Category: Movies


After a long break from blogging mainly because of work-related pressure, posting a piece that I wrote for the Hindustan Times to mark Satyajit Ray’s birth anniversary:

Nearly a quarter of a century after Satyajit Ray’s death, the jury is still out on whether a script written by the acclaimed director in 1967 was the genesis of Steven Spielberg’s hit E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

The story of The Alien is one of the stranger aspects of Ray’s long and storied career, one that involves celebrated sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke, Hollywood legends Peter Sellers, Marlon Brando and James Coburn, producer Ismail Merchant, Columbia Pictures and gregarious skin-diver-turned-producer Mike Wilson.

Ray and Clarke began corresponding after the director wrote to the author in 1964 to seek his endorsement for a sci-fi film club in Kolkata. The duo met in London after watching Stanley Kubrick film 2001, based on Clarke’s classic novel, and Ray spoke of a film he hoped to make about an alien and a young boy.

Clarke then mentioned Ray’s idea to Wilson, a skin-diver who once retrieved a chest of silver coins from a 17th century galleon and produced a film about a Sri Lankan secret agent named Jamis Banda. Wilson wasted no time in getting in touch with Ray, who responded to his offer to set up a co-production deal.

The Alien was to be based on “Bankubabur Bandhu” (Bankubabu’s Friend), a short story that Ray had written for his family magazine Sandesh in 1962. At a time when most sci-fi literature and films featured aliens bent on invading the earth, Ray’s script had a benign humanoid extra-terrestrial who befriends a young village boy named Haba.

The alien arrives in a spaceship that lands in a lotus-covered pond in a village of Bengal. The villagers think a golden spire, which is part of the spaceship, is a submerged temple and begin worshipping it. Other characters in the script are a hard-boiled journalist from Kolkata and an American engineer drilling tube-wells for a Marwari businessman based on G D Birla.

Things began to go wrong right from the time Ray began writing the script in Kolkata in early 1967. Wilson decided to join Ray at his flat and once the script was finished, Wilson copyrighted it in both their names though his only contributions – according to several accounts – were one change in the dialogue for the American character and the suggestion that the spaceship should be golden in colour.

Ray wrote a long account about his efforts to make The Alien in 1980, in which he said he zeroed in on Peter Sellers to play the Marwari businessman because he felt the presence of a big name in the cast would help him raise the budget needed for the film’s special effects. Besides, he believed Sellers “could do things with his voice and tongue which bordered on the miraculous” – a reference to the actor’s ability to portray an Indian.

Ray and Wilson met Sellers in Paris in April 1967 and the actor agreed to do the film even though he admitted he knew nothing about the director’s work. Ray even organised a special screening of Charulata that had Sellers in tears.

Soon after, Wilson invited Ray to Hollywood, saying Columbia would back the film and Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen were interested in playing the American engineer.

Ray went to Hollywood in June 1967 and held more meetings with Sellers, who was then filming Blake Edwards’ The Party, in which he played an Indian. It was then that Ray first developed misgivings about Sellers. “…it is  surely not right when a comedian with the caliber of Sellers cheerfully submits to the whims of a director who can think only in terms of belly-laughs, many of which were clearly not going to come off on the screen. Did Sellers not care enough? Or did he lack judgement?” Ray later wrote.

It was also at this time that Ray discovered his script, copies of which were being distributed by Columbia, had been jointly copyrighted by Wilson.

“I left Hollywood firmly convinced that The Alien was doomed,” he later wrote.

During a subsequent trip to London in October 1967, Ray made more unsettling discoveries – Wilson had kept a $10,000 advance from Columbia and positioned himself as an associate producer for the film even there was no agreement between the two men. It was around this time that James Coburn was suggested as a replacement for Brando to play the American engineer.

A few months later, Columbia said it would back the film if Ray could get Wilson to pull out. Wilson rejected Ray’s request to give up his copyright on the script, describing the director as a “thief and slanderer”.

