Western movies

Random but relatively Uncontroversial
Musings by DAN STUMPF on:

THE RETURN OF THE CISCO KID. Fox, 1939. Warner Baxter, Lynn Bari, Henry Hull, Cesar Romero, Robert Barrat, Kane Richmond, Chris-Pin Martin and C. Henry Gordon. Written by Milton Sperling. Directed by Herbert I. Leeds.

   I’ve told the story before, but…

   The little Repair-and-Sale shop where I bought my first typewriter had a framed photo of Warner Baxter on the wall, signed “Thanks for everything, Warner Baxter” and a typewritten note beneath it to the effect that the owner of the shop once loaned then-salesman Baxter $100 to go to Hollywood and get started in the Movies.

   The typewriter purchase was in the late 1970s, and I doubt that anyone then much noticed the photo nor remembered Baxter as the guy who told Ruby Keeler, “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” much less as the actor who won an Oscar for playing the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona (Fox, 1929.)

   In the years following Old Arizona, Fox shuffled Baxter into a number of Gay Bandido roles, including a reprise of Cisco in 1930, but in 1939 they apparently toyed with the idea of a series of B-features around the character and launched it with The Return of the Cisco Kid.

   That this was intended as a B series was clear from the assignment of director Lederman and writer Sperling, who spent most of their time working on things like the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series. And though Return is done with the customary Fox gloss, the lack of ambition is evident throughout, particularly in some of the worst fake-riding-past-back-projection scenes ever committed to film.

   Baxter himself looks a bit tired and tatty to be dashing about as O. Henry’s Robin Hood of the old west, and his romancing of Lynn Bari (a B starlet if ever there was one) has a rather pathetic edge to it, particularly as she prefers the younger Kane Richmond for story purposes. In fact, when Fox launched the Cisco series proper later that same year, they promoted Cesar Romero to the lead — more on him later, but now on to the Plot.

   It’s Western Plot #A-5: heroine & father (Henry Hull, feasting on the scenery even more than usual) swindled out of their ranch. Fortunately they cross paths with Cisco and his pals Lopez (Romero) and Gordito (Chris-Pin Martin) a sort of 2-man Hispanic Defamation Society: dirty, lazy, dishonest and greasy, fleeing criminal pasts in Mexico for more promising prospects here in the U.S. “Where perhaps,” Cisco muses, “I weel become the Presidente!”

   Okay, we’ll just let that one pass uncommented-on. Suffice it to say Cisco takes a hand, there are fights, chases, merry badinage, clever trickery and a surprising lack of gunplay for a B-western. And an ending that rather surprised me so I’ll throw in a


   Robert Barrat is the heavy in this one, a dishonest Sheriff, callous swindler and something of a tough guy — he beats a young Ward Bond in a fair fight and challenges Cisco to duke it out at one point — so when the two have their last confrontation one expects a bit of conflict.

   Only it doesn’t happen. What we get instead is that Cisco warns Barrat to leave his friends alone, and Barrat promises to do that if Cisco stays out of his territory. The deal is struck, there are press releases, smiling photo-ops, and Cisco rides away to further adventures.

   And that’s it. To western fans accustomed to the cathartic conclusions typical of the genre, it may come as something of a disappointment, and it certainly caught me off-guard, but on reflection I rather think I’ll remember this one long after other B-westerns have faded from recollection.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA. Embassy Pictures, 1966. John Carradine (Count Dracula), Chuck Courtney (William ‘Billy the Kid’ Bonney, Melinda Plowman, Virginia Christine, Harry Carey Jr., Walter Janowitz, Bing Russell. Director: William Beaudine.

   Fans of hybrid Westerns/vampire B-movies rejoice! For Billy The Kid vs. Dracula has all the elements one might expect in a film with such a captivating title. Things like clumsy dialogue and acting, silly special effects, and a plot just formulaic enough that almost works. But most importantly, Billy The Kid vs. Dracula has John Carradine in it.

   Now, if you’re not a fan of Carradine and don’t particularly care for his unique gait and voice, this obscure low-budget production definitely isn’t for you. If you are like me and happen to appreciate Carradine (all the while knowing he appeared in some truly dismal features), then you might appreciate how much he towers, both literally and figuratively, over all the other actors in the otherwise forgettable film. His portrayal of a vampire lurking about in the Old West is both campy and creepy. Although I am hardly a specialist on horror Westerns, I dare say there’s really nothing quite like it out there in any movie before or since.

