The Kid from Texas
The Kid from Texas, the title of Audie Murphy’s first Western movie, will do very well also to head up this look at his Western career because he was very much a Texan and his youthful appearance was, throughout, a key element of his appeal.
From spring 1950, when The Kid was released, all through the 1950s Audie made Westerns at a rate of nearly two a year on average, and when the dreaded 60s dawned, a time when the public seemed to have lost interest in the big-screen oater, Audie rode on regardless, being one of the few to buck the trend. He appeared in fifteen in that decade, as well as episodes of Whispering Smith on TV. Altogether, therefore, counting Whispering Smith as one, he did 34 Westerns, and must be regarded one of the chief figures in our noble genre.
The Westerns weren’t all excellent, but some were, and even in the weaker ones he always seemed the fresh-faced Westerner roamin’ the range and beating the mean hombres when the going got tough. He was enormously popular, and though he sometimes seemed fed up with what he saw as the rut he had got himself into (he once said tiredly “I guess my face is still the same, and so is the dialogue; only the horses were changed”) for the audiences who paid to see his regular Western movies that was a good thing, not a bad one. They liked the formula and wanted it to continue.
The kid as kid
Audie Leon Murphy was born in Hunt County, Texas in 1925, the sixth of twelve children of a far from prosperous family. The boy was a loner with mood swings and an explosive temper. His father deserted them in 1939 and his mother died in 1941. Audie left school in fifth grade to pick cotton for a dollar a day and find other work to help support his family. It must have been a truly traumatic time. He once said, “I can’t ever remember being young in my life.”
After Pearl Harbor Audie tried to enlist but was refused because of his youth and lack of weight and height. In June 1942 he tried again, declaring his age to be 18, and was enlisted.
When he was discharged from the Army in September 1945 he was one of America’s most decorated soldiers. For example, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor after he single-handedly held off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour in France in January 1945, when he was 19, then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition.
Murphy was affected by what would now be called PTSD. He suffered from insomnia and bouts of depression, and he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. A 1947 medical examination revealed symptoms of headaches, vomiting, and nightmares about the war. He took sleeping pills to help prevent the bad dreams and became dependent on them, until he locked himself alone in a hotel room for a week to break the addiction.
When actor and producer James Cagney saw the July 16, 1945 issue of Life magazine with its profile of Murphy, he invited the young man to Hollywood. Cagney and his brother William gave him training in acting, voice and dance, but the association ended in disagreement.
Murphy collaborated with Hollywood writer David ‘Spec’ McClure in writing an autobiography, To Hell and Back, which would later be filmed by Universal and star Audie as himself.
In February 1949 he married the actress Wanda Hendrix but it only lasted a year. She claimed he once held her at gunpoint.
He had a few small parts in movies in 1948 and ’49, then making a mark leading the cast as a juvenile delinquent in Allied Artists’ Bad Boy. Universal Studios signed him to a seven-year contract at $2,500 a week in late 1949. They thought he would be ideal in Westerns.
1950: Audie is Billy and Jesse
There was an astonishing average of over one Western per week released throughout the 1950s, 600 in total, a figure we can only dream of now, and Universal made 72 of them. Audie was in at the start with The Kid from Texas (1), released by the studio in March 1950.
It was logical that Audie would play Billy the Kid, and indeed his long-lasting baby face secured him ‘kid’ roles well into the 1960s. Audie was actually already 25, whereas the real Bonney died aged 21, but the star does look incredibly young. For yes, The Kid from Texas tells the tale of Billy the Kid (being Audie, they invented the fact that Billy came from Texas, which of course he did not) and it is one of those annoying movies that begin with a mendacious voiceover saying, “The facts were as you will see them.” This pseudo-factual approach is strengthened by the spoken commentary (by Parley Baer) that punctuates the narrative, giving a ‘documentary’ feel to the film. Many movies were perfectly happy to tell the fanciful legend of Bonney/McCarty/Antrim (take your pick) and have a lot of fun but without absurd claims as to veracity. But for some reason makers of Westerns often felt moved to claim historical authenticity, even for the most ludicrous exaggerations and falsehoods. Universal director Kurt Neumann and writers Robert H Andrews and Karl Kamb went down this route but the story of Billy as told is not “the facts”: it is in fact complete bunkum.