In July 1968, Sellers – who had earlier told Ray he had not problems playing a secondary role in the film – wrote to Ray and said he could not contemplate doing the role as it was. Till that point, Sellers had written several letters to Ray in verse and the director decided to respond in kind.

“Dear Peter, if you had wanted a bigger part, Why, you should have told me right at the start. By disclosing it at this juncture, You have surely punctured The Alien-balloon, Which I daresay will be grounded soon, Causing a great deal of dismay, To Satyajit Ray,” the director said in his reply.

About a year after this, Arthur Clarke suddenly informed Ray that Wilson had shaved his head and gone off into the jungles to meditate. Wilson too wrote to Ray to say he was relinquishing his rights to the script of The Alien but the film never got off the ground.

Attempts were made by Hollywood big-wigs in subsequent decades, including producer Ismail Merchant, to get Ray to work on the film again but nothing much came of these efforts.

When Spielberg’s E.T. was released in 1982, there were several people – including Arthur Clarke – who pointed out the striking similarities with the script for The Alien, particularly the central relationship between a benign alien and a young boy. Other also pointed out that though E.T. was released by Universal, the project had begun at Columbia Pictures.

Spielberg denied copying from Ray’s script, saying he “was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood”.

Ray possibly had the last word on the matter when he said that E.T. would “not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies”.

Ever had one of those experiences where life seems to be puttering along just fine when something comes out of nowhere and knocks you completely off the tracks? Mine came a few months ago when a health problem took me to a (rather lousy) doctor, who said it could be a minor problem or possibly something very, very serious.

As I waited for the results of various tests, posting on this blog suddenly didn’t seem to be very important. All of a sudden, other things became much more important. It’s at times like this that you start thinking about all the things you wanted to do or should have done, but somehow never got around to doing.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, things turned out pretty good. I was able to get through a pretty bad patch with a lot of help from my wife. And I consulted a second (and far more professional) doctor who set up the right tests and gave me a clean bill of health.

I’ve been meaning to return to blogging for some time but something or the other kept getting in the way. I’ve also been spending a lot of time indulging in my first love – music – and that too kept getting in the way of reviving the blog. In the coming days, I intend to devote equal time to blogging about music and movies. So here goes….

“Ride Lonesome”

“Ride Lonesome” is among the finest of the seven Westerns made by veteran star Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher. By the time the duo got around to this, the sixth in what some refer to as the “Ranown cycle”, they had fine-tuned the formula behind these movies – a protagonist driven by revenge, charming bad guys (sometimes more charming than the hero) and richly drawn characters that overcame all the shortcomings of the miniscule budgets they were working with. 

Ageing bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) is on his way to Santa Cruz with murderous outlaw Billy John (James Best), wanted for shooting several men in the back. Despite knowing that Billy’s elder brother Frank John (Lee Van Cleef) and his gang are pursuing him, Brigade stops at a deserted stagecoach way station to rescue the recently widowed Carrie Lane (Karen Steele). 

Brigade’s group is also joined by amiable outlaws Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Wid (James Coburn in his feature film debut), who want to turn Billy John in themselves so that they can benefit from an amnesty announced by the authorities.

As the group evade a group of Red Indians that has already killed Carrie’s husband and make their way through the desert towards Santa Cruz, it becomes evident that Brigade actually wants Frank John to catch up with them. The two men have a history – it turns out that Brigade is the former sheriff of Santa Cruz whose wife was hanged by Frank John.

Randolph Scott and his campanions repulse an attack by Red Indians in “Ride Lonesome”

Unlike the other Westerns he made with Boetticher, Randolph Scott’s character is up against two villains in “Ride Lonsome” – Lee Van Cleef as the traditional bad guy and Pernell Roberts (probably best known for his turn on TV as “Trapper John MD”) as the charming outlaw who needs Billy John to secure an amnesty so that he can turn his life around.

