Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Sierra Baron (Fox, 1958)




Fox’s eleven Western offerings for 1958 (quite a normal quantity for those days!) were a mixed bag. There was a great one, The Bravados, and there were a few of good ones, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, From Hell to Texas, Cattle Empire and The Fiend Who Walked the West, and a few OK-to-middling pictures such as Ambush at Cimarron Pass, Blood Arrow and Flaming Frontier, as well as, of course, a couple of duds, Villa!!, Showdown at Boot Hill (Charles Bronson’s first Western lead) and Wolf Dog (a semi-Western with Jim Davis). Sierra Baron was in the OK-to-middling class.


It was a Brian Keith picture, and we’re going on a bit of Brian Keith outing for the next few posts, so brace yourselves. These introductory words will do also for the next couple of articles, therefore:


A keen Western buff, Keith (1921 to 1997) did a lot of oaters, big screen and small, notably of course as The Westerner on TV in 1960 (reviewed), though for a single series of 13 episodes. “Only four or five of these were really good,” he said. “But those four or five were as good as anything anybody has ever done.” (I think he meant the Sam Peckinpah ones). Keith rarely even watched his own pictures when they were finished (like Robert Mitchum) and he said, “I never gave a hoot, I just took what came along” (very similar to Mitchum’s famous dictum, “Baby, I don’t care”) and in some of his Westerns, that was rather evident.




He started very well, as the best thing in Paramount’s Arrowhead in 1953. Admittedly it wasn’t hard to be the best thing in that movie because it was a nasty, noxious film with a sour Charlton Heston in the lead. Still, Keith was memorable as the experienced Army captain. He was also impressive in The Violent Men two years later as Stanwyck’s slimy two-timing lover. Run of the Arrow, well, that was a pity (what a trashy picture), but I liked him as the gun-runner in Fort Dobbs, also in ’58 though for Warners, three months before Sierra Baron. He would go on to do Villa!!, junk, and would be directed by Peckinpah again in The Deadly Companions, a film let down by the bad acting of a miscast Maureen O’Hara, and that was followed by the disappointing The Raiders and a whole lot of Western TV shows and TV movies. The Hallelujah Trail and The Rare Breed were absolutely awful. It wasn’t really the greatest Western career, I’m afraid, but you get the sense that he could have been really good in the genre. If he’d bothered.


Sierra Baron was one of those 1840s California yarns, though much of it was a pretty formulaic crooked-banker-has-treed-the-town plot which could have been set anywhere and at any time in ‘the West’. Keith plays hired gun Jack McCracken, in the pay of the banker, who changes sides to fight for the good guys.


It was directed by James B Clark (below), who was not the brightest star in the Western firmament. This was his first feature oater in the director’s chair. He would return to Keith with Villa!! in October the same year, unfortunately, and in 1960 would do the flawed One Foot in Hell with an aging Alan Ladd. Mostly though it was TV shows, especially The Monroes. The direction of Sierra Baron is pedestrian.



James B Clark
The writing was plodding too. The screenplay was by Houston Branch, who sounds like the office of a Texas bank. He was responsible for the perfectly dreadful Belle of the Yukon and the pretty poor River Lady, so he was no great shakes Westernwise.
The idea is that the Delmonte family have a huge ranch in California, part of a 1761 Spanish land grant, but gold is discovered on the land, rancher Delmonte is murdered and American prospectors flood in, followed by a motley band of hangers-on, inc. crooks. The good news: the chief crook, banker Rufus Bynum, who obviously ordered the death of the rancher, is played by Steve Brodie. One of the better bad-guys, Brodie did more Westerns than any other genre, from Badman’s Territory in 1946 right through to an episode of the TV How the West Was Won in 1979, almost invariably as villain. In Sierra Baron he has a great line in natty vests, all the colors of the rainbow. Sadly, though, he had no derringer, which I felt he needed. Derringers were pretty well standard equipment for crooked bankers. Naturally, he has the tame local judge (Pedro Galván) and sheriff (Reed Howes) in his pay.
Top bad guy Steve Brodie


Loyal Delmonte factotum Felipe (José Angel Espinosa, aka Ferrusquilla, whom you may remember from Two Mules for Sister Sara) goes down to Mexico to bring back the heir to the throne, young Miguel (New Yorker Rick Jason, doing his best to be Spanish, in his only ever feature Western) and of course Miguel will bravely resist the crooked bully Bynum.



José Angel Espinosa, aka Ferrusquilla


Miguel starts with an interesting combat, fighting Bynum henchman Goheen (Lee Morgan), who has brass knuckles, by taking off a Spanish spur and slashing Goheen’s face with it. Naturally, though, Miguel won’t be able to beat Bynum alone. He will be aided by Bynum’s erstwhile employee McCracken. This was a standard ploy: Mexicans were quite incapable of winning without US advice, help and direction (see every American Western set in Mexico).