But as a Western movie it’s still a lot of fun. Purely as a Billy the Kid film it was no worse than many another and a lot better than some, despite the monkeying about with “the facts”. It did well at the box-office. Murphy’s fame helped a lot and casting him as a troubled youth resorting to violence didn’t hurt.
Later the same year Audie would give another violent youth the same treatment when he played Jesse James in Kansas Raiders.
But before Kansas Raiders Audie appeared in Sierra (2), released in May. Sierra, based on the Stuart Hardy novel The Mountains Are My Kingdom, was a remake of Universal’s 1938 black & white melodrama Forbidden Valley with Noah Beery Jr. It was far from Audie’s greatest Western. It had a rather improbable plot and in it Murphy showed limited range as an actor. He spent most of it being surly, like his part in Bad Boy.
It was directed by Alfred E Green, a real vet who went right back to being an actor in the Selig Polyscope days in 1912, directing features, as Al Green, from 1917. Sierra was the last of only four Westerns he ever directed in that very long career, so he was hardly a specialist. The picture is attractive to look at. It was shot in Technicolor by Russell Metty and the locations round Kanab, UT are really nice. There are some great shots of running horses.
The co-star was Wanda Hendrix, still Mrs. Murphy at the time, though the marriage was on the rocks and they would soon divorce. There’s a story that during the filming the Murphys camped in the bed of the dry Kanab Creek but a sudden cloudburst caused a flash flood. Audie “leaped on the back of his horse, grabbed Miss Hendrix and rode up the canyon-side to safety.” Pity the cameras weren’t rolling. They could have used that footage in the movie.
In Kansas Raiders (3), Murphy’s Jesse is a decent boy shocked by the brutalities of Quantrill’s band. He leaves Missouri to join Quantrill in Kansas because Redlegs have burnt his farm, hung his Pappy and maimed his Ma in a fire-bombing. He’s a goodie Jesse just as he was a goodie Billy the Kid in The Kid from Texas.
Because he’s so good he can’t take the slaughter meted out by the Quantrill band and shoots Bloody Bill Anderson dead during the sack of Lawrence when Anderson wants to hang a Union captive. Of course Jesse was not at Lawrence and did not shoot Anderson, but poetic license, you know. In the end, however, he is the only one to stand by Quantrill (played as a cruel megalomaniac by Brian Donlevy, who was also Quantrill in Woman They Almost Lynched later). We also get brother Frank (Richard Long), two Youngers (James Best and Dewey Martin) and a junior Dalton (Tony Curtis).
The whole thing is another travesty. The movie has its points (for example, the Irving Glassburg Technicolor cinematography) but all in all, Kansas Raiders is another you could hardly define as great. Still, a least it deals with the Civil War, an aspect usually glossed over by Jesse James movies (too difficult to present that part in a good light, perhaps) and for its time it was quite brutal. It’s not a children’s programmer. And at least it shows the James gang as adolescents, which they were. The actors were in fact in their twenties, whereas the historical gang members were younger (in 1864 Frank was 21, Jesse 17, Cole Younger 20, Jim Younger 16) but the actors do a good job of being green juveniles. All Jesse James movies have played fast and loose with history and any resemblance of the stories of those films to actual fact was purely coincidental and deeply regretted by the studios. Well, that’s fair enough. You don’t watch cowboy films to get an accurate portrayal of American history.
Still a Kid
There were, curiously, no Audie Westerns in 1951 (when he was loaned out to MGM for The Red Badge of Courage). When ’52 arrived, well, he’d played Billy the Kid and Jesse James. Why not make him outlaw Bill Doolin this time? The Cimarron Kid (4) – Audie inevitably the kid – was an early Western of Budd Boetticher. Once again it’s complete baloney historically but once again it’s fun.
It starts off with a neat, respectable, besuited young man, the Cimarron Kid (Audie, naturally), being advised by the kindly prison governor about keeping to the straight and narrow now that he is to be free. It must have been a very nice prison because Frank Ferguson (tragically uncredited) is the avuncular warden. Young Cimarron declares that he will indeed go straight and sets off for his new life but wouldn’t you just know it, the very train he travels on is held up by his pals the Daltons. And one of the gang, Red Buck (Hugh O’Brian in a shock red wig and beard) blurts out that Kid is a friend, so of course the passengers think he’s in on the robbery and want to lynch him. He is thus obliged to escape and join up with the gang. Ah, cruel fate.
