Wed 13 Mar 2013
THUNDERHOOF. Columbia, 1948. Preston Foster, Mary Stuart, William Bishop, Thunderhoof. Director: Phil Karlson.
Phil Karlson scored solid hits with films like Walking Tall and The Silencers, but he started out at Monogram with Charlie Chan and the Bowery Boys, and when he won his critical spurs, it was in the “B” unit at Columbia with a seldom-seen film called Thunderhoof (1948) — a minimalist Western about the hunt for a dream and what happens when you get it.
This one is lean: Three actors, maybe one or two sets, and the rest filmed outdoors against a barren backdrop, as befits the allegorical story. The hunters are Preston Foster as an aspiring rancher, tough as a horseshoe, but possessed of a soft heart, which has led him to marry saloon gal Margarita (Mary Stuart, who achieved greatness of sorts on The Guiding Light) and befriend/adopt a young wastrel known as “The Kid” (William Bishop, whose career remained undistinguished despite his talent.)
That’s the cast, and the story is equally pared-down; no sub-plots or complications as the three of them track down and capture a legendary stallion with which Foster hopes to start his ranch. But right from the start, it becomes apparent that his avuncular attitude to his wife and buddy is growing irksome to the two, who apparently have some kind of past. And when he breaks a leg, prolonging their return from the wilderness, the tension grows — among the characters and in the gut of the viewer, who feels something dark and disturbing looming above the sagebrush.
What’s looming is emotional reality; the characters in Thunderhoof don’t talk like cowboys in a B Western, they talk like people in real life. They talk about frustration, jealousy and envy, and when they speak you can feel the weary pain of a heart seeking peace. Not that Thunderhoof is talky. There’s plenty of action to fill the brief hour-and-a-quarter of its running time, and the pace never lags. But by the time the plot resolved itself and left two survivors to carry on, I wasn’t sure if I was watching a Western or some incredibly draining tale of emotional violence. Whichever the case, it’s a film you won’t forget.