dehner, Edward Andrews (1956; Dir: Charles Marquis Warren)


This is basically a bad-guy-goes-straight western, with overtones of the search for family and 1950s lawman-and-community tension.  Deep-voiced Richard Egan (his voice is reminiscent of Clint Walker’s) was never a big star, but he does well as the lead in this small western with an excellent and well-chosen supporting cast.  And it has an unusual and effective poster.

Wes Tancred (Richard Egan) has followed outlaw leader Sam Murdock (Paul Richards) since they both rode with Quantrill during the Civil War.  But when Murdock gratuitously kills a wounded gang member while fleeing a posse, Tancred decides to pull out.  Murdock’s girlfriend (a young Angie Dickinson in a very brief role) has a thing for Tancred and pours oil on the distrust between the two as Tancred tries to leave.  They shoot it out just as the posse arrives, and the girl tells them Tancred shot Murdock in the back.  However, he receives a complete pardon and even the reward for Murdock, which he spurns.


Tancred (Richard Egan) and Murdock’s girl (a young Angie Dickinson).

Now wherever he goes he hears “The Ballad of Wes Tancred,” referring to him as a cowardly backshooter.  He keeps moving and is at a stagecoach outpost when three robbers try to take a stage.  The caretaker tries to break it up and is killed, but Tancred, now going by the name John Bailey, gets the three and agrees to take the caretaker’s young son Jody (Billy Chapin) to his uncle, the sheriff in Table Rock.

The tension in Table Rock is because a herd from Texas is about to arrive, and the sheriff (Cameron Mitchell) is nervous about his ability to control the cowhands.  He was badly beaten and physically and psychologically scarred in an earlier incident, and has lost his confidence.  Tancred/Bailey understands because he has his own scars.  He helps Jody get a job with the local newspaper editor Harry Jameson (Royal Dano), who is vocal about keeping law and order.  Kirk (Edward Andrews), owner of the biggest saloon, welcomes the cowhands, whatever it takes.  The sheriff’s wife is loyal to him but shows signs of being attracted to Tancred/Bailey.

When big rancher Hampton (John Dehner) brings in his herd with fifty trail hands, he drives it across the land of a local farmer, destroying fences and crops (for which he is willing to pay, but he gives no choice).  The hands are mostly just barely under control, but that night one of them shoots the farmer and puts a gun in the farmer’s hand to make it look like self-defense.  The sheriff and Tancred/Bailey are witnesses, though.  In court the next day, the sheriff tries to back out, but Tancred/Bailey testifies straight, including his real name.  It’s a turning point for both Tancred and the sheriff.  Hampton threatens to come back the next day and get his man, and Kirk arranges for a gunfighter to take out the sheriff.


Tancred (Richard Egan) is attracted to the sheriff’s wife (Dorothy Malone); bad guys abound.

Gunfighter Jim Breck (DeForest Kelley) arrives the next day and turns out to be an old friend of Tancred.  Tancred asks him not to call out the sheriff, and it looks like he might accede.  But Kirk’s $2000 is too much for Breck, and Tancred and Breck have a classic showdown in the street.  Tancred wins, and Kirk is about to shoot him in the back when the sheriff takes down Kirk.  When Hampton and his fifty men ride in, they face the sheriff and Tancred—and the town’s populace with guns from the windows.  And Tancred leaves town so as not to threaten the sheriff’s marriage.

It sounds like a standard western tale from the 1950s, but the execution of it is better than average, even though it was from bargain studio RKO.  Egan, Mitchell, Chapin, Dano, Dehner, Kelley and Edwards are all good; Dorothy Malone is also good but is largely wasted in a small part here.  Kelley was in several westerns about this time, usually as some form of bad guy (The Law and Jake Wade, Warlock), as he bounced back and forth between movies and television before finding his greatest fame in Star Trek.  The development of the moral crises of Tancred and the sheriff is nicely done.  The story is slightly understated but mostly convincing.  This is better than you’d expect from the relative lack of star power and low budget.


Charles Marquis Warren was a screenwriter, director and producer who made ten low-profile westerns as a director in the 1950s.  His best were probably this and Trooper Hook (1957), with Joel McCrea.  He even directed Charro!, Elvis Presley’s western in 1969.  The screenwriter here was Winston Miller, based on a story by western writer Frank Gruber, with music by Dimitri Tiomkin.  In color, at 93 minutes.

For a similarly good story about a man on the run who rides into town under an assumed name and comes to the aid of a beleaguered sheriff, see Face of a Fugitive, with Fred MacMurray (1959).

