Category: Westerns


“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.

“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.

“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.

“Warlock”

The 1950s was a decade that produced some fascinating Westerns. Long before the term revisionism was applied to the genre, screenwriters and directors were turn to the politics of the day to fashion tales set in the Old West that had an entirely new way of looking at things.

Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn in "Warlock"

Director Edward Dmytryk’s “Warlock” (1959) begins like a conventional town-taming Western but Robert Alan Arthur’s script, based on Oakley Hall’s novel, includes many complex characters and twists that elevate this film to a whole new level.

Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) and the lawless cowboys from his San Pablo ranch want things done their way in the nearby mining town of Warlock. The movie opens with them humiliating and running out the deputy sheriff while the scared townsfolk watch from behind their closed doors and windows.

Soon enough, the Citizens Committee decides to hire Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda), a feared gunfighter who has tamed several frontier towns, as the marshal despite reservations expressed by some of its members. Blaisdell arrives with his club-footed partner Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), who takes over the local saloon and establishes a Faro parlour so that the duo can make some money on the side while they tame the town.

Anthony Quinn in "Warlock"

Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) is a member of the San Pablo gang who is already troubled by the violence of McQuown and its impact on his younger brother Billy Gannon (Frank Gorshin). Johnny leaves the gang and later takes on the vacant position of deputy sheriff, which pits him against both Blaisdell and McQuown’s boys.

Billy and two others members of the gang are gunned down when Blaisdell decides to enforce an order barring members of the McQuown gang from Warlock, setting in motion a string of showdowns that have some unforeseen consequences.

Arthur’s script provides a lot of material to the three main male leads and Widmark, Fonda and Quinn turn in great performances. But the screenplay doesn’t do justice to the movie’s two women characters – Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels), a peace-loving citizen who develops a romantic relationship with Blaisdell, and Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), a woman of easy virtue and a former lover of Morgan to whom Johnny Gannon takes a shine.

Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark in "Warlock"

Scenes in which Henry Fonda’s laconic killer suddenly begins romancing the town’s Ms Goody Two Shoes just aren’t convincing. Just as frustrating is the effort to inject some romance between Johnny Gannon and Lily Dollar (probably the most suggestively named female character in a major Hollywood production till Pussy Galore in the James Bond flick “Goldfinger”).

Much has been made by some reviewers of the purportedly homoerotic relationship between Blaisdell and Morgan but I find it hard to accept. Morgan is a just a twisted character, a cripple who’s convinced himself that Blaisdell is his meal ticket and that nothing should be allowed to come in the way of their partnership.

I always have time for any decent movie starring Richard Widmark, and he’s pretty good in “Warlock” as his character is transformed from a bystander to one who gets to play a key role in shaping events. Widmark received top billing in “Warlock” and was originally cast as Blaisdell before suggesting that the role be offered to Fonda. 

The movie’s cast includes L Q Jones and a pre-Star Trek DeForest Kelley. “Warlock” is available on DVD in Regions 1 and 2 in a great transfer that shows off the wonderful cinematography by Joe MacDonald.

“Apache Territory”

Every fan of Westerns has probably read at least one of the many novels churned out by the unusually prolific Louis L’Amour or watched a film adaptation of his books. L’Amour led a colourful life, working as a professional boxer and a merchant seaman, before turning to writing and producing a long list of pulpy novels set in the West. 

L’Amour has been well served on television in recent years by a series of films starring Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott. On the silver screen, adaptations of the author’s works have ranged from the eminently watchable “Hondo” (starring John Wayne) to “Shalako”, a dull and plodding mess despite the presence of Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot.

“Apache Territory” (1958), based on the novel “Last Stand At Papago Wells”, falls somewhere in between. Intended as a star vehicle for Rory Calhoun, who also co-produced, this is a slight entertainment that, at just 71 minutes, does not overstay its welcome.

