ARROW IN THE DUST. Allied Artists, 1954. Sterling Hayden, Colleen Gray, Keith Larsen, Tom Tully, Jimmy Wakely and Lee Van Cleef. Screenplay by Don Martin (No, not that Don Martin). Based on the novel by L. L. Foreman. Directed by Lesley Selander.

   By 1954, Allied Artists was still trying to shake off its Monogram roots, but not trying too hard. That was the year they released Two Guns and a Badge, the last series Western, but they were still churning out Bowery Boys pictures and “A-Minus” westerns like this, directed by B-Western stalwart Leslie Selander with his usual flair for action and a surprising feel for the quieter moments.

   Hayden is a deserter who masquerades in a major’s uniform and rallies a decimated cavalry unit to help get a wagon train past the injuns. And that’s pretty much it. Arrow incorporates lots of stock footage from Arizona (1940) but someone thought to take the cast out to Sedona and Red Rock, so it matches well, and photographer Ellis Carter blends it seamlessly.

   There’s also a literate screenplay. Hayden’s character matures convincingly, acting and reacting off a rounded cast of supporting players who talk like actual people. Screenwriter Martin even includes the familiar quotation: “A mule is unapproachable in devilment, fathomless in cunning, born old in crime, of disreputable paternity, and incapable of posterity, stolid, imperturbable, with no love for anything but the perpetration of tricks and its daily rations,” and it fits right in.

   There’s a genuine movie moment here where they’re burying dead soldiers while the wagon train pushes on, composed like a Ford film, the wagons rolling endlessly in the background while Hayden recites the 23rd psalm over the fresh graves. No overacting, no arty camera angles, just letting the scene speak for itself and find fitting context in “He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

   But my favorite part (I know you were burning to find out) is a quick-draw like I’ve never seen before: Hayden lays down the law to Van Cleef, and when another owlhoot goes to draw, Hayden pulls his own gun out of his belt, raises it overhead with both hands to cock it, sweeps down, levels and fires faster’n you could say “Sh-t, what was that?” I had to run it over three times just to see if I saw it right.

    Arrow in the Dust is little remembered today, but for fans of the cast and solidly-built Westerns, it’s a must-see.