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Face of a Fugitive

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 21, 2014

Face of a Fugitive—Fred MacMurray, Lin McCarthy, Dorothy Green, Alan Baxter, James Coburn, Ron Hayes (1959; Dir: Paul Wendkos)


In the 1950s Fred MacMurray was in a series of low-profile westerns that tended to be in part meditations on community and in part a consideration of whether a bad man can walk away from his past.  They included At Gunpoint, Quantez, Good Day for a Hanging, The Moonlighter, and this one.  Partly they work because MacMurray could project the kind of decency he did later as the father Steve Douglas in the television show My Three Sons in the 1960s.  Partly they work because he’s also good at portraying somebody on the edge, who could go either way.  His greatest movie role was as Walter Neff, the insurance investigator who gets pulled to the dark side by his fascination for bad woman Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), one of the best films noir ever made.  We know how that one ended up, so we’re always aware that he could go that way again.

As in The Moonlighter and Quantez, here he’s a man with a past.  Jim Larsen (MacMurray) is a bank robber in the custody of a deputy marshal on a train, being taken to prison.  He overpowers the deputy and gets away, just as his younger brother Danny (Ron Hayes) arrives with horses to give him help he doesn’t need or want.  The deputy pulls a hidden gun and shoots Danny; Danny shoots back and kills the deputy, putting Larsen in bigger trouble than he was in before.  Larsen and his wounded brother get on the rear car of a train and try to sort out their situation.


They have a patchy family history, with a father who looked out for himself and a mother who wore herself out and died young.  Larsen left home when she died and harbors continuing resentment against his father.  As he tries to figure a way out, Danny dies and Larsen stuffs his body in a mail bag and tosses it off a bridge into a river.  At a railroad switchyard, he pretends to be Ray Kincaid, mine inspector, and eludes capture until he arrives at the town of Tangle Blue.  (This picturesque name is the name of a lake in northern California’s Trinity Alps, but there’s no overt connection with this location in the movie.)

His seatmate is six-year-old Alice, who lives in Tangle Blue, where her mother Ellen Bailey (Dorothy Green) is a widow and her uncle Mark Riley (Lin McCarthy) is the new sheriff.  The plot takes its time developing, as Ray makes the acquaintance of Ellen and witnesses a confrontation between the young sheriff and Reed Williams (Alan Baxter), a large rancher who wants to fence off public land.  Ray can’t leave town because the passes have been shut down while the search is on for Jim Larsen.  So he applies to Mark for a job as a deputy.

At the dance in Tangle Blue that night, the answer on the job is no.  But Williams shows up with several of his men, including Purdy, to threaten Riley.  Ray steps in to back Williams off, and Riley gives him the deputy job.  As they talk about the nature of responsibility, law and family life, Ray talks Riley into marrying his long-time girlfriend, even with the uncertainties of his life as sheriff.


Helping the sheriff face down the bad guys.

Mark Riley:  “Are you trying to tell me I should ask her to marry me now? Tonight?”
Jim Larsen/Ray Kincaid:  “That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
Mark Riley:  “Don’t you realize that I might be killed in the morning?”
Larsen/Kincaid:  “Anybody can be killed… any day.”
Mark Riley:  “Anybody is me!  Any day is tomorrow!”

As Ray takes Ellen home from the dance, they see that the body of a young man has been found in a local stream, stuffed into a mail bag.  (Of course, we knew it would show up.)  Ray and Ellen seem to have a relationship developing, but he still has to get out of there.  In town, Williams’ men jump him in a bar.  He beats Williams, but Williams’ men pound him.  (Reminiscent of Robert Ryan’s fight against the outlaws in Day of the Outlaw, the same year as this film.)

Early the next morning Ray and Riley are guarding the pass out of town.  Ray tries to talk Riley into either backing off with Williams, or as an alternative, taking it to him hard.  Riley, who is about to become a lawyer, is stubborn in rejecting both of these, and heads off to cut down Williams’ fence, which will precipitate some form of showdown.  Purdy draws on Riley when he moves to cut the fence, but Ray is in the rocks above and displays extraordinary marksmanship with a rifle, hitting Purdy’s gun and cutting the three strands of wire with shots.  Riley leaves to get the wanted flyers from the train that will show Larsen’s likeness on them, and Ray starts to cut Purdy loose from his entangling wire when Williams’ men ride up.  Ray gets away to a small ghost town; he’s badly outnumbered but he starts to get Williams’ men one by one.  However, as he runs across a rotted roof, he falls through and breaks a leg.  As he drags himself into another room of the building, Purdy follows and Williams comes into the abandoned building through the front door.  It’s dim, and Williams shoots Purdy by mistake.  Riley, Ellen and deputies arrive, and it’s not clear whether Ray gets Williams or Riley does, but Ray has wounds in addition to his broken leg and is past caring for the moment.