Rory Calhoun in "Apache Territory"

Logan Cates (Calhoun) is a drifter making his way to Yuma when he spots a group of Apaches trying to ambush three men. After firing a few shots to warn the men, Cates rescues Junie Hatchett (Carolyn Craig) from another group of Apaches who have massacred her parents.

Cates decides to hole up at Apache Wells, a water hole surrounded by rocks at the foot of some mountains. There, he and Junie run into Lonnie Foreman (Tom Pittman), the only survivor from the three men he had warned a short while ago. In due course, the trio is joined at the oasis by Jennifer Fair (Barbara Bates), who just happens to be Cates’ ex-flame, her fiancé Grant Kimbrough (John Dehner), and the remnants of a cavalry patrol led by the inexperienced Sergeant Sheehan (Francis De Sales).

Rory Calhoun and Barbara Bates in "Apache Territory"

The motley group turns to Cates to get them out of their predicament despite some opposition from the cowardly Kimbrough and hot-headed soldier Zimmerman (Leo Gordon in one of his numerous appearances as a baddie).

Of course, a movie like this wouldn’t be complete without the good Red Indian. This time round, it’s Lugo (Frank DeKova, an Italian-American suitably daubed with brown face paint), a Pima Indian who decides to help the whites in their stand against the Apaches after Cates stops Zimmerman from killing him.

With food and water running low, the group prepare for a final showdown with the Apaches.

Director Ray Nazarro, who had a long career that stretched from the silent era to Spaghetti Westerns made in Europe in the 1960s, keeps “Apache Territory” moving along but isn’t served too well by screenwriters Charles R. Marion and George W. George, whose script has some truly clunky lines, especially between the teenage lovers Junie Hatchett and Lonnie Foreman. 

“Apache Territory” is available as a made to order DVD-R in its correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio in the Sony Screen Classics by Request series distributed through the Warner Archive. The print used for this transfer hasn’t been restored but remains watchable despite a few sequences with faded colour.

“7 Men From Now”

Every time I watch one of the Westerns Randolph Scott made with Budd Boetticher, I’m struck by how much the director could achieve with so little. These are little films – low budgets, short running times of less than 90 minutes and featuring stars like Scott who were considered over the hill and newcomers like Lee Marvin who were yet to make their mark.

Randolph Scott in "7 Men From Now"

But they were all big on plot, characters and subtext – none of these films has a traditional hero or a villain. In several of them, the hero and villain spend a lot of time together on screen, sometimes even getting to like or respect each other.

“7 Men From Now”, the first movie that brought together star Randolph Scott, director Budd Boetticher and scriptwriter Burt Kennedy and led to the “Ranown cycle” of Westerns, is a simple and spare tale told with a lot of elegance.

It all starts simply enough – former sheriff Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) is on the trail of seven men who killed his wife, a clerk at a Wells Fargo office, during a hold-up in the town of Silver Springs. But Kennedy’s script – surprisingly his first produced script – deftly adds layers of complexity and introduces twists, none of them contrived, that elevates this Western to a completely different level. 

The movie opens on a cold rainy night, with Stride walking into a cave where two men are sheltering. Stride tells the men his horse was eaten by Chiricahua Indians, has some of their coffee and talk turns to the robbery at Silver Springs. Stride realises the two men were in on the robbery but there’s no big shootout. The screen cuts to the men’s horses in the rain, they twitch as shots ring out and the next morning, Stride rides out with the horses.

Stride’s journey brings him into contact with John Greer (Walter Reed) and his wife Annie (Gail Russell), Easterners making their way west to California, as well as Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and his sidekick Clete (Donald Barry). Stride and Masters have a shared history, with the former sheriff have locked up Masters twice in the past.

Masters makes it clear that he intends to ride along with Stride so he can get his hands on the $20,000 the robbers stole from the Wells Fargo office. Matters come to a head between Stride and Masters in another scene set on a rainy night – a scene that Boetticher later described as the best he had ever directed.

