Western movies


THE DESPERADO. Allied Artists, 1954. Wayne Morris, James Lydon, Beverly Garland, Lee Van Cleef, Dabs Greer John Dierkes, Roy Barcroft. Written by Geoffrey Homes from the novel by Clifton Adams (Gold Medal #121, 1950). Directed by Thomas Carr.

   I finished my inadvertent Wayne Morris Film Festival with this, a surprisingly classy B-western from Allied Artists in the days when they were morphing from Monogram, still churning out second-features but with an eye to moving upscale.

   The plot is the standard revenge story, with Jimmy Lyden (best remembered as Henry Aldrich) out to avenge the murder of his dad, but it’s given a typical 1950s twist: It’s Reconstruction and Texas is run by a bunch of corrupt owlhoots, and when Jimmy runs afoul of them, he goes on the run, a rebellious youth persecuted by an older generation.

   This is a B-western, so it’s not long till he meets up with wanted outlaw Sam Garrett (Morris of course) and the two of them form a shaky friendship that gets tested when Sam cynically lets his new pardner shoot his own way out of a scrap with Lee Van Cleef.

   In fact, cynicism is the mark of Morris’s character here, constantly warning his new buddy not to trust anyone or mix himself up in other people’s fights. When Lyden gets a chance to avenge his dad, Wayne cheerfully urges him to shoot down the unarmed baddies in cold blood, and takes a dim view of his inability to do so. It turns out, though, that other folks have no such tender feelings, and our callow hero gets a murder frame-up added to his troubles.

   With all this and more going on (Lee Van Cleef plays twins, so Jimmy gets to shoot him twice), The Desperado could have easily bogged down in complications, but writer Geoffrey Homes keeps it moving and even throws in a couple of corrupt sheriffs: one (Dabs Greer) likably so and one… well he’s played by Roy Barcroft and enough said.

   Mostly though, the focus is on the uneasy relationship between Morris and Lydon, and it’s here where script, acting and direction come together, and I say this knowing that Wayne Morris and James Lyden are not well-known for deep and insightful acting. But they could rise to the occasions like Strange Illusion and Paths of Glory, and they do quite nicely here.

   Director Thomas Carr was a soul consigned to toil for eternity in B-movies and cheap television, but he took his fate like a low-budget Sisyphus, moving his camera for maximum effect, turning out the best of Bill Eliott’s final westerns with a fluid camera and sure sense of pace, shown here to good effect.

   As for writer Geoffrey Homes (or Daniel Mainwaring, if you prefer) well, his talent was always a variable commodity. His screenplay for Out of the Past is much better than his source novel (Build My Gallows High) which in turn is much much better than any of his other books. His movies range from the excellent Invasion of the Body Snatchers to dreck like The George Raft Story, and The Desperado is somewhere about mid-range: nothing fancy, but solid and enjoyable.

   Oh, and one more footnote: Wayne Morris was a bona fide war hero whose next film after Desperado was Two Guns and a Badge, generally considered the last series B-western. And his first wife was named Bubbles Schinasi.

   Just thought I’d mention it.


TULSA. Eagle-Lion Films, 1949. Susan Hayward, Robert Preston, Pedro Armendáriz, Lloyd Gough, Chill Wills, Ed Begley, Harry Shannon, Lola Albright. Suggested by a story by Richard Wormser. Director: Stuart Heisler

   I’m going to be honest with you. I enjoyed watching Tulsa way more than I ever expected to. And really, this surprised me. For at the end of the day, there’s nothing all that special about this Technicolor melodrama/modern Western hybrid. Directed by Stuart Heisler, who directed Humphrey Bogart in Tokyo Joe (1949) the very same year, the film stars future Academy Award winner Susan Hayward as Cherokee Lansing, an Oklahoman rancher of mixed heritage who hits it big in the eponymous city’s 1920s oil boom.

   When Cherokee’s rancher father gets killed in an accidental oil rig blowout, she decides that the best way to get even with Bruce Tanner (Lloyd Gough), the oilman she holds responsible is for her to join the business herself. Joining her on her ambitious quest to make a name for herself in the oil industry is geologist Brad Brady (Robert Preston) who, to no one’s surprise, ends up falling for the headstrong redheaded beauty. Complicating matters for Cherokee is her longstanding friendship with local rancher Jim Redbird (Pedro Armendáriz), a man who wants no part in Cherokee’s increasingly ruthless and ambitious plans to become an oil tycoon.