Ray (Fred MacMurray) cuts Purdy (James Coburn) loose.

Ellen Bailey:  “What’ll they do to him?”
Mark Riley:  “I don’t know.  But I’ll be there in court to tell them what he did here.”

In the 1950s, of course, outlaws in westerns weren’t allowed to get away with their crimes as they might be now.  (See the end of The Moonlighter, for example.)  There’s still the dead deputy to account for, even with Ray’s subsequent heroism in Tangle Blue.  It makes for an equivocal and mildly unsatisfying ending.

Mark Riley:  “You might say it’s the same man, but then again, you might not.”

MacMurray and Coburn (showing up here after his introductory role in Ride Lonesome) are very good, and Dorothy Green is good enough.  Ron Hayes is good in a brief role as Danny Larsen before he dies.  The rest of the cast isn’t as strong, particularly Lin McCarthy as the stubborn sheriff Mark Riley and Alan Baxter as the principal bad guy.  Both these roles could have used more nuance in their development, but the movie’s budget probably wasn’t big enough to get better actors for these roles.  MacMurray is really the only significant name in the cast.  By now he is not thought of as a star in westerns, but he was in several good ones in the 1950s.  This and Quantez are probably the two best, but they’re all worth watching.  This was MacMurray’s last western.

In general, the writing is good but not flashy, as Ray develops relationships in town.  As he is treated decently, he responds the same way and is better than he has to be, convincingly.  The pacing is good as the plot and relationships develop, heading toward the inevitable conflict with Williams.  Director Paul Wendkos spent most of his career in television, but he also made one of the Magnificent Seven sequels (Guns of the Magnificent Seven) and three Gidget movies.  Music is by Jerry Goldsmith.  In color, at 85 minutes.

For a similar good story of a man with a past riding into town under a false identity and helping out a beleagured sheriff against considerable odds, see Richard Egan in Tension at Table Rock (1956).

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High Plains Drifter

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 9, 2014

High Plains Drifter—Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis (1973; Dir:  Clint Eastwood)


Ben Manciewicz referred to this as an “allegorical morality tale,” heavily laced with understated mysticism.  It was the second movie directed by Clint Eastwood, his first western as a director, and the movie by Eastwood that most overtly shows the influence of Sergio Leone, one of his mentors.

This first shot is Leone-esque, with a lone rider approaching the camera from a distance through a haze.  (There will be a bookend of that shot at the end of the movie, with the lone rider leaving at a distance into a similar haze.)  Clint Eastwood is the Mysterious Stranger, one of his specialties, and, as with the earlier Leone trilogy, he is never really named.  He rides into the mining town of Lago (“Lake”), where the general vibe is fearful and unfriendly.  After an initial drink, he goes to get a shave and bath.  At the barber shop, three thugs insult and attack him until he shoots all three of them.  Outside he is repeatedly insulted by Callie Travers (Marianna Hill); he drags her into a stable and rapes her, although she appears to get into it.

HighPlainsEastwThe Mysterious Stranger rides in.

The name Billy Borders is mentioned to the Stranger:  “Don’t know the man,’ he confesses.  “You didn’t have much time to,” the sheriff replies, “because you shot him yesterday.  Billy, he wasn’t a loved man.  He didn’t have much personality and what he did have was all bad.”

It turns out that the three thugs had been hired by the town to defend it against three outlaws (Stacey Bridges and the Carlin brothers) being released from the territorial prison, and whom the town suspects harbor resentments against the citizens of Lago for sending them to prison.  Now the citizens approach the stranger to defend them, promising him anything in town that he wants.  He puts that to the test, giving blankets and candy to Indians and taking new boots for himself, and requiring the town to paint all building and structures red.  He appoints the town dwarf Mordecai (Billy Curtis) sheriff and mayor.  As he sleeps, the Stranger dreams of a man with a badge being whipped to death by three men with bullwhips.  Various townspeople refer to young Marshal Duncan, who was killed by being whipped to death.  There is some kind of collective guilt in their past related to this event.  The Marshal had discovered that the basis of the town’s prosperity, a mine, was actually on government land and not on the private property owned by the town.  He was going to report this to the authorities, so no one felt obliged to intervene when he met his vicious end.  His body is now lying outside the town in an unmarked grave: “They say the dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind…  He’s the reason this town’s afraid of strangers.”  The Stranger sees it differently:  “It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid.”