Lee Marvin and Donald Barry in "7 Men From Now"

Stride, the Greers and Masters sit inside a cramped wagon, drinking coffee, as the raffish Masters jokes about John Greer’s lack of masculinity and, as one reviewer put it, verbally makes love to Annie Greer. This scene alone shows how right Burt Kennedy was about getting Lee Marvin for the role of the baddie – he’s possibly one of the few actors who can be convincing while menacing a solid-as-a-rock hero like Randolph Scott.

Soon after, Stride and Masters go their different ways but we know their paths will cross again soon, and only one of them will emerge alive from the showdown.

Lee Marvin’s character is more flamboyant than the good guy – sporting a bright green scarf and endlessly practising his fast draw – while Scott’s former sheriff is a cold fish who blames himself for his wife’s death; she took a job at the Wells Fargo office because he was too proud to work as a deputy after losing the election for the sheriff’s post.

“7 Men From Now” is much more than a Western, it’s one of the greatest little movies around. Do yourself a favour and watch it. The film is available in a Special Collector’s Edition in Regions 1 and 2, featuring a transfer based on a restoration done by UCLA and a nice documentary on the movie, Budd Boetticher and his collaborators. 

For more on the backstory of “7 Men From Now”, the TCM website has a great article here.

By the way, if you hate the horrible theme song at the start of the movie, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Both Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy hated it too.

“The Ox-Bow Incident”

The issue of mob justice and vigilantism has often inspired filmmakers over the decades but few movies offer as unflinching a look at the consequences of taking the law into one’s own hands as William Wellman’s “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943).

This intense film has a running time of a mere 75 minutes but packs the wallop of something twice that length. I vividly remember the first time I saw this movie about twenty years ago, and I felt just as disturbed by its stark ending when I watched it again recently.

Dana Andrews in "The Ox-Bow Incident"

Set in Nevada in 1885, the film begins with Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan of “MASH” fame) riding into a one-horse town for a drink, only to find tensions caused by a spate of cattle thefts. Carter is a hot-head who soon gets into a fight with rancher Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence).

Just then, news comes in that Farnley’s friend Larry Kinkaid has reportedly been robbed of his cattle and murdered. Soon enough, Farnley and Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) have gathered together a group of men to track down those who attacked Kinkaid. Though described as a posse, this is nothing but a lynch mob with little interest in justice.

Carter and Croft reluctantly ride along with the posse, which comes across three men with a herd of cattle – Donald Martin (a young Dana Andrews in one of his first major roles), Juan Martinez (an equally young Anthony Quinn) and Alva Hardwicke (portrayed by silent movie veteran Francis Ford, the brother of director John Ford) – and decides to mete out summary justice.

Anthony Quinn, Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda and Frank Conroy in "The Ox-Bow Incident"

Most of the men in the mob have no interest whatsoever in establishing whether the three men were actually involved in any crime – they’re too busy drinking and baying for blood in order to right a perceived wrong. Martin’s claim about buying the cattle from Kinkaid without a bill of sale makes no difference with this lot – they’re more focussed on circumstantial evidence like Kinkaid’s gun that is found in Martinez’s possession.

Even Carter is no traditional hero – though he and Croft are among seven men who vote against hanging Martin, Hardwicke and Martinez, the duo actually joined the posse to ensure they would not be suspected of involvement in the attack on Kinkaid.

Where a lesser director would have resorted to mawkishness, Wellman handles the heartbreaking climax and its impact on the members of the posse with great sensitivity.

Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan in "The Ox-Bow Incident"

Every time I watch Hollywood movies from the 1940s and 1950s, I’m struck by how good almost all the actors in supporting roles are. Frank Conroy is excellent as the prissy Major Tetley, who may have never actually seen action in the Civil War and views the posse as a way of making a man out of his pacifist son, while Jane Darwell is the cackling Jenny Grier, the only female member of the posse who participates with relish in activities that would make hardened men squirm.

Here, Darwell portrays a woman who is the complete opposite of the loving matriarch she played in the classic “Grapes Of Wrath”, which too starred Fonda. “The Ox-Bow Incident” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but lost out to another classic – “Casablanca”.

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