At times, Sam Boone is more charismatic than Randolph Scott’s “hero”, a taciturn man who seems driven only by the desire to avenge the murder of his wife and even spurns the advances of Carrie. The sparring between Brigade and Boone keeps the audience on tenterhooks, as we don’t know right till the end whether Brigade will deliver on his promise to prevent Boone from taking in Billy John into Santa Cruz to claim the amnesty.

James Coburn in “Ride Lonesome”

Like other movies in the Ranown cycle, “Ride Lonesome” is a small film but the story it tells has the sweep of an epic, thanks largely to a great script from Boetticher’s frequent collaborator Burt Kennedy and the gorgeous cinematography of Charles Lawton Jr.

This was the first of the Ranown Westerns filmed in Cinemascope, which opens up the scale of the movie. The wider screen both captures the grandeur of Boetticher’s favourite locations at Lone Pine in California and emphasises the loneliness of the characters of “Ride Lonesome”.

“Ride Lonesome” is available in a fine transfer in a DVD box set of five of the Westerns made by Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott. 

(For more on the backstory of “Ride Lonesome”, go here. Budd Boetticher provided some insights on the making of the film in this interview.)

“Joe Kidd”

At the time Clint Eastwood made “Joe Kidd”, he was one of the hottest movie stars around the world and had already begun putting in place arrangements that would make him a major player in Hollywood for several decades. This was one of a string of Westerns made by Eastwood in the early 1970s but was probably the weakest of the bunch. 

Though based on a screenplay written by the legendary Elmore Leonard, Eastwood has often said that the story didn’t even have an ending when he began filming with director John Sturges (of “The Magnificent Seven” fame). This isn’t A-list Eastwood or Sturges but there could be many worse ways to spend 88 minutes.

Robert Duvall in “Joe Kidd”

We first come across former bounty hunter Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood) in prison in Sinola, sleeping off a drunken binge before being brought up before a judge. Kidd’s hearing is disrupted by a group of Mexican-Americans led by the revolutionary Luis Chama (John Saxon with a truly horrid Mexican accent), who are protesting the grabbing of their lands by white settlers.

Kidd helps the judge escape while Chama and his group burn the land records and leave town. Soon after, ruthless land owner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) rides into Sinola with his gang and asks Kidd, known for his tracking skills, to help him find Chama.

Kidd turns down Harlan and returns to his ranch, only to find his horses have been stolen and one of his Mexican workers tortured by Chama’s men. Kidd rides back into Sinola and throws in his lot with Harlan. 

As Harlan’s posse makes its way through Chama’s territory, Kidd is sickened by the brutality of Harlan’s men, especially Olin Mingo (James Wainwright) and Lamarr Simms (Don Stroud), who kill several Mexicans in cold blood.

Harlan besieges Chama’s town and threatens to shoot five residents every few hours till the revolutionary turns himself in. He also fires Kidd and locks him up with the townspeople in a church.

By this stage, we know that Kidd will team up with Chama and take on Harlan and it’s all strictly by the numbers.

The plot has huge holes in it and the climax, which features a train ploughing through a saloon, was described by Eastwood himself as a “crazy thing”. John Saxon is never really convincing as the revolutionary and Sturges clearly wasn’t at the top of his game while making this film.

However, the film features solid contributions from several artists who would go on to become regular collaborators with Eastwood. There is a fine jazz-inflected score by Lalo Schifrin and the cinematography by Bruce Surtees soaks up the beauty of locations in Old Tucson and Inyo National Forest. 

“Joe Kidd” is available in a fine anamorphic transfer in the Clint Eastwood Western Icon two-DVD collection that includes “High Plains Drifter” and “Two Mules For Sister Sara”. Though the film shares a disc with “High Plains Drifter”, the quality of the video is more than adequate.