The Stranger is not a typical western hero, but a morally ambiguous man given to cruelty.  He also rapes Sara Belding, who deserves it even less than Callie Travers, but who similarly seems to get into it.  Some of the townspeople turn on the Stranger, and he blows up three who try to kill him in his hotel room.  He shoots and wounds at least one of another group of assailants, who escapes out of town only to be killed by the three approaching outlaws.  The Stranger sets up the town’s defenses but leaves before the outlaws arrive.

Mordecai:  “What happens after?

The Stranger:  “Hmm?”

Mordecai:  “What do we do when it’s over?”

The Stranger:  “Then you live with it.”


Lago, now painted bright red, waiting for the outlaws.

[Spoilers of a sort follow.]  The citizens are unable to carry out the Stranger’s plan, and the three outlaws take over, with several of the townspeople being shot or otherwise killed.  With much of the town in flames, as the outlaws drink in the saloon a whip comes out of the night and drags out one outlaw standing near the bat-wing doors.  Sounds of him being whipped to death are heard, and we see his body lying in the street.  As the two remaining outlaws hunt the source of the whip, it comes from above, wraps around the neck of one and lifts him off the ground, hanging him.  That leaves only the outlaw leader Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis), who sees the long-coated stranger, pulls a gun on him and is shot several times for his pains.

As the Stranger leaves Lago, he passes the sign where the town name “Lago” has been painted over in red with “Hell.”  Mordecai is putting the final touches on a tombstone in the local cemetery as the Stranger rides past.  Mordecai says, “I still don’t know your name,” and the Stranger responds, “Yes, you do.”  And the camera shows that Mordecai’s tombstone reads “Marshal Jim Duncan,” who no longer has an unmarked grave.  Among the other graves near Duncan’s are those of S. Leone, Donald Siegel and Brian G. Hutton (director of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes)–all directors of films Eastwood has appeared in to date.  The Stranger rides off into the haze, just as he came.


Director Eastwood setting up a scene from the top of a red building; horsing around with Mordecai (Billy Curtis) behind the scenes.

The identity of the Stranger is left ambiguous.  One version of the script had him as Duncan’s brother, but Eastwood liked the ambiguity of not being too explicit and took that reference out.  The Stranger is a figure of heartless retribution for crimes left mostly vague, not an admirable hero.  Echoes of this Stranger will reappear in kinder and more sympathetic form in Eastwood’s Pale Rider more than a decade later.  The camera work (the long shots of lone riders, the frequent tight 2/3-face closeups) are reminiscent of the spaghetti westerns that made Eastwood’s movie career, as are other surreal touches, such as the dwarf.  The heavy ambient noises (the hoofs of the Stranger’s horse, the constant sound of the wind, the disproportionately loud jangle of the Stranger’s spurs, for example) also make it seem like a spaghetti western.  It is the most existential and supernatural of Eastwood’s works as director.  While not his strongest western, it’s a cult favorite in some circles.

It confirmed him on his path to becoming a major director.  He brought High Plains Drifter in two days ahead of schedule and under budget, and it was one of the highest-grossing westerns of the 1970s.  His next western would be the classic The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).  He was a bright spot in a decade not otherwise known for westerns.  His star was rising as John Wayne’s was fading (The Cowboys [1972] and The Shootist [1976]).  Shot on location at California’s eerie Mono Lake, 300 miles from Los Angeles on the Nevada border.  Bruce Surtees was the cinematographer.  Written by Ernest Tidyman (Shaft, The French Connection).  105 minutes.

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The Outsider

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 27, 2014

The Outsider—Tim Daly, Naomi Watts, David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Thomas Curtis, John Noble (Made for Television, 2002; Dir:  Randa Haines)

OutsiderDVDCover OutsiderSpan

This slow-moving relationship drama is set in Montana, a variation on a theme of Angel and the Badman from 1947.  Good acting power is in evidence, though; Tim Daly is convincing as gunman Johnny Gault, and Naomi Watts (before she really became a big star) is even better as young widow Rebecca Yoder of the Plain People, who takes in the badly wounded Gault and nurses him back to health. 