Bill Doolin (for the Cimarron Kid is Bill Doolin, you see) reluctantly pillages express offices, trains and banks all over Oklahoma, and falls for a girl (Beverly Tyler). Really he wants out and to go to Argentina and start a ranch with Beverly and live HEA. But he needs that stake to do it, so continues robbing. Eventually Doolin is turned in by his girl, realizes the good sense of this and they swear they’ll wait for each other and be happy when Bill gets out (probably after 99 to life considering what he has done). So you see, you ought not to watch this film for a true account of the career of the Dalton or Doolin gang. Still, you might watch it if you are an Audie fan, overlooking his still rather wooden performance. Or even if you like fun 50s Westerns with mucho action and some of those lovely Universal locations and classy color photography. It’s Charles P Boyle behind the camera, a much better than average photographer, and Tuolumne County, Cal. stands in nicely for Oklahoma.
Later in ’52 Audie swapped Budd Boetticher for Don Siegel and made Siegel’s first feature Western (and first film in color) The Duel at Silver Creek (5), in which Audie played the (still inevitable) Silver Kid. It’s a fast-paced, almost lurid picture, a revenge plot as slick gunman/gambler in black leather the Silver Kid hunts down the malefactors who killed his daddy. He hires on as deputy to Sheriff Stephen McNally. “He didn’t have a face of a killer,” says McNally in voiceover narration, “but he had the cold-steel look of one.” This seems to reference what a fellow soldier once said of Murphy: “Don’t let that baby face fool you, that’s the toughest soldier in the Third Division.” Murphy was in fact actually very tough. He reputedly once frightened a drunken, misbehaving Lawrence Tierney, one of the more notorious brawlers in Hollywood, into leaving a party without raising his voice or physically harming Tierney.
It’s one of those Westerns where everyone gallops at full speed all over the place. No posse can simply gather and ride out of town; they have to gallop out. Ditto the gang. Also Audie. In fact everyone. Usually they do this while shooting, much of it in the air, as they so often did in bad Westerns. It serves no purpose whatsoever but may have been fun for the extras. When dismounted, in the (frequent) gun battles, they ‘throw’ their shots, as if that might make the bullets go faster. Honestly, it’s all a bit cheesy. But maybe that was the point.
There’s much plotting and skullduggery, double-crossing galore, Murphy doing some acrobatic stunts, a very Samuel Fullerish Main Street showdown with Mexican gunslinger Johnny Sombrero (Eugene Iglesias), and it all climaxes in a big shoot-out at the gang’s lair. The baddies are all killed or surrender and Audie gets the girl (Susan Cabot). It’s routine and predictable, but it’s vigorous, fast-paced and done with gusto. Siegel was good at moving-camera shots and unusual angles, and this gives interest.
Audie sheds the ‘kid’ tag
Audie seemed more confident somehow, and his next Western, Gunsmoke (6), released in early 1953, in which he was once again paired with Susan Cabot, was even better. Audie was now becoming established as a Western lead, much as the likes of Rory Calhoun, say, or George Montgomery, and Gunsmoke showed him on good form. The story tells of gun for hire Reb Kittridge (Murphy) who wants to settle down and get a ranch in 1890s Montana. Audie, in keeping with his tough-guy gunman part, appears unshaven and in dirty clothes sometimes, which was quite a departure for him. He at last seemed ready to ditch the ‘kid’ label. This was Nathan Juran’s first Western as director. He’d been art director on seven, including Winchester ’73, so presumably had learnt something of the craft. Indeed, the movie is properly paced, with the right blend of action and conversation/plot. He would do two more Audie oaters.
Juran proved competent but Frederick de Cordova was perhaps an odd choice to direct Audie’s next outing in the saddler, Column South (7) later on in ’53. De Cordova had only ever directed one Western, the ho-hum The Gal Who Took the West, in 1946, and Column South would be his last. It wasn’t that bad, though, if a bit plodding. The dialogue is, I fear, pretty corny and the actors are obliged to deliver predictable and unoriginal lines. The screenplay and story are by a certain William Sackheim, the second of only three Western movies he wrote. It’s a Cavalry/Indians story, set in 1861 and dealing with Navajos and Apaches. It’s also a ‘brink of the Civil War’ story, as US Army officers prepare to take sides in the coming conflict. Audie is a brave lieutenant, Jed Sayre, one of those who understands the Indians and is even friendly with them but who has to deal with an insensitive, even stupid commander, Capt. Whitlock (Robert Sterling), who doesn’t get it at all, preferring to hate the redskins and act foolishly. The plot has been done many times. Naturally, Capt. Whitlock is accompanied by a glam sister, Marcy (Judy Garland-lookalike Joan Evans, who was to return to fall for Audie again in 1959) with whom Lt. Audie can first disagree then fall in love.