“Man With The Gun”

“Town-tamer” films were a popular sub-genre of the Westerns in the 1950s, with numerous directors and scriptwriters exploring the dilemma of law-abiding citizens forced to resort to the questionable arrangement of hiring a gunman to clean up their town of outlaws.

“Man With The Gun” (1955) marked the directorial debut of scriptwriter Richard Wilson, who had a long association with Orson Welles in the two previous decades. The film is a fairly by-the-numbers account of gunman Clint Tollinger (Robert Mitchum) cleaning up a town that has for long been under the thumb of powerful land owner Dade Holman (Joe Barry). 

Holman surrounds himself with a bunch of brutal thugs who enforce his law in Sheridan City – we know this because Holman’s henchman Ed Pinchot (Leo Gordon) cruelly shoots down a boy’s dog merely for barking at him minutes before Tollinger rides into town.

The townspeople are tired of the violence of Holman’s men but aged Marshal Lee Sims (Henry Hull) has no desire to intervene. Blacksmith Saul Atkins (Emile Meyer), who is head of the town council, learns of Tollinger’s reputation and convinces the citizens to hire him to clean up Sheridan City.

As the film progresses, we learn Tollinger has another reason for being in Sheridan City – he came to the town seeking his estranged wife Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), who manages a group of dancing girls, to find out about their daughter.

“Man With The Gun” is burdened with a talky script and stately score by Alex North that is all wrong. One can’t help but get the feeling that there’s just too much dialogue and too much music in some sequences.

Claude Akins thinks he has the drop on Robert Mitchum in “Man With The Gun”

Mitchum, in his first movie as an independent player after ending a stint with RKO Pictures, is not stretched by his role – he exudes an aura of menace even when he’s smiling, and is totally believable as a man who thinks he’s unfit to be anything other than a town-tamer.

There are bit parts for an uncredited Claude Akins and Angie Dickinson and a nice turn by Ted de Corsia as “Frenchy” Lescaux, the Bowie knife-wielding thug who runs Holman’s saloon. Another flaw is that the character of Holman is given only a few minutes on screen without any dialogue though most of the movie is spent priming the audience for the showdown between him and Tollinger.

“Man With The Gun” is available in a great transfer that showcases its black-and-white photography.

“High Plains Drifter” was the first Western directed by Clint Eastwood but he was already showing signs of the revisionism that would shape his finest effort in the genre, “Unforgiven”. What could have been a simple tale of revenge is elevated to a whole other level by Ernest Tidyman’s quirky script and Eastwood’s assured direction.

Eastwood essentially retains his “stranger with no name” persona from the Spaghetti Westerns he made with Sergio Leone but a supernatural element is what sets “High Plains Drifter” apart from those films.

Clint Eastwood’s stranger rides into the town of Lago

A stranger rides into the mining town of Lago, with Dee Barton’s eerie music and the heightened sound effects – the whistling wind and the wheezing of the stranger’s horse – creating a sense of foreboding. In the space of 15 minutes, the stranger shoots dead three gunfighters and has his way with the town floozy Callie Travers (Marianna Hill) in a barn.

The town is located in idyllic surroundings (Eastwood had an entire town built on the beautiful shore of Mono Lake in California) but its residents appear rotten to the core. They all harbour dark secrets and the stranger has a mysterious connection to Lago which becomes apparent through his fevered nightmares of the town’s marshal being brutally whipped to death. 

The killing of the three gunfighters puts the people of Lago in an unusual predicament – they had been hired to protect the town from a trio of outlaws (Geoffrey Lewis, Don Vadis and Anthony James) who harbour a grudge against the town and are due to be freed from prison.

In desperation, the townspeople decide to ask the stranger to protect Lago. He accepts, on the condition that he can have anything he wants.

The stranger appoints the midget Mordecai (Billy Curtis) the new sheriff and mayor of Lago, raises a rag-tag militia comprising the barber, storekeeper and others to defend the town and takes over the hotel after throwing out all the guests. To the consternation of everyone, the stranger then forces the people to paint the whole of Lago red, renames it Hell and forces them to prepare for a picnic on the day the outlaws are due to arrive.