   More than anything else, the movie’s premise is so absurd that it almost makes this ludicrous experiment in genre-bending a cult classic, one of those bad horror movies that’s so bad that it’s actually good. Almost being the key word.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

DRUMS ACROSS THE RIVER. Universal International, 1954. Audie Murphy, Walter Brennan, Lyle Bettger, Lisa Gaye, Hugh O’Brian, Mara Corday, Jay Silverheels, Regis Toomey, Morris Ankrum, Bob Steele. Story & screenplay: John K. Butler. Director: Nathan Juran.

   If you’re looking for a Western of economical running time that nevertheless manages to squeeze in a many of the genre’s most durable tropes, look no further than the little known Drums Across the River. You’ve got a father-son conflict; scheming bad men, working at the behest of big city folks, trying to stir up a race war between Whites and Indians; a town filled with people eager for quick and swift justice; a man bitter at the Indians, blaming them for the death of his mother; and a plot to steal a safe.

   All in less than 80 minutes. But you know what, for the most part it works quite well.

   Directed by Nathan Juran, this surprisingly effective Universal-International movie stars war hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy as Gary Brannon, a man caught up in a scheme to illicitly access gold mines on Ute territory. Against the wishes of his father, Sam, portrayed effectively by character actor Walter Brennan, Gary (Murphy) sets out with Frank Walker (Lyle Bettger) and his gang to get the gold, as it were. Soon enough, he realizes that Walker may not be all that he seems.

   The rest of the film follows Gary as he tries to rebuild his relationship with his father, make peace with the Utes, and stop Walker’s men from inciting racial violence. Look for Hugh O’Brien as Morgan, a truly evil henchmen and killer that Walker hires to threaten Gary. With some beautiful cinematography and outdoor scenery, this one is worth seeking out.

40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS. Columbia Pictures, 1967. Audie Murphy, Michael Burns, Kenneth Tobey, Laraine Stephens, Robert Brubaker, Michael Blodgett, Michael Keep. Director: William Witney.

   Although he wasn’t nearly the screen presence as was Randolph Scott, war hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy, particularly in his later films, began to emerge as a more than capable actor to portray a flawed protagonist or an anti-hero.

   That’s certainly the case for 40 Guns to Apache Pass, Murphy’s final movie appearance. Directed by William Witney, this surprisingly effective and visually captivating Western has Murphy portraying U.S. Army Captain Bruce Coburn, a man with anger issues and an impossible mission: secure the shipment of 40 rifles before the Apaches attack and kill every last settler in southern Arizona.

   Filmed almost exclusively outdoors, this taut and gritty Western dispenses with many of the lighthearted moments that permeated many of Murphy’s 1950s films. It’s a bloody and dusty world out West, and Bruce Coburn is more than willing to beat and berate his men into submission. Not only does he make an enemy in one of his subordinates, a scheming Corporal Bodine (Kenneth Tobey), he also ends up driving a young man into the ranks of outlaws and traitors.

   It’s Coburn’s impetuousness and his inability to think through how his behavior affects his men that ends up causing him the greatest amount of distress. As such, 40 Guns to Apache Pass can well be categorized as a minor classic in the psychological Western genre, an otherwise little known film that is skillfully directed and, while not having the most original plot in the world, is nevertheless a pleasure to watch.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

SEMINOLE. Universal International, 1953. Rock Hudson, Barbara Hale, Anthony Quinn, Richard Carlson, Hugh O’Brian, Russell Johnson, Lee Marvin, Ralph Moody, James Best. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   There’s a sequence in Seminole when U.S. Army officers are seen trudging through the hot, humid, dank Florida swamps in search of Seminoles to expel from their native lands. It’s incredibly gritty and well crafted and hints at a moral darkness in the heart of the soldiers’ commanding officer, a man gone mad by his hatred of Native Americans. To that extent, Seminole is very much part of the western genre, although the story takes place in Florida, not Arizona.

   Directed by Budd Boetticher, best known for his taut western films starring Randolph Scott, Seminole features Rock Hudson as Lt. Lance Caldwell, an upstanding young army officer who believes in peaceful accommodation with the Seminole tribe. At every turn, he is denigrated and opposed by his commanding officer, Major Degan (Richard Carlson), a scheming, duplicitous man consumed with hate and venom.

   The Seminoles also have their own internal disputes. The Seminole leader, Osceola (Anthony Quinn in a less than stellar performance), must face down the warmongers among his own people. To no one’s surprise, Osceola and Caldwell have known each other since they were children and are divided not just in political allegiances, but also by their affection for the same woman, Revere Muldoon (Barbara Hale).

