by David L. Vineyard.

BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE. Columbia Pictures, 1958. Randolph Scott, Craig Stevens, Barry Kelley, Tol Avery, Peter Whitney. Based on the novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward. Directed by Budd Boetticher.


    Synopsis: Riding home through the border town of Agry, Tom Buchanan gets caught up in a feud between the lawless Agry brothers and a family of Mexicans.

   Buchanan Rides Alone is a key film in the group of films Budd Boettticher did with Randolph Scott in the late 1950’s and is something of a comment on society as a whole. There’s nothing new about the newcomer riding into town and ending up cleaning the place up, but Buchanan goes about it in a singularly tough minded manner.

   The characters played by Scott in these films are good men who have been driven by circumstance to become hard, and while they carefully guard a nugget of their humanity beneath that tough exterior they can be ruthlessly violent and even brutal when it’s warranted.


   Because Buchanan Rides Alone is the first of a series of books and the character a sort of drifter, there is less backstory than usual in a Boetticher film. Buchanan would seem to be just another drifting cowboy looking for work — until someone pushes him the wrong way.

   At that point it becomes clear just how far the Scott hero will go to restore what he considers his personal honor. In some ways his Buchanan has some relationship to John D. MacDonald’s later Travis McGee character, particularly in The Green Ripper. Once he has unleashed the man beneath the surface someone is going to pay in blood before he resumes his easy going facade.

   That’s true of most western (and other) heroes but Scott and Boetticher together so refined and perfected the Scott persona in their movies together that they develop a sort of cinematic shorthand, a gesture, a look, a single word, that says more than pages of expository dialogue and background in other films.


   In some ways Scott’s take on the iconic western loner is the dominant one in the western imagination, however important the Gary Cooper, John Wayne, or even Clint Eastwood model. Likely the truest moment in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is when the townfolk remove their hats reverently at the mere mention of Randolph Scott’s name.

   Barry Kelly is the corrupt town boss and Craig Stevens (just before Peter Gunn) a smooth gunfighter. There is nothing unusual in the plot, but the writing and direction are as superior as would be expected in a Boetticher film, and while the plot may be tried and true, the approach to character makes this one notable.

   The surprising thing about the Boetticher films is that while they are set against the wide open spaces of the west, they are closely focused character studies of men under stress, particularly the Scott hero, who reveals depths of feeling and humanity with little more than a pained look or by holding himself a little apart from everyone else in the film.


   I imagined the Buchanan of Jonas Ward’s series of books as someone along the line as Gary Cooper, but Scott at this time was at the height of his appeal, and his take on Buchanan combined a gentle charm that could turn to steel with a glint of his narrow eyes.

   And it isn’t as if there weren’t close bonds between Scott and Cooper. Scott got his start in Hollywood as Coooper’s dialogue coach for The Virginian and replaced Cooper in the popular Zane Gray series of films. By the time he made the series of films with Boetticher his version of the western hero was almost as iconic as Cooper’s, though it has only been in recent years he’s gotten real credit as an actor in them.

   At first glance Buchanan Rides Alone only seems to be a superior product of the heyday of the adult western, but there is more to the Scott character and to Boetticher’s direction than there may seem to be on the surface.


   In the confines of a fairly common western story Boetticher is commenting on both contemporary American society, and also saying something about the idealized American character. Scott’s hero in these films is the man who does the right thing even when it’s messy and society might prefer that he look the other way. Once he is unleashed he will have a reckoning, whatever the price.

[EDITORIAL COMMENT.]   A complete list of the “Buchanan” books by Jonas Ward can be found following my review of Buchanan’s Black Sheep, a much later entry in the series. David originally left this movie review as a comment following that earlier post. I’ve revised it slightly for its appearance here.