When the outlaws do ride in, the stranger leaves Lago at their mercy. But since this is a Clint Eastwood movie, we know he’ll be back. 

Though “High Plains Drifter” was only Eastwood’s second film as a director, he tackles things like a pro, which isn’t surprising given his long association with Westerns. Eastwood toys with all the conventions of Westerns and it is only the intelligent script by Tidyman (who won an Oscar for writing “The French Connection”) that keeps this from turning into a parody of Eastwood’s “man with no name” persona.

One question most people ask after watching “High Plains Drifter” is who exactly is the character played by Eastwood. The actor-director has said the stranger was originally written as the brother of the dead marshal of Lago. Eastwood even described the film as an extension of “High Noon”, where too the townspeople didn’t back the sheriff, and stranger and makes sure that they live with their guilt. Eastwood also said he played the stranger “more as an apparition” because that would leave some uncertainty for the audience.

“High Plains Drifter” is available in a decent anamorphic transfer on a Region 1 DVD box set that includes the Westerns “Joe Kidd” and “Two Mules For Sister Sara”. The image can appear a little soft at times as “High Plains Drifter” shares space with another movie on one disc of the two DVD set.

“Breakout”

There are days when you think you have everything lined up for a great evening watching a good movie – the film is Charles Bronson’s “Breakout”, made during the 1970s when he churned out a series of fine action flicks, the cast includes Robert Duvall, John Huston, Randy Quaid and Emilio Fernandez and it’s about busting someone out of prison. 

The sure-fire ingredients for a great Charles Bronson actioner, right? Not really. “Breakout” is a confused, muddled mess despite good performances by Bronson and Quaid.

Businessman Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is framed for a murder in Mexico by his ultra-rich grandfather Harris Wagner (John Huston) and given a 28-year sentence to be served in a prison that allows conjugal visits by his wife Ann Wagner (Jill Ireland). 

After an attempt by Jay to bust out of prison by hiding in a coffin nearly ends in disaster, Ann hires Nick Colton (Charles Bronson), the owner of a struggling airline and a minor conman, to get her husband out of the jail. Colton ropes in his business partner Hawk Hawkins (a very young Randy Quaid) and an ex-flame Myrna (a great turn by Sheree North) for a series of harebrained schemes to get Jay Wagner out of the prison run by an oily warden (Emilio Fernandez).

One scheme even has the lanky Randy Quaid trying to pass off as a Mexican hooker (!) calling on Duvall at the prison.

I truly wanted to like this movie but its uneven tone is all wrong. It goes from dead serious to slapstick comedy in the span of a few minutes. We never really learn why Jay Wagner has been framed by his grandfather though there is some mention of the involvement of some CIA types. (Roger Ebert, in his review, says the movie was based on a real life incident. Maybe we would have been better off if the filmmakers had just stuck to that tale.)

Jill Ireland and Robert Duvall in "Breakout"

“Breakout” is available on DVD in Regions 1 and 2 in a great transfer that shows off Lucien Ballard’s fine cinematography. Recommended only for die-hard Charles Bronson fans.

“The Spikes Gang”

By the time the Mirisch Company made “The Spikes Gang” in 1974, most people believed Westerns were well on their way in riding off into the sunset. Except for actor-director Clint Eastwood, few others in Hollywood would make any worthwhile forays in the genre in the next few decades.

“The Spikes Gang” is a mix between a coming-of-age tale and a revisionist Western that features a stellar performance by Lee Marvin as the unscrupulous outlaw Harry Spikes, who becomes an unlikely father figure for teenagers Wilson Young (Gary Grimes), Tod Hayhew (Charles Martin Smith) and Les Richter (Ron Howard).