   What makes Tulsa worth watching, however, is not the rather mediocre and predictable plot. No. It’s that, for a low budget western from the late 1940s, Tulsa has surprisingly lots to say about both environmental conservation and race relations in Oklahoma. Some of it is heavy handed, but a lot of it was perhaps just subtle enough to make an impact on some moviegoers when the film first opened.

   Still, if message films aren’t your cup of tea, there’s always Susan Hayward, who is a joy to watch. And there’s a rather spectacular fire sequence at the end of the film, with images of rows of oil derricks up in flames. People must have noticed that intense finale, for it was enough to earn the movie an Oscar nomination for special effects in 1950.


THE FAR FRONTIER. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Gail Davis, Andy Devine, Francis Ford, Roy Barcroft, Clayton Moore, Robert Strange, Riders of the Purple Sage. Director: William Witney.

   With William Whitney at the helm, you just know you’re quite likely going to get a motion picture with some down and dirty fighting in it. While The Far Frontier has some well-choreographed fight scenes, it’s more notable for “death by oil barrel.”

   What’s that, you ask? Well, for starters it’s a particularly brutal way to kill someone. There’s a scene, early on in the movie, in which sadistic human traffickers toss oil barrels down a rocky mountain cliff. In the barrels are the very persons who have hired them to transport them illegally across the U.S.-Mexican border.

   That scene, along with Whitney’s name in the opening credits, gives the viewer the sense that this entry into the extensive Roy Rogers filmography isn’t going to be one of the more innocent, child-friendly ones.

   Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s some singing and lightheartedness and Andy Devine, with that goofy and innocent smile on his face, is there to provide some comic relief to the proceedings. But overall, this Rogers film has a slightly darker story. One that involves coldblooded murder, amnesia, and a blood feud that finally comes to a violent conclusion.

   A final note: there are a few un-credited “actors” in The Far Frontier who portray characters who become essential to the plot.

   I’m talking about pigeons, carrier pigeons to be precise. These little birds are the means by which the film’s primary villain communicates with his minions. Fortunately, Roy is able to get one of the pigeons on the side of justice. Who said birds didn’t matter?

PASSION. RKO Radio Pictures, 1954. Cornel Wilde, Yvonne De Carlo, Raymond Burr, Lon Chaney Jr., Rodolfo Acosta, John Qualen, Anthony Caruso. Director: Allan Dwan.

   A conflict over land in old Spanish California flares up into the deaths of several members of one homesteading family, and one of the survivors vows vengeance.

   Cornel Wilde and Yvonne De Carlo strike me as being a couple who are absolutely meant for each other, but surprisingly, in this movie they don’t even get to kiss. She’s the tomboy (!) sister of the woman who’s the murder5ed mother of Wilde’s son, and while she is obviously making eyes at him, he is so busy with revenge, he hardly notices her at all. A passionate affair it isn’t.

   Raymond Burr plays the officer of the police who must bring his old friend to justice. If it weren’t for him, I’d never even have considered saving this movie on tape. (And even so, I didn’t.)

COMMENT:  In Brian Garfield’s book on western movies, he calls what this film as a “Bob Steele” plot. If it weren’t such an obvious slur on Bob Steele, I’d agree 100 percent.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993 (slightly revised).

GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL. Paramount Pictures, 1957. Burt Lancaster (Wyatt Earp), Kirk Douglas (Doc Holliday), Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland (Johnny Ringo), Lyle Bettger (Ike Clanton), Frank Faylen, Earl Holliman, Ted DeCorsia, Dennis Hopper, Whit Bissell, DeForest Kelley, Martin Milner. Screenplay: Leon Uris. Director: John Sturges.

   I don’t think I’m exaggerating one iota when I say that there is an entire generation of Americans (mine) who grew up thinking they knew everything there was to know about the famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Well, as everybody knows now, and should have known then, there’s a lot more fiction than fact in the story of that gun battle, and what led up to it.