Gunslinger Keith helps out the ranchero


Miguel has a glam sis, natch (Rita Gam, no more Spanish than her ‘brother’, and equally unWestern, though she was Scott Brady’s love interest in Fox’s Mohawk two years before) and of course now that McCracken has changed sides he falls for her, and, let it be said, vice versa.



It’s lerve


Another strand of the plot now enters the story as Miguel rescues a deranged American wagon-trainer, Mrs Russell, from the desert and saves her life. They too will fall in love, to complement the Keith/Gam romance. Sue Russell is played by Mala Powers, who had graduated from
radio Westerns like Red Ryder and The Cisco Kid to big-screen low-budget Westerns and TV shows. Most notably she was Rose of Cimarron in 1952, and you may also remember her in The Yellow Mountain with Lex Barker and Rage at Dawn with Randolph Scott.



It’s also lerve


The California senate unexpectedly recognizes the Spanish land grants, which undermines crooked Bynum’s stance. He raises a mob with flaming torches to go burn the Delmonte hacienda but the brave wagon-trainers, urged on by Sue Russell, gallop to the aid of the Delmontes and a climactic showdown gun-battle ensues. You may guess the outcome, as it is rather predictable, like most of the movie, though you may not guess the fate of Brian Keith.


The picture was shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor in nice Mexico locations, so Fox didn’t do it entirely on the cheap. The DP was Alex Phillips, the Canadian-born Mexican cinematographer who shot quite a few Westerns in Mexico, both Mexican ones and American ones.



Cinematographer Alex Phillips


It’s not bad. It’s watchable for Brian Keith, who, even on auto-pilot, was quite good.


The costumes are interesting.



3 Responses

  1. Fair enough! I will await with interest to see what else pops up in this Keith fest.
    Wow,Jeff you really do not like Maureen O'Hara,and I actually quiet like THE RARE
    BREED though the first half of the film which has Jimmy dealing with nasty Jack Elam is by far the best.
    I understand SIERRA BARON was shot,more or less back to back with VILLA which I
    have never seen but would really like to.As far as I know VILLA has never been
    released on DVD and the French Blu Ray of SIERRA BARON was unwatchable a pan &
    scan nightmare. Luckily Amazon France refunded my money. I live in hope that
    SIERRA BARON will be restored in it's correct ratio someday and the same goes
    for VILLA which interests me for Keith and Phillips' involvement.
    I might point out that Phillips did work on THE GLORY GUYS but the DOP was the
    great James Wong Howe-his photography was the strong suit of the film.
    Jeff,as you are the go to guy for these sort of things Brian Keith's swivel
    holster and indeed Colt revolver seemed very non 1840's.
    Finally to finish on a sad note it's interesting that both the leading men in
    SIERRA BARON ended up taking their own lives for,more or less the same reason.

    1. It's funny how one takes against certain actors and likes others. There's often no particular reason. But I could never stand O'Hara in Westerns. It may be that when I was growing up she played such unsympathetic characters and that somehow (and raher stupidly) got transferred to her. Her characters were such a pain in the you-know-where in The Deadly Companions, Mclintock!, The Rare Breed and Big Jake, that she was hard to like! She was beautiful, though, I will admit that.
      The shooting from the holster was Indeed quite nifty.
      Yes, the great James Wong Howe, a real master.

  2. Jeff, good write-up of what I think is an unusual Western for its time. First of all, I like SIERRA BARON. CBS Affiliate Channel 3 WREC-TV Memphis, Tennessee used to show it a lot on THE EARLY MOVIE, during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Not very many Westerns were set in California during the 1848-49 time period.

    The makers of SIERRA BARON went to some care, to make it look as authentic as they could. I commend Georgette Somohano for her costume supervision. How do you like Jack McCracken's(Brian Keith) leggings? They weren't dressed in costumes from studio wardrobe. The pistols and holsters were close to being right for the time period, but I couldn't really get a good closeup of one of the pistols. At least they weren't carrying weapons from the 1880's or '90's. I would have been really impressed if McCracken(Keith) had drawn out a 6-shot Pepperbox pistol. Although, I was impressed with Miguel Delmonte's(Rick Jason) use of his spur in a fight.

    It is a crying shame that this movie can't be seen in its proper 2.35:1, because the Mexico locations are splendid and Alex Phillips' photography shows it. Why won't 20th Century Fox release this movie in correct form?

    I believe that I would change sides to, for the love of Felicia Delmonte(Rita Gam). I really enjoyed the dialogue between Jack(Brian Keith) and Felicia(Rita Gam), especially when he was telling about how he acquired is first horse, at age eight. Brian Keith and Rita Gam won the acting honors in this movie.

    Here is a site that has some authentic pictures of the time period. I especially like the figure 3 picture of the man armed to the teeth.

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