Based on a romance novel by Penelope Williamson, this is one of the few westerns directed by a woman, and it’s better than you’d expect.  (The reduced expectations are because of the nature of the source material, not because the director is a woman.)  As usual, there are three conflicts going on in this plot:  the clash/attraction between Gault and Yoder as man and woman, the clash between the worldly Gault and the Mennonite-like Plain People, and the clash between Gault and those who’d oppress both him and the Plain People with violence.  In only one of these conflicts might Gault’s talents with violence prove helpful, and even then numbers favor the bad guys (although a relatively low budget may have kept down the number of them who appear on film).  


The gunman takes the young widow and her son to church.

Not only are the Plain People religiously separate, they raise sheep in cattle country.  Rebecca’s husband was killed by the real bad guys, who wanted (and still want) her land.  The real bad guys are the usual collection of local banker-cattle baron (John Noble) and his hired gunmen.  Keith Carradine is one of the Plain People, presumably romantically interested in Rebecca; his real brother David Carradine plays the sympathetic local doctor.  Thomas Curtis is good as Benjo Yoder, Rebecca’s young son.  An interesting touch is the music, based mostly on Norwegian folk songs, although the film sometimes seems self-consciously arty in its use of both music and images. It seems to take a long time getting to dealing with the conflicts.

There are the usual scenes of the wary gunman trying with very limited success to mesh with the religious community for the sake of the young widow.  There is the sizing up by others in her community who are trying to assess both Gault and the nature of the relationship that’s apparently in formation.  There is the developing relationship between the gunman and the traumatized young son of the beautiful widow.  And there is the resistance by both the gunman and the widow to the attraction they’re feeling to each other, along with questions about how much each will have to accommodate the other’s beliefs and ways of life if they do go ahead.


This version of the story isn’t as sympathetic to religion and the strength of community as Angel and the Badman, and it ends with Rebecca leaving the Plain People when she marries Gault, although Gault appears to make some accommodations, too.  Of course, the religious community here projects a little more paranoia and pressure toward conformity, and fewer warm fuzzies than the Quakers in the John Wayne movie.  Although music isn’t allowed outside of church, Rebecca hears “the music of the earth,” signaling that maybe the Plain People aren’t her real destination anyway. 

The story of a gunman entering a religious community with very different values is one of the oldest western stories, a variation on the Mysterious Stranger theme.  It was the basis of Zane Grey’s 1912 best-seller Riders of the Purple Sage, for example, where the violence wins because of the inherent dishonesty of the religious community.  (Check here for one of the more recent film versions of Purple Sage.)  This is much more like the 1947 John Wayne movie, where the validity of the religious community seems to be recognized, except that (a) the violence from the gunman is still necessary to resolve matters, and (b) the widow ultimately leaves the religious community instead of the gunman joining it.  Presumably there is still some kind of uneasy affiliation remaining there, rather than a shunning from the community, though.  At least the bad guys have been dealt with.  A non-western version of the story is 1985’s Witness, with Harrison Ford as a hard-boiled cop among the Amish in Pennsylvania.


Leaving their respective religions: Rebecca Yoder (Naomi Watts) leaves the Plain People, and Johnny Gault (Timothy Daly) renounces his guns.

There are echoes of other westerns in this.  The gunman coming to know and appreciate both the widow and her son is much like the main story arc of Hondo.  And the cattle baron and his men trampling a gathering of the Plain People (while Gault rescues the young son of the widow) reminds us of a similar scene with the homesteaders in Shane.  The culminating shoot-out with the bad guys (and they are undeniably bad) is satisfying, except that Rebecca Yoder is accidentally shot and appears to be dying.  Gault symbolically places his pistol in the blacksmith forge, in a scene that reminds us of other gunmen’s similar renunciations:  Gary Cooper tossing his badge in the dirt in High Noon; Glenn Ford burying his guns at the end of The Fastest Gun Alive and The Last Challenge; and Randolph Scott giving up his guns at the end of A Lawless Street, for example.  And, most of all, John Wayne giving up his guns at an inopportune moment at the end of Angel and the Badman.

Timothy Daly is good enough in this that one regrets he had no other chances to make westerns.  In addition to a revolver, Gault also uses something that looks like a cut-down rifle, like the mare’s leg used by television’s ethical bounty hunter Josh Randall (played by Steve McQueen) in Wanted:  Dead or Alive in the late 1950s.  If the vegetation doesn’t entirely look like Montana, that’s because this was filmed in northeastern Australia.  They’re careful to keep eucalyptus trees out of it, though, and it’s not distracting.

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