   I won’t go into that. I’m sure you can find plenty of sites on the Internet that go into that, in quite come detail,and it won’t take a lot of effort on your part to find one of them. Let’s suffice to say that for the most part the names are the same, although not always, and that Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), Wyatt Earp’s romantic interest, seems to seems to have made up out of whole cloth. [CORRECTION: See Comment #3.]

   What this is is a buddy film, with the often prickly relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday holding the various short episodes together. In one Wyatt saves Doc’s hide, in the next Doc is the only one to come to Wyatt’s assistance.

   It is therefore the performances of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, perfectly cast that makes this movie so memorable. Burt is tall and and as upright as if he were to preach a sermon, and Kirk so scruffy and so disreputable a scoundrel that the audience can’t help but love him.

   Rhonda Fleming is but an afterthought, but a most beautiful one, but for some reason Jo Van Fleet, as Doc’s lady companion/common law wife whom he treats as if with a combination of dislike and contempt, but who has no choice but to come back each time for more. For some reason this made an impression on me when I first saw this movie in my mid-teens that it came back to me immediately when I saw it again last week.

   Although they appear into the movie only as the story needs them, there’s quite a supporting cast of cowboy actors who ought to be mentioned, particularly (and most recognizable) Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Dennis Hopper and DeForest Kelley

   I see that I have not yet mentioned the gunfight. I found it both highly choreographed and confusing, and way down on the list of reasons why I think you should see this movie, if you haven’t already.


EYES OF TEXAS. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Lynne Roberts, Andy Devine, Nana Bryant, Roy Barcroft, Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers. Director: William Witney.

   Whitneyesque. That’s the term I coined in my mind while watching a fairly brutal– comparatively speaking — fight scene in Eyes of Texas, a Roy Rogers film directed by veteran director William Whitney. (Apologies to anyone who coined this term before, but it certainly fits.) There’s just something exceptional about William Whitney’s fight choreography. You can see it as much in the serial The Crimson Ghost, for example, as in this programmer in which Rogers portrays a marshal tasked with investigating a mysterious death and possible insurance fraud.

   True to the Roy Rogers formula, there’s some lighthearted comedy, songs by Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, and the smartest horse in the movies — the one and only Trigger. But in Eyes of Texas, you also get a murder mystery, death by a pack of vicious dogs, a corrupt lawyer, and the rather lengthy Whitneyeque fight sequence referenced above in which Roy gets into an altercation with a gang of hired thugs in which he is bruised and battered, punched and roped. It’s gritty and set to the type of music that you’d expect to hear in an action-packed film serial.

   Of course, a Roy Rogers movie of this era wouldn’t be the same without Andy Devine. In this film, he portrays a doctor caught between townsfolk who have turned on Roy Rogers and his longstanding affection for, and friendship with, Rogers. His blend of physical comedy and general ability to convey pathos when needed works well in this particular entry in the vast Rogers canon. Eyes of Texas may not be the best Western ever made, and it might not even be the best Roy Rogers film, but it’s an entertaining movie from Gower Gulch that punches well above its weight.


RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL. Universal, 1958. Audie Murphy, Gia Scala, Walter Matthau, Henry Silva. Written by Borden Chase. Directed by Jesse Hibbs.

   Audie Murphy may have been the top billed star, but it’s Walter Matthau who steals the show in the 1958 Cinemascope western, Ride a Crooked Trail. The future Academy Award winner portrays Judge Kyle, a rough-around-the-edges, whiskey-drinking, and shotgun-toting small town magistrate.

   When outlaw Joe Maybe (Murphy) comes to town and falsely assumes the identity of a federal marshal, the ornery Judge Kyle takes the young man under his wing and makes him the town’s lawman. Little does he realize, at least at the beginning, that Joe Maybe, along with his “wife” Tessa (Gia Scala) have their eyes on the local bank vault.

   Leading the outlaw gang is the borderline sociopathic Sam Teeler, portrayed to the hilt by veteran character actor Henry Silva. Of course, there comes “the choice.” Does Joe Maybe decide to go straight and side with his newfound friend, Judge Kyle, or does he stay on a crooked path?

   Much of the film is typical Western fare and there’s not all that much in this one that you probably haven’t seen done better elsewhere before. Sad to say, the film’s direction and editing is really at times noticeably sub-par. Which is a shame, because it looks so good, with bright colors and distinctive hues.