Audie’s next Western was Tumbleweed (8), the third Murphy oater of the vintage year 1953, and the best. It was directed by Juran again and it’s a very ‘visual’ Western, with Russell Metty photography of great Death Valley and Vasquez Rocks locations in Technicolor. There are fearsome Yaqui Indians who stake Audie (who is again unshaven and sweaty and more grown-up) out to die in the sun and wipe out a wagon train. Sheriff Chill Wills prevents a saved Audie from being lynched, so it’s all go. The title refers to a scruffy old nag who turns out to be distinctly fleet of foot. It’s definitely one of the very best Audie oaters and Murphy himself counted it a favorite.
Murphy was on a roll because his first Western of 1954 was another ripper. Audie Murphy was very modest about his Westerns (he once said, “I’m working under a great handicap . . . no talent”) but actually he was good in them, and got better and better, and a few of them were really well produced and directed as well. Ride Clear of Diablo (9) is tightly paced and well acted. It’s a revenge tale as Audie arrives in Santiago after being informed by his father’s lawyer Meredith (William Pullen) of his pappy’s death, murdered at the hands of rustlers. Being Audie, it’s not revenge he’s after in the sense of gunning the killers down in Main Street, still less bushwhacking them – perish the thought – it’s more arresting them and bringing them to trial. Naturally, the lawyer wearing a suit and all, he’s in on the rustling gang. He works with a crooked Sheriff Kenyon (were there any honest lawmen in B-Westerns? Yes, a few) Paul Birch, Mike Malone from Cannonball. This isn’t a spoiler, pards, because we are shown this crookedness in the first reel. So there we have the set-up for a pretty standard plot, but it’s well done. The girls? Oh yes, of course. They are the sheriff’s pretty niece Laurie (Susan Cabot yet again; she was getting to be an Audie steady) and Abbe Lane as the sexy saloon singer. Being Audie, you may guess which one he finally marries.
So, what’s good or special about this film? Well, first we have a classic Dan Duryea as the laughing bandit Whitey. As doubtless you know, Duryea specialized in laughing and would give any passing hyena a good run for his money. Think of Along Came Jones, for example, which he cackled his way through with Gary Cooper in 1945 or his Waco Johnny Dean in Winchester ’73 with James Stewart in 1950 where he chuckled himself hoarse. There were those who accused Mr. Duryea of overacting. Dan, overact? But you can’t help liking him and that laugh is a bit infectious. At one point you can see serious Audie on camera crease up a bit despite himself while Whitey is guffawing. Or maybe he was smiling wryly at having his scene stolen.
George Zuckerman and DD Beauchamp the Great did the screenplay and the movie was helmed by Perry Mason director Jesse Hibbs who the following year was to direct Audie in his autobiographical To Hell and Back. This was Hibbs’s first Western in the director’s chair but the gallopin’, fist-fightin’ and shootin’ is very well-handled and well-paced.
Murphy was still so baby-faced and innocent-looking (and much neater and well-shaven in this one) that all the characters, especially the bad ones, think he won’t last a minute in a saloon gunfight but Audie has a certain steely look in his eyes and is quicker on the draw that anyone supposes (unusually so, one would have thought, for a railroad engineer) and keeps on coming back from impossible missions alive. The naïvety is heightened by the fact that we know in the opening sequence of the film who shot his daddy but poor Audie doesn’t catch on right till the end. The relationship between him and the Dan Duryea character is actually rather well done and develops subtly. Ride Clear of Diablo is a highly enjoyable Western and a leader in the Audie canon.