Ron Howard, Gary Grimes and Charles Martin Smith in "The Spikes Gang"

The three boys find Spikes near their town, all shot up and bleeding, and hide him in a barn despite finding out that he’s an outlaw with a posse after him. As Spikes regains his strength, he fills the boys’ heads with colourful and romantic tales of holding up banks and living a carefree life off the spoils. 

Spikes soon leaves on a horse gifted to him by Wilson, but the boy’s action angers his domineering father, who administers a brutal whipping with a belt. The thrashing helps make up Wilson’s mind to leave home for a life on the road that is obviously inspired by Spikes’ stories.

Wilson is joined by Tod and Les and the boys drift from town to town, unable to find any work and running short of money. A run-in with a sheriff in a frontier town pushes them into making a desperate bid to rob the local bank but the act has unforeseen consequences – a gun battle erupts and one of the boys shoots dead a state Senator while another drops the loot.

The boys drift across the border into Mexico, get busted by the law for pawning and stealing back Wilson’s gold watch, only to be freed from a squalid prison by Spikes. The outlaw feeds and takes care of them before the boys and he go their separate ways. The boys take up odd jobs with a butcher and at a cantina but are unable to make much of a living.

The boys with Lee Marvin

A second meeting with Spikes leads to the outlaw taking the boys under his wing and making them members of his gang for the planned hold-up of a bank across the border. This robbery too goes horribly wrong – Tod is fatally injured and Spikes’ insistence on leaving him behind leads to a parting of ways.

Wilson goes back to his hometown to deliver a letter written by Tod to his parents, and on his return to Mexico, he learns that Spikes has become a bounty hunter in order to clear his name. Wilson is driven blind with rage when he learns that Spikes has shot and seriously injured Les, and decides to confront the outlaw in his hotel room.

“The Spikes Gang” has a grimy and grungy look that helps reinforce the drudgery and grim life on the frontier. The script by the husband-and-wife team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr (responsible for classics like “The Long Hot Summer” and “Hud”) gives many great lines to Lee Marvin, and he turns in a masterly performance. Even when he’s acting like a father to the three boys, we know Harry Spikes is rotten to the core.

There are no fancy shootouts in “The Spikes Gang” – all the action scenes, especially the final shootout between Wilson and Spikes, are brutal and hit the viewer like a slap across the face. It’s also fun to watch Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith long before they became established performers but one can’t escape the feeling that this Western could have become so much more in the hands of a more capable director. Richard Fleischer had a long career that spanned from film noir (“Armored Car Robbery”) to fantasy (“Conan The Destroyer”) but here, he seems to be painting by the numbers. 

As with the Mirisch Company’s best known Western, “The Magnificent Seven”, and its sequels, “The Spikes Gang” was filmed outside the US. In this case, Spain stands in for both Mexico and the US. “The Spikes Gang” is available in a fine transfer on DVD-R in the MGM Manufactured on Demand series.

“Call Northside 777”

How often have we seen the words “Based on a true story” on the big screen and found out later that the events depicted in the movie we’d just watched had virtually nothing to do with the reality.

“Call Northside 777” (1948) begins with the legend “This is a true story”, and more than lives up that claim. Filmed almost like a documentary by director Henry Hathaway, the movie documents the case of two Polish men who were wrongly arrested and convicted for the murder of a policeman in Chicago in 1932. 

The movie opens with a montage of period footage that details the lawlessness witnessed in some American cities during the prohibition era. On a bleak winter’s day, a policeman is gunned down in a speakeasy, whose owner Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde) fingers Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and his friend Tomek Zaleska.

James Stewart in "Call Northside 777"

The two men are put on trial, convicted largely on the basis of Skutnik’s testimony and given 99-year prison terms. Twelve years after the crime, Chicago Times editor Brian Kelly (Lee J Cobb) is intrigued by an advertisement offering $5,000 for any information regarding the murder of the policeman.