   But as I mentioned before, Matthau gives a stand-out performance. It was a relatively early film for him, one made in the first several years of his long and illustrious career. If for nothing else, Ride a Crooked Trail is worth watching for him alone.

NOTE: Dan Stumpf has also reviewed Ride a Crooked Trail for this blog. See his comments here.


THE TREASURE OF PANCHO VILLA. RKO Radio Pictures, 1955. Rory Calhoun, Shelley Winters, Gilbert Roland, Joseph Calleia. Director: George Sherman.

   When is a Spaghetti Western not a Spaghetti Western? When it’s a RKO color feature starring Rory Calhoun and Gilbert Roland. Filmed on location in Mexico, The Treasure of Pancho Villa is a structurally uneven, albeit thoroughly entertaining adventure film that predates not only the Italian Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, but also Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and the ultra-violent Spaghetti and Paella (Spanish) Westerns of the 1970s. The common theme running through all of these genres and subgenres, at least when pertaining to stories set around the time of the Mexican Revolution, is the tension between idealists and mercenaries.

   Such is the case in The Treasure of Pancho Villa. Calhoun portrays Tom Bryan, a somewhat unpleasant, rakish American mercenary working for revolutionaries in the Mexican Civil War. He’s a coldhearted sort, mainly interested in money. And he means business in more ways than one. He carries with him a Lewis machine gun that calls “La Cucaracha” and employs it numerous times throughout the story in order to mow down Mexican troops.

   This violence – death at the hands of mechanized warfare – was a hallmark of many of the Mexican Revolution themed Euro-Westerns produced in the 1970s. In many ways, it represents Bryan’s personality perfectly. For him, killing Mexican troops is just a job and “La Cucaracha” is just useful tool at his disposal.

   In direct contrast to Tom Bryan, Colonel Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland) is an idealist. He’s fighting for his ideals and believes strongly in Pancho Villa. He’s not on the take, can’t be bought or bribed, and is willing to use violence when necessary. He, however, seems not to get too much of a thrill out of it and certainly doesn’t strut around with a Lewis machine gun like his “ugly American” counterpart.

   For a time, the two men find themselves on the same side, both fighting for Pancho Villa. Together, they rob a train carrying gold and begin the process of transporting the loot across rugged terrain in order to deliver it personally to Pancho Village. But when the Mexican revolutionary leader fails to show up, things fall apart between the two men, leading to a series of twists and turns that eventually has them joined together again against a common foe. As I mentioned, it’s a plot that would be followed time and again in Spaghetti Westerns that were set during the Mexican Revolution.

   Spaghetti Westerns, for the most part, didn’t often have unnecessary romantic subplots that only served to distract from the action at hand. Unfortunately, that is not the case in The Treasure of Pancho Villa with the introduction of the character of Ruth Harris (Shelley Winters), an American schoolteacher living in Mexico who has fallen in love with the revolution’s ideals. Bryan’s romantic feelings for her never seem real, nor despite what he says at the end of the film, is it believable that Juan Castro could have seen himself with her.

   That said, The Treasure of Pancho Villa was a surprisingly enjoyable action adventure film. Gilbert Roland was perfectly cast as Juan Castro and [spoiler alert], despite the fact that his character doesn’t end up surviving the onslaught of the Mexican Army, the story told in the movie is about his impact on Bryan’s worldview. For it’s only through his encounter with a man who believed in something more than money, in something greater than enriching himself, that Bryan learns what honor and loyalty are.


GHOST TOWN. Empire Pictures, 1988. Franc Luz, Catherine Hickland, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Penelope Windust, Bruce Glover. Director: Richard McCarthy.

   I’ve always been a fan of the Weird West, that sub-genre that blends elements of horror and the supernatural with Western themes. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to pull off a really cohesive mash-up of the horror and Western genres. There’s always something that just doesn’t quite gel the way it should.

   Maybe it’s because the “rules” of the Western genre are so rooted in human nature and, for the lack of a better term, reality. Maybe it’s because we associate horror with nighttime, rather than with the blazing hot sun. No matter what, I often come away from my excursions into the Weird West with a sense of what might have been, how the proverbial visit might have gone better.