Western No. 10 was also in 1954 (as in ‘52, he did three this year). Drums Across the River (10) was Nathan Juran’s third and last Western with Audie. It’s very much in the tradition of the post-Broken Arrow pro-Indian Western. The story starts in Crown City, Colorado when young freighter Audie, whose Ma has been killed by the Utes, is planning an expedition with ultra-slimy Lyle Bettger – a villain from his first camera shot – and his henchmen to cross the river in defiance of a treaty and prospect for gold in Ute lands. Audie’s dad is statesmanlike Walter Brennan, who has forgiven the Utes for killing his wife and tries to dissuade his son from crossing that river. But oh, the intemperance of youth; Audie will not heed these paternal words of wisdom (though we sense he will by the end of the movie) and all hell is let loose – luckily for an action Western.
Almost immediately the party is attacked by Utes under Jay Silverheels, son of Chief Ouray. Naturally, evil Lyle has deliberately provoked the fight. He is working for the sinister Indian Ring, “our friends in Denver” as he calls them, who want an Indian war so that they can snatch the Utes’ land and win juicy contracts from the Army. There is, in fact, more than a whiff of historical truth to these despicable rings; unscrupulous but shadowy businessmen did their utmost to incite war for the profits that were involved.
It’s quite a watery Western, with some good wet scenes, such as Audie walking to the scaffold under a beating rain, a fistfight in a drinking trough and multiple crossings of the river. You might almost accuse it of being art.
The last Western for a bit
Next came a remake of Universal’s hit Destry Rides Again, this time called simply Destry (11) and directed once again by George Marshall (occasionally directors did remake their own pictures; Cecil B DeMille was a past master at it).
Taking over from James Stewart was always going to be very challenging and poor Audie was doomed from the get-go. To be fair to him, his baby-faced modesty and quiet manners were ideal for the part. But how are you going to follow Jimmy Stewart’s Destry? Audie does his best and he wasn’t half as bad an actor as he thought himself to be but it was a hard act to follow.
Mari Blanchard was in the saloon in the Frenchy part. Perhaps to differentiate her from Shelley Winters in Universal’s earlier, non-Marshall remake, Frenchie (1950), Mari was called Brandy. She does the job competently, singing, dancing and wiping off her ‘warpaint’ for the sake of Destry.
The ’54 Destry does have two great character actors in small parts, Thomas Mitchell as the town drunk made sheriff (Mitchell of course did drunks, as all Stagecoach fans knew) and the great dgard Buchanan as the rascally mayor, who is an artist this time, not a chess player.
Audie’s Tom Destry ties complex knots in pieces of rope rather than whittling (Joel McCrea’s Tom in Frenchie whittles though). The town is called Restful, not Bottleneck (it was Bottleneck in Frenchie). But these are tiny differences. Many of the director’s mises en scène are identical and many of the lines too (good old DD Beauchamp the Great wrote this one but both versions were very loosely based on the Felix Jackson adaptation of the Max Brand novel). It was a big hit at the box-office, opening on Christmas day 1954.
Back in the saddle
There were no Westerns in ’55, Audie instead concentrating on playing himself in To Hell and Back, which remained the biggest commercial hit movie until Jaws in 1975. By the time he returned to our noble genre, in 1956, Audie had perhaps different ideas than just churning out formulaic B-Westerns. His next few Westerns were rather different, but, honestly, not so good.
He starred in a ‘serious’ biopic of Indian Agent John Clum (1851 to 1932), Walk the Proud Land (12), based on Woodworth Clum’s 1935 book about his father, Indian Agent. John Clum’s career was indeed very interesting (after running the San Carlos reservation he became the first mayor of Tombstone and founded The Tombstone Epitaph, a pro-Earp paper) but this film, directed by Jesse Hibbs, is a bit plodding. There was limited action and it concentrated on Clum’s attempts to gain the Apaches’ trust and capture Geronimo, and his relationship with an over-made-up Anne Bancroft. It was also historically very dubious, normally OK for a Western but if it’s plugged as a biopic and opens with the pronouncement “The story you are about to see is true”, well, it should be better in that regard.
For The Guns of Fort Petticoat (13) the following year Audie worked with producer Harry Joe Brown (they formed a production company) and Audie played hookey by going to Columbia. Brown and Murphy didn’t get on, though, and Murphy went back to Universal later in the year. The movie suffers from an implausible plot and clunky writing, as well as a frankly disgraceful treatment of the Sand Creek Massacre, trivializing it shamefully. It does have its points: visually it’s attractive, with bright Technicolor footage shot by the great Ray Rennahan around Old Tucson, in saguaro country. It has a proto-feminist plot in which Lt. Murphy is obliged to recruit a bunch of women to fight, but it’s done in a semi-comic and even rather patronizing way (though it was the mid-1950s so we can’t be too critical, I suppose). In that innocent time, audiences (male and female) could chuckle at the incongruity of ladies doing drill and shouldering arms as Audie yells to the women, “Come on, men!” and the ladies hitch up their skirts ready to charge. All this aspect is rather less funny these days.