Kelly assigns reporter P J McNeal (James Stewart) to the story, asking him to find out who’s offering the reward. McNeal learns Wiecek’s mother Tillie (Kasia Orzazewski), a scrubwoman, is behind the reward, having saved up the money over the past decade as she’s convinced her son is innocent.

McNeal, who is unconvinced about Wiecek’s innocence, bangs out a report on the poor mother travails in the hope of ending his editor’s interest in the story. But the public response convinces Kelly to goad McNeal into doing more stories about Wiecek.

James Stewart and Kasia Orzazewski in "Call Northside 777"

As McNeal digs some more and meets many of the unsavoury characters linked to the crime, he begins to believe Wiecek is a victim of a miscarriage of justice.

Hathaway treats “Call Northside 777” as if it were a documentary, with several key scenes filmed on location in what look like some tough neighbourhoods. McNeal’s portrayal of a journalist is pretty convincing (I’m a reporter, so I should know) – there are no heroic showdowns, this is just a dogged guy who sticks with the story and is willing to bend a few rules to get the information he needs.

The director’s only nod to Hollywood conventions is the introduction of a twist that allows McNeal to produce new evidence before a pardon board reviewing the case of Wiecek. Other than that, the script sticks closely to the details of the real incident. 

James Stewart made “Call Northside 777” at a time when he was moving away from the boyish romantic leads he had played in the years before World War II to a harder and grittier image that he would use to perfection in a string of Westerns with director Anthony Mann. Another star of this film is the stand-out black and white cinematography by Joe McDonald.

“Call Northside 777” is available in Regions 1 and 2 on DVD with a great transfer.

Once you’ve watched the movie, you may like to read all about the real life incident that inspired it here.

“Springfield Rifle”

There aren’t too many Westerns I can think of that have an undercover agent as the hero. The only two that readily come to mind are Charles Bronson’s “Breakheart Pass” and “Springfield Rifle” with Gary Cooper. 

“Springfield Rifle” (1952) is set in the American Civil War at a time when the Union Army is in desperate need of horses for a planned offensive against the Southern forces. Someone at Fort Hedley in Colorado is tipping off the Southern Army about the movement of horses, allowing raiders to ambush convoys and steal the animals. 

At a time when the use of spies and undercover agents was frowned on and considered despicable by chivalrous military officers, Major Lex Kearney allows himself to be court-martialed for cowardice and booted out of the Union Army so that he can infiltrate the ring of Southern spies that is responsible for stealing the horses.

Gary Cooper is branded with a yellow streak in "Springfield Rifle"

This puts our gallant hero in all sorts of tight spots – Kearney has a yellow streak painted on his back (yes, that’s the origin of the term) as he’s unceremoniously booted out of Fort Hedley, he can’t tell his virtuous wife Erin (Phyllis Thaxter) about the work he’s doing, and his son runs away from home, unable to face the idea that his father is a coward (remember this was the early 1950s, when leads in Westerns were stand-up guys like Van Heflin or father figures like Alan Ladd’s “Shane”).

The rest of this fast-paced film focusses on Kearney’s quest to unmask the Southern spies, smash the gangs of raiders and regain his position in the Union Army. And just in case you’re wondering, the film’s title is derived from a batch of experimental firearms that Kearney and his troops use in the climatic shootout against the bad guys. Though it’s another matter that the real Springfield Rifle entered service well after the end of the US Civil War.

Lobby card for "Springfield Rifle"

Veteran director Andre de Toth’s keeps things moving at a clip, aided by a tight script from Charles Marquis Warren. There are also good turns by David Brian as rancher Austin McCool, Philip Carey as the army officer who accuses Kearney of cowardice and Lon Chaney Jr as a dim-witted and brutal horse thief.

“Springfield Rifle” is available on DVD in regions 1 and 2 with a transfer that is more than acceptable.

For a great collection of stills on the making of “Springfield Rifle”, go here.

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