   Altogether, Seminole is distinguished not so much by its cinematography or acting, but by its humanism. The Seminoles, who aren’t portrayed as mindless warriors, bend over backwards for peace with the U.S. Army. While at times the movie can at times feel just a tad too preachy, it’s nevertheless a welcome reminder that not all Hollywood films from the early 1950s portrayed Native Americans as nothing more than enemies in the way of white settlement. In this Boetticher film, the story is far more complex.


APACHE DRUMS. Universal International, 1951. Stephen McNally, Coleen Gray, Willard Parker, Arthur Shields, James Griffith, Armando Silvestre, James Best and Clarence Muse. Written by David Chandler, from “Stand at Spanish Boot” by Harry Brown (as stated in the credits; no record of publication known). Produced by Val Lewton. Directed by Hugo Fregonese.

   The last film and only Western of a legendary producer, this is more Val Lewton’s film than director Fregonese’s or writer Chandler’s. The whole approach — a mostly-unseen menace and gradually growing tension, punctuated by moments of shock and horror — harks back to classics like The Seventh Victim and I Walked with a Zombie.

   Which is a good thing, because as a Western, it ain’t much. Director Hugo Fregonese (Man in the Attic, Savage Pampas, etc.) was always a reliable craftsman, but not much more. In his hands, the fights, chases etc. are capably done but strangely unexciting. What makes Apache Drums memorable is Lewton’s feel for the characters and their growing sense of entrapment.

   And the characters are a well-realized lot. Stephen McNally headlines as a raffish gambler run out of town, who returns to warn the disbelieving townsfolk of imminent danger; Coleen Gray, memorable in Red River and The Killing, shows genuine indecision about her feelings for him, while Willard Parker projects stolid blandness as the thudding voice of authority.

   In the supporting cast, Arthur Shields plays yet another reverend, but more complex than usual this time, subject to serious errors of judgment balanced by acts of courage. James Griffith is fine as a smarter-than-usual cavalry officer, and Clarence Muse brings real dignity and pathos to a small part — as he always did.

   The solid characterizations keep Apache Drums watchable, even in the dull stretches, and when the scary parts come, with the townspeople trapped in an old church, unable to see the drum-beating attackers till they leap in from overhead like harpies, the tension really ratchets up. And there’s a truly nightmarish bit toward the end with Willard Parker a captive of the Apaches, locked outside the church, unseen from inside, screaming at everyone not to let him in!

   I guess Val Lewton will always be remembered for those remarkable films at RKO, but Apache Drums is a fitting, if minor, coda to a great career.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TWO FLAGS WEST. 20th Century Fox, 1950. Joseph Cotten, Linda Darnell, Jeff Chandler, Cornel Wilde, Dale Robertson, Jay C. Flippen, Noah Beery Jr., Harry von Zell, John Sands, Arthur Hunnicutt. Director: Robert Wise.

   I watch a lot of movies. A lot. So it takes quite a bit for a film, or a sequence in a film, to really and truly stand out in my mind. You know what I’m talking about — those indelible moments when you realize that an actor has been perfectly cast and his character does something in a manner that takes you by surprise.

   There’s a moment like that at the tail end of Two Flags West, a thematically and visually captivating Western directed by Robert Wise. The movie, which takes place in New Mexico during the Civil War, tells the story of a formerly imprisoned Confederate Calvary unit which joins up with the U.S. Army. Leading the men, the so-called ‘Galvanized Yankees’ from Dixie is Col. Clay Tucker (Joseph Cotton) who, after rueful consideration, decided to take up an offer from Union Captain Mark Bradford (Cornel Wilde): in exchange for their liberation from a Yankee prison camp, Tucker and his men will serve out West with the U.S. Army and fight the Indians.

   As you might imagine, things don’t go so smoothly. Not only does Tucker butt heads with the acerbic and borderline sadistic Major Henry Kenniston (Jeff Chandler), he ends up developing romantic feelings toward Kenniston’s now widowed sister-in-law, Elena (Linda Darnell), a Spanish girl from California. Problem is: both Kenniston and Captain Bradford (Wilde) also have romantic inclinations toward her.

   Fortunately, this soap opera aspect to the film doesn’t overpower its other major theme, namely the reconciliation between North and South. Indeed, much of the film is best understood as a character study of two men — the farsighted Tucker (Cotton), a landowner from Georgia and the bitter, vengeful Kenniston (Chandler), a shortsighted man prone to rage.