   That’s basically how I felt after watching Ghost Town, a Charles Band production from 1988. Screened in very limited release, this horror Western is better than you might expect, but it’s hardly what you might categorize as a great Western.

   Lead actor Franc Luz, while solid in the part, doesn’t ever seem totally comfortable in his role as Deputy Sheriff Langley, a lawman tasked with locating a missing woman. This quest – the hero’s quest – mysteriously takes him out of the present and into an Old West netherworld, somewhere between heaven and hell.

   Apparently, an entire town is being held hostage from moving onto the afterlife by an undead outlaw named Devlin (the late Jimmie F. Skaggs in an standout role). Truth be told, there’s not a whole lot of logical coherence in the plot. This is unfortunate. It’s almost as if the filmmakers decided that because the supernatural was at work in the story, there need not be an internal logic that would explain how Devlin was able to stay alive past death and hold a whole town in a void.

   Yet, despite my criticisms, I have to admit that I enjoyed watching Ghost Town. The cinematography is quite good. Better than in many horror movies from the 1980s in fact. Most significantly, it’s a fun movie. Not a good movie. But an enjoyable one.


LES SAVAGE, JR. – Return to Warbow. Dell First Edition #65, paperback original; 1st printing, 1955.

RETURN TO WARBOW . Columbia, 1958. Philip Carey, Catherine McLeod, Andrew Duggan, William Leslie, Robert Wilke, James Griffith and Jay Silverheels. Written by Les Savage Jr from his novel. Directed by Ray Nazzaro.

   I was mildly impressed by Les Savage’s novel for the efforts it took to be a bit different; the film he wrote from it impressed me too, but for all the wrong reasons.

   To start with the novel — well actually, before the novel starts, a small-time rancher named Elliot Hollister needed money for his sick wife, but he was already deep in debt and the only friends he had in the town of Warbow were the drifters and low-lifes he met in saloons where he drank to drown his troubles.

   One of these reprobates roped him in on a stagecoach heist, but a third party horned in, killed Elliot’s partner and a popular local businessman and left Elliot holding the bag — but not the loot. So as the story starts, Elliot has served his time and returns to Warbow, where he is universally reviled and suspected of having stashed the haul, and he means to figure out who the killer really was.

   Got all that? Well pay it no mind, because the central character here is Clay Hollister, Elliot’s adult son who has grown up, got out from under the onus of his father, built up the ranch, and bids fair to marry the daughter of the man his daddy is thought to have killed. When his father hits town Clay feels compelled to take him in and the two begin an uneasy relationship punctuated by violent encounters with the locals who still hate Elliot for that killing he never done, plus those who think he can lead them to a fortune in stolen gold, and the mysterious third man, who simply wants him silenced in the surest way possible.

   Savage gives the thing a bit of emotional complexity, particularly as some of Elliot’s persecutors see the results of their work and waver a bit, and he sets the tale in the nasty midst of a Montana blizzard, lending a welcome edge of realism. None of this makes Warbow a great novel, but it does lift it a bit out of the ordinary.

   You can imagine my surprise then, when I watched the film version, also written by Les Savage Jr., and found he had leeched out just about everything that made the book worthwhile.

   The film eschews the wintry setting of the book in favor of that perpetual sunny summertime of just about every other Western ever made. And in this version there’s no Elliot; Clay Hollister (Phil Carey) is an unrepentant robber who breaks from a chain gang with a couple of other bad guys and returns to his home town to recover the loot he left with his weakling brother (a fine performance from James Griffith).

   There are the usual complications: Hollister’s new partners want more than their share of the loot (a wrinkle that recalls Big House U.S.A., reviewed here not long ago) his ex-girlfriend has married upstanding Andre Duggan, and they are raising his son as their own; there’s a posse on his trail; and that brother of his is awfully evasive about where he hid the dough.

   Which is pretty much where things just stop and pot around for awhile. Everyone chases everyone else around the Columbia Western Town set and the familiar environs of Simi Valley. We get a few fights, a bit of shooting, and no real sense that anything’s going anyplace very much. Ray Nazarro was always a competent director, but that’s all he was, and he never enlivens the rather stale proceedings.

   As for the script, well I have never seen an author trash his own work so completely, and I just hope Savage got well paid for it.

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