Tag Archives: Wagon Train Westerns

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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Virginia City

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 9, 2013

Virginia City—Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Miriam Hopkins, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Hale, Guinn Williams, Moroni Olsen (1940; Dir:  Michael Curtiz)

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Errol Flynn is Irish-born Kerry Bradford, a Yankee captain in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, in 1864.  Col. Vance Irby (Randolph Scott) is the commander of the prison and is on the verge of spoiling Bradford’s attempt to tunnel out when he is given another assignment—to help Confederate sympathizers in Virginia City smuggle $5 million in gold back to the dying Confederacy.  Meanwhile, Bradford succeeds in his escape, with friends Moose (Alan Hale) and Marblehead (Guinn Williams) and the three of them are sent to foil Irby’s plot in Virginia City. 

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Marblehead, Bradford and Moose

Once in Virginia City, Bradford falls in love with saloon girl Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins, usually better in more urban roles) whom he meets on the stagecoach, unaware that she is a Southern agent.  During this period, Scott was often cast as a noble bad guy trying to reform (see Western Union, for example, in which he was also named Vance).  The Confederates get away with the gold, taking Bradford as a prisoner with Julia’s connivance.  He escapes and manages to get the Union cavalry on their trail through the desert. 

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Meanwhile, the gold-laden Confederates are also running out of water and are pursued by Mexican bandit John Murrell (a badly miscast Humphrey Bogart, just before his breakthrough roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon).  Eventually, the cavalry helps the Confederates fight off the Mexican bandits, Bradford hides the gold, Irby and Murrell are killed (although in Irby’s case it’s not clear whether he dies), the South loses the war, Bradford is sentenced to hang at a court martial, and Julia pleads to Pres. Lincoln on the day of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox for Bradford’s sentence to be commuted.  Lincoln agrees and recites parts of his second inaugural address to her.  The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially at the end, but it’s one of Flynn’s better westerns.  (The three to see are Dodge City, Virginia City, and They Died With Their Boots On; maybe Santa Fe Trail.) 

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Williams and Flynn flank the strangely-cast Bogart

In black and white, but apparently with high production values for its time.  Shot in northern Arizona.  Good score by Max Steiner, with threads of “Bonny Blue Flag” and other Civil War tunes.  Hale and Williams are Moose and Marblehead, Bradford’s companions and comic relief, sort of, as in Dodge City the previous year.  In addition to several of the actors, the director, the cinematographer (Sol Polito) and the composer, the writer Robert Buckner is also the same as with Dodge City.  This is not really a sequel to Dodge City, though.  When shooting a pistol, Williams seems to fling it around in a way that would make any accuracy impossible, much like James Stewart in Destry Rides Again the previous year.  This was the ninth of twelve movies that Flynn made with director Curtiz, although they casually loathed each other.  They did well together, though—here as in other efforts.

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