   It’s not until the film’s very end, when Kenniston finally redeems himself, that one realizes that Two Flags West is no ordinary Western. Filmed in crisp black and white under the skillful direction of Wise, it’s definitely a minor gem that fans of the genre should seek out.


MARVIN H. ALBERT – The Law and Jake Wade. Gold Medal #553, paperback original, 1956; Gold Medal #756, 2nd printing, movie tie-in edition, 1958.

THE LAW AND JAKE WADE. MGM, 1958. Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, DeForest Kelley. Screenplay by William Bowers, based on the novel by Marvin H. Albert. Director: John Sturges.

   I’ve never been a big fan of Marvin H. Albert, but this ain’t bad. Like all the best Gold Medal originals, it starts with a crackle of mysterious action as Marshal Jake Wade travels to a nearby town to break Ben Swift, a condemned killer, out of jail. The jailbreak is handled with the terse violence one expects in a Gold Medal, and we soon learn that Marshal Wade himself used to ride what they call The Outlaw Trail, and he’s repaying Swift back for saving his life back in those days. Been me, I’d a let him hang, but that wouldn’t have made much of a book, I guess.

   It seems Wade hates and fears Swift, who has been trying to find him for more than a year — the result of a misunderstanding over the loot from their last job together, which was last seen in Jake’s possession. Jake buried the loot in a fit of remorse, and has built himself a decent life, as they say in westerns, complete with a career as an upright lawman and a fetching fiancée named Lorna, but none of this makes a damn to Ben, and soon we’re off on a long, punishing ride to recover the loot, with Jake and his bride-to-be the unwilling captives of Ben and his henchmen.

   The ensuing action is pretty gripping, what with raiding Comanches, blizzards, rugged mountains, and the ever-present tension as Jake works to maneuver his captors to destruction. But the real emphasis is on the relationships between the characters, as it quickly becomes apparent that our hero won’t get away from these owlhoots until he understands them.

   And likewise, he won’t be able to rescue Lorna until she understands him. A nice touch this, and it lifts the story a bit out of the ordinary — as does the climax, when Jake realizes he can’t really escape at all, and calmly waits for his fate to overtake him.

   Albert evokes some fine tension by concentrating on the small stuff: the effects of having one’s wrists tied for days on end, the constant attention to keep Jake and Lorna secured and apart, and the careful cat-and-mouse maneuverings of Jake and his captors. But this is primarily a book about the characters, and he does an exemplary job of balancing thought, feeling and action…. plenty of action.

   When they filmed this in 1958, MGM and producer William Hawks did well by it: they got director John Sturges, back when he was lean & fast, Robert Surtees to photograph it, and William Bowers to fashion the script. Bowers specialized in comedy-westerns, including Alias Jesse James and The Sheepman, and he even injected some humor into Henry King’s fatalistic The Gunfighter. Here, he imparts a laconic lilt to the proceedings that makes the action scenes somehow more intense and brutal by way of contrast.

   The blizzard is omitted, probably for reasons for reasons of economy and expeditious film-making, but they don’t stint on the wide-open scenery and they even provide a highly cinematic ghost town for the Comanche fight, and the final showdown—possibly borrowed from Yellow Sky, but no less exciting for that. And the acting….

   The acting is what academics call top-notch, with the performers slipping easily into their parts. Robert Taylor plays the marshal Randolph-Scott-style: tight-lipped and square-jawed, the perfect foil for Richard Widmark’s talkative and brutal bad guy. Patricia Owens (who starred in The Fly that same year) has little to do as the fiancée, but she does it capably. And Widmark’s gang includes Henry Silva, Robert Middleton and DeForest Kelly, who had a nice line in smiling cowboy bad-guys in those pre-Star Trek days.

   The only thing that puzzles me is why they changed so many names: Ben Swift becomes “Clint Hollister;” Lorna becomes “Peggy” and Henry Silva’s character, named “Henry” in the book, is now “Rennie.” Most puzzling of all, a major character named “Otero” in Albert’s novel is listed as “Ortero” in the credits.

   I guess it’s just one of those unsolved mysteries of The Cinema. Don’t let it spoil the movie.

Editorial Comment:   It wasn’t planned; it’s only one of those great cosmic mysteries of the universe called a coincidence. But Jonathan reviewed this same film on this blog exactly one year ago today.

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