DUEL ON THE MISSISSIPPI. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Lex Barker, Patricia Medina, Warren Douglas, Craig Stevens, John Dehner, Ian Keith, Celia Lovsky. Screenplay by Gerald Drayson Adams. Directed by William Castle.

   The Western movie dominated Post-War Hollywood into the early 1960’s, and there were several sub=categories of the form. including the Northwestern (usually Mounties and sometimes the Klondike gold strike), the modern Western set in more or less contemporary times, the Frontier, the Trail Drive, the Gunfight, the Cattleman vs Sheepmen, Cavalry vs Indians, the Mountain Man, the Empire Builder, Old California, and the Southern (which sometimes was a pirate movie or historical, but also sometimes a Western as it is here).

   Each had its own tropes, but the Southern was perhaps the only variation on the Western to regularly include sword fights as a staple, outside of the Old California story. You can probably count the number of sword fights in regular Westerns, on the fingers of one hand, though they did show up in some of the old Cisco Kid B films.

   But in the Southern they were commonplace regardless of the historical era in films like Mississippi Gambler, The Iron Mistress, and Gambler from Natchez (the latter a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo).

   Duel on the Mississippi has two of them, one with epee and the other machetes.

   The year is 1820 and the place Louisiana, and save for their presence in the background nary a word is ever mentioned about slavery. It seems to have entirely escaped the notice of the film makers, I think there is only one black actor, an actress, with a spoken word, not even a “Massa” to be cringed at.

   Anyone not knowing history would be at a loss to know all those black actors weren’t playing paid hands.

   I guess one way to avoid the elephant in the room is to completely ignore it is there.

   That out of the way, this is a handsome little Technicolor Southern adventure film in the more or less Frank Yerby tradition of some sex, some arrogance, violence, a bit of class consciousness, and a fiery heroine vs a stalwart hero. He’s a better writer than it suggests but in some ways Yerby was the Mickey Spillane of the historical novel. He brought a new level of sex and violence to the genre in the Post War era just as Spillane did the mystery.

   He didn’t write this one, but if you know his work you will understand why I mention him in relation to it.

   The stalwart hero is Andre Tulane (Lex Barker), the handsome and only a bit arrogant son of French sugar cane planter Henri Tulane (John Dehner). It seems the Tulane’s and other planters are under attack from the Delta Men stealing their harvested cane, raiders from the bayous led by Hugo Marat (Warren Douglas) who is partnered with riverboat owner Lili Scarlet (Patricia Medina) and her father old Jacques Scarlet, one of Lafitte’s pirates pardoned after the War of 1812 by James Madison.

   The wealthy landowners won’t allow Jacques to buy land, and Lili hates them for it.

   Woman scorned and all that. French woman scorned at that. Red-haired French woman scorned too. The Tulane’s know how to pick an enemy.

   When Andre captures Lili during a raid she escapes, but then he learns his father’s loan has been sold to Jacques Scarlet’s daughter and she is taking him to court. To save his father from going to jail for failing to pay the $30,000 he owes Andre agrees to become Lili’s bonded slave, but not before challenging murderous duelist Marat to a duel at sunrise.

   The plot is pretty predictable, Andre and Lili loathe each other so they fall deeply in love through all the hate. Marat is jealous and plans to cheat Jacques and have Lili for himself. There is a crooked mill owner who sold Lili the mortgage on the loan in cahoots with Marat who sets Andre up to be killed, and finally there is a big raid on the raiders hideout when Lili proves her worth, and Andre’s Mother (Celia Lovksy) warns that it is time to learn to accept people for what they are and not their birth.

   Craig Stevens does get to sword fight with Barker as he practices for the duel, as does Dehner. Dehner is pretty good, so is Barker, I suspect Stevens is a stunt double. Douglas isn’t bad in his scenes either. Decently choreographed sword and machete fights are bonuses.

   Barker was no great shakes as an actor, but he was tall, handsome, hit his marks, athletic, and had a high IQ plus spoke numerous languages and grew up a rich kid rejecting it to make it on his own as an actor. He was always at least adequate and often more than that and the camera liked him. He might not bring the skill of a John Payne or the charm of a Dale Robertson to this kind of role, but he didn’t embarrass himself or the viewer and he was always believable as a hero.

   Medina is a bit flowsy-looking for this part, or maybe the Technicolor isn’t flattering, but she is very good playing the kind of role she could play in her sleep. She does an acceptable Rhonda Fleming/Virginia Mayo substitute.

   Douglas is always a decent villain. Nothing spectacular, but capable, though it’s a little tough when a man his size has to do a threatening face to face scene with Lex Barker towering over him. To Douglas’s credit he almost pulls it off, thanks to having a gun in one hand, and quite a bit of dialogue building him up as more dangerous than the movie ever shows.

   I don’t generally rate movies, but this one is a B- or C+ in a forgiving mood, which isn’t at all bad for what it is. Adams could do this kind of plot all day and Castle was a competent director, sometimes more, before he started relying on gimmicks.

   In the right mood and to kill a short hour and a half Duel on the Mississippi isn’t bad, and distracting enough that I didn’t once wonder where Cheetah, Winnetou, or Dr. Mabuse was once despite Barker’s presence.