The picture was directed by George Marshall again, certainly a big name as far as Hollywood helmsmen go, though probably more comfortable in the world of the comedy Western. But it is not one of Marshall’s best, or Audie’s. At times it verges on the bad.
Next it was an A-picture. Night Passage (14) was to have been another in the splendid series of tough, gritty Westerns that Anthony Mann did with James Stewart. Unfortunately, though, Mann and Stewart fell out and James Neilson was drafted in to direct, which wasn’t the same thing at all. Stewart put in an irritatingly folksy performance, ambling about and insisting on playing the accordion and singing. Audie plays Stewart’s brother, a good badman, part of Dan Duryea’s gang. Duryea is even called Whitey again, as he had been in Diablo. He chews the scenery big time in this one. The action-filled ending’s good and we get Jack Elam and Robert J Wilke, and indeed the picture has its admirers but I’m not one. It bombed at the box office and was panned by the critics.
So since Destry, back in 1954, things hadn’t gone very well, Westernwise, for Audie Murphy. A comedy (Joe Butterfly), a thriller (Gunrunners) and a political drama (The Quiet American) followed before Audie came back to the straight and narrow Western trail – or rather a crooked one.
The quality returns
For in 1958 it was back to Jesse Hibbs, still at Universal, for Ride a Crooked Trail (15). And it was back to quality mid-budget Westerns which have high production values (this one was in widescreen) and are great fun to watch. The movie is made by Walter Matthau as a judge. It’s a pity Matthau didn’t do more Westerns; he was good in them. And this one was his best, I think. He plays a Judge Roy Bean-ish figure quick to resort to a firearm and a bottle. The love interest is the ravishing Gia Scala. She has great beauty, with a delicious accent and a sparkle in her eye. Actually, Audie is quite saucy with her, for Audie. But who can blame him? Anyway, it was good to have Audie back, in his proper métier, the well-made Universal Western.
And better still, next came the Western that many Murphyistas regard as his best ever, No Name on the Bullet (16). Directed by Jack Arnold, who, says the IMDb bio, “reigns supreme as one of the great directors of 1950s science-fiction features. His films are distinguished by moody black and white cinematography, solid acting, smart, thoughtful scripts, snappy pacing, a genuine heartfelt enthusiasm for the genre and plenty of eerie atmosphere.” He only did six Westerns but this was definitely his best and he brought some of his talents from other genres to bear. The picture’s great quality is tension. A famous hired killer, John Gant (Murphy) comes to Lordsburg, NM. Menacing and sinister, a gunslinging angel of death, Gant throws the population into panic. For whom has he come? They all have guilty consciences; they all have enemies. It’s real high quality.
A bit weak, the next ones
The Wild and the Innocent (17) a few months later (1959 was another three-Western year for Audie) was directed and written by Jack Sher, who had co-written Shane and Audie’s Walk the Proud Land. But this was his only Western as director and it is rather stodgy. His co-writer on The Wild and the Innocent was Sy Gomberg, the campaigner against “gratuitous and unpunished violence” in movies, and the screenplay is didactic, earnest and preachy, despite the fact that writers and director went for a slightly light-hearted treatment, which doesn’t really work.
It’s a classic tale of the innocent country bumpkin in the corrupt town. Audie is Yancy, a green backwoods boy (despite his baby face, at 35 he was getting a bit long in the tooth for such roles) who is sent to town by his trapper Uncle Lije (George Mitchell) to trade the pelts they have garnered, and is saddled with an equally naïve young girl, Rosalie (Sandra Dee) as together they face the temptations and crooked wiles of the urban population.
The town is run by the apparently friendly but actually corrupt sheriff, third-billed Gilbert Roland, as usual with his caddish mustache. He owns the saloon/dance hall/bordello (though of course in a 50s family Western the word bordello could never be pronounced, nor its activities described). Rosalie is offered work in the dance hall and Sheriff Roland clearly wants her as his next conquest. Innocent Yancy eventually comes round to understanding what is going on and rescues her. Joanne Dru is one of the senior whores, the cynical and worldly Marcy, and she provides counterpoint (and temptation) for the hero, though of course we all know he will finally go off with Rosalie.
The anti-violence theme comes to the fore as Yancy is pushed by gunslinger-bully Chip (Peter Breck) and toughly deals with the thug without a pistol. Still, like all those films in which the hero wants to hang up his irons or doesn’t believe in guns, we understand that in the last reel Audie will be obliged to pick up a firearm, and he duly does, rather to the regret of the bad-guy sheriff.
Like most of these Universal Westerns, the picture is visually appealing. DP Harold Lipstein, who shot Across the Wide Missouri for William Wellman, did a fine job on the San Bernadino National Forest locations. It’s in CinemaScope again.
Despite the attempt at homespun humor (a running gag with skunks, for example) of an almost 50s-Disney kind, this film does in fact treat quite dark themes. But it is poorly written and directed, and while they have may have aimed at light-hearted, it ends up being just light.
Cast a Long Shadow (18), the last of the trio of Audie’s ’57 oaters, was one of the least. He signed with Walter Mirisch but that meant a United Artists release, and in black & white. Cast a Long Shadow had structural weaknesses too: it can’t make up its mind whether to be a story about a prodigal son taking over dead daddy’s ranch or a cattle-drive picture, and it tries to do both. It was directed by Thomas Carr, more used to Poverty Row B-movies and Western TV shows. Audie starts the movie as a drunken unshaven bum but has a last-reel – last minute, actually – conversion to nice guy, which is unexplained. Of course you couldn’t give an Audie Murphy Western a one-revolver rating, perish the thought, but still this was one that came close.
And here, sadly, endeth the great decade of the Western movie for our Audie.
Seriously classy A-picture
1960 was the year of The Unforgiven (19). This was an Alan Le May story starring Burt Lancaster (who also produced) and Audrey Hepburn, budgeted by United Artists at $5m and directed by John Huston. It was a major cinematic event. It was Huston’s own statement about racial intolerance and it ranks with the likes of Devil’s Doorway, The Searchers and Flaming Star as an indictment of American attitudes to Native Americans, or indeed any ‘other’. Audie was given the part of Lancaster’s younger brother, an Indian-hating, rash, hard-drinking bigot – with a mustache! Audie’s public must have been astounded. But he was superb. He is powerful, weighty and strong, and showed himself to be a serious actor of considerable ability. The Unforgiven is very, very good. It is a marvelously written, intense psychological Western with fascinating characters, splendid acting, fine photography and stirring action.
Sadly, it was not a hit, either critically or at the box-office. It was not a usual Western (certainly not for Murphy) and comparisons with The Searchers were inevitable – and doomed. Audie went back to Universal, signing to do a series of seven more mid-budget oaters, produced by Gordon Kay. They would be more predictable fare (hero, villain, leading lady) – the recipe as before, in fact. That didn’t mean they would be bad: far from it. For the Audie fans it was a return to the good old days. The early 60s were not the easiest time for the ‘straight’ Western but Audie and his fans seemed impervious to the trend. He went on making ‘1950s’ Westerns with aplomb, and people went to see them.
The recipe as before
For me someone is hell bent on something or goes for it hell for leather but the first of the series combined these phrases. Audie starred in Hell Bent for Leather (20). It was directed by George Sherman. Pint-sized Sherman (he barely reached five foot) was involved in 158 Westerns altogether, from 1935 to 1971, nearly all Bs. He was a real pro, and knew exactly what was needed and how to do it. The delicious Felicia Farr was the leading lady and they drafted Stephen McNally back in to play the bad guy. It was a really professional effort, well directed, acted and photographed, and it ranks up there as one of the better Audie Westerns.
I’m also a fan of Seven Ways from Sundown (21), this one directed by Harry Keller. Almost more than an Audie Western, this is a Barry Sullivan vehicle. While Murphy plays the straight-and-narrow Texas Ranger determined to bring him in, it’s Barry who plays the charismatic charming rogue who is the object of the hunt, and it is he who steals the picture. Writer Clare Huffaker liked colorful names and the movie’s title, it may surprise you to know, is the name of Audie’s character. Audie explains that Mr. Jones, his father, rather unimaginatively called his sons by numbers, not being bothered to think up names, and so Audie was Seven Jones. Mama, however, didn’t like only numbers for her sons so she added names, One for the Money Jones, Two for the Show Jones, and so on. That’s how Audie got to be named Seven Ways from Sundown Jones. OK, why not. Presumably (though we are not told) there was Three to Get Ready Jones and Now-Go-Cat-Go Jones, though what Five and Six were called is a mystery.
Posse from Hell (22) was another goodie. It’s a story of a gunfighter (Audie) who rides out after four evil bandits who have robbed a town’s bank, kidnapped a girl and murdered the sheriff, the gunfighter’s pal. Audie is tough, hard and unsmiling. He don’t need no help. But townsmen insist on riding out with him in a posse. Unfortunately, though, most of these seven are useless, incompetent fools. One by one they fall away until there are only three left. Audie has a dude Easterner, very well played by John Saxon, and an Indian who is racially despised by the town, equally well played by Rodolfo (billed as Rudolph) Acosta. These prove to be the heroes of the chase and the only guys with guts.
The kidnapped girl, Helen, is played by Zohra Lampert and is rather good. The bandits rape her (off stage, naturally) and she has to come to terms with this brutal horror. Audie kinda helps her, though it’s tough love. This was Mademoiselle Lampert’s only Western and that was a pity. I thought she did it very well.
What with To Hell and Back, Hell Bent for Leather and Posse from Hell, they sure gave Audie Hell in his titles. It was Herbert Coleman’s only Western feature film as director, though he did direct quite a few Whispering Smith TV episodes with Audie. The Joseph Gershenson score is dark and modern, suitably sinister, and well done. Apparently he reused music from It Came from Outer Space! It’s tough, quite violent and hard-boiled. Audie is unusually grim.
Like so many Western movie stars, Audie now turned to TV. He had completed a first-class run of Westerns, establishing his leading position in the genre and defying the declining market trend for big-screen oaters. Now he wanted to do something different. Whispering Smith (23), was a season of 26 black & white 30-minute episodes, 20 of which aired on NBC from May to September 1961.
It was based on the Frank H Spearman novel right back in 1906, which came to the screen many times. There were four silent films, in 1916, 1917, 1926, and 1927, and talkies in 1930, 1935, 1948 (the most famous one, with Alan Ladd), and 1952. It was a remarkable record – in fact I don’t think any Western novel has been filmed so often, not even The Spoilers or Zane Grey tales like Riders of the Purple Sage.
The show was dogged by setbacks. After seven episodes of the series were filmed, co-star Guy Mitchell, a recording artist who portrayed detective George Romack, broke his shoulder in a fall from a horse. By the time he recovered Audie had to leave to shoot Hell Bent for Leather in August/September 1959. Then actor Sam Buffington, appearing as police chief John Richards, committed suicide at the age of twenty-eight, and had to be replaced. Then the show missed its intended debut date because of an NBC news special. When it finally did première, the US Senate Juvenile Delinquency subcommittee claimed that the series was excessively violent and NBC bowed to the pressure. The final six episodes were never screened. Audie lost interest and walked away.
Back to the big screen, then
The other Western leads were falling away. Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea retired. Lesser lights such as George Montgomery, Rod Cameron or Rory Calhoun did the odd oater but fewer and fewer – maybe the odd spaghetti or AC Lyles ‘geezer Western’, or TV work. “I seem to be the only one left,” Murphy told a reporter in 1963. “I’ll keep on making them till they get wise to me.”
Six Black Horses (24) was released by Universal in March 1962. They took no risks: the picture was directed by Seven Ways from Sundown helmsman Harry Keller, produced by Gordon Kay and co-starred Dan Duryea again. It’s the ‘woman and two men facing danger from hostile Apaches’ plot. Actually, Six Black Horses was to have been the eighth Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Western. Wow, that would have been something. But it never happened and the picture came to Harry Keller, who first wanted Richard Widmark in the lead. In fact the whole picture has a definite Boetticher/Scott vibe: few characters, desert terrain, searching for someone, beset by danger, glam blonde. The writing (Burt Kennedy) is good. The action scenes are well done (top-notch stuntmen, inc. Henry Wills). The scenery is fine. Yup, it was another goodie.
Showdown (25) in 1963 was next. There was competent directing (by RG Springsteen this time, 143 