Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

SADDLE THE WIND. MGM, 1958. Robert Taylor, Julie London, John Cassavetes, Donald Crisp, Charles McGraw, Royal Dano. Screenplay: Rod Serling, based on a story by Thomas Thompson. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Directors: Robert Parrish & John Sturges, the latter uncredited, according to IMDb.

   Saddle The Wind is a Western set on the frontier in the post-Civil War era. Veteran actor Robert Taylor and a youthful John Cassevetes, the latter in one of his earliest film roles, portray brothers Steve and Tony Sinclair, respectively. The two men are irreparably divided over the necessity and propriety of violence. Joining them on their journey into fatal conflict is singer/actress Julie London who portrays Tony Sinclair’s mysterious love interest, Joan Blake.

   The film is as much a Greek tragedy set in the American West as it is a traditional Western. The themes of personal fate, hubris, and historical inevitability all feature strongly in both the film’s text and subtext.

   The philosophical question of whether a man is born bad or goes bad because of his environment — the age-old question of nature versus nurture — is both explicitly and implicitly touched upon throughout the film. Saddle The Wind also explores the effects and ramifications of violence on men and women, and societies more generally.

   The film begins with a depiction of frontier aggression and violence. Larry Venables (a mean-looking Charles McGraw) enters a tavern, demands service, and aggressively queries for the whereabouts of Confederate veteran Steve Sinclair (Taylor). But it’s not Steve with whom Venables ends up doing battle. Rather, it is younger brother Tony, whom Steve always believed had something wrong with him when it came to violence, who engages in a standoff with Venables.

   Tony shoots and kills Venable, setting off a chain of events that spin out of his control. The sick thrill of murdering a man, even if it were justified, goes to Tony’s head. With liquor, his wildness only increases. Soon Tony and a friend are out making trouble for what they perceive to be gathering of local squatters. Leading the group is Clay Ellison (Royal Dano), a Union veteran from Pennsylvania who has a deed to the land.

   It’s not long until Tony Sinclair is angry at — and violent toward — almost anyone who crosses his path, including the local patriarch and landowner, Dennis Dineen (Donald Crisp). This turns out to be a big mistake, and it ends up with older brother Steve having to put an end to his younger brother’s reign of terror. The film culminates in a final, violent showdown between the Brothers Sinclair. The camera work, particularly the angles at which the actors are captured on film, and the music leading up to this crucial event are memorable.

   Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that you may slightly caught off guard. (I watched it a second time just to make sure I understood it correctly.) I wasn’t expecting the film’s main conflict to resolve itself in the manner that it did, but if one does consider it to be a Greek tragedy set in the West, rather than a Western, it all makes perfect sense.

   The film’s biggest flaw, ironically, may have been in casting Julie London for the role of Joan Blake. While London is certainly captivating and her singing of the movie’s eponymous title song has its saccharine charm, her character just comes across as somewhat inauthentic.

   It’s hinted that she’s running from a violent past. Nevertheless, would a woman of her looks and her presumed social status really have joined up so quickly with an obvious immature hothead like Tony Sinclair after knowing him for less than a week? It strains credulity.

   In many ways, Joan Blake is extraneous to the overall taut plot; the conflict between the sober, elder brother Steve and the reckless, younger brother Tony would have likely come to a head even without her presence in their midst. By not further developing the sole significant female character in the film, Serling weakened his overall solid script and made London’s contributions to Saddle The Wind less impressive than they could have been.

   Although Saddle The Wind is unquestionably a Western, there is something very noir about the film, with Cassavetes’s character increasingly spiraling into a hellish realm of senseless violence, all of which culminates in his inevitable doom. None of the characters are remotely happy, at least not for very long.

   The closest we see to true happiness is at the beginning of the film, when Tony Sinclair returns home and is reunited with his brother. From then on, no one really is remotely cheerful, at least not in any normal sense.

   All the characters seem more resigned to their places in the world than particularly happy with them. Violence, death, loneliness, and struggle rule the land. It’s a bleak land, and one does one’s best to make the most of a less than optimal situation. Perhaps this was Rod Serling’s view of the American West?

   In conclusion, Saddle The Wind is a unique film, somewhat distinct from the typical Western narratives of the era. In many ways, it’s a film about a loser rather than one about a hero. But it’s very much worth watching. With solid acting, great scenery, and a beautiful soundtrack composed by Elmer Bernstein, it’s a film that you won’t soon forget, particularly if you really consider what’s really going on with all the characters under their tough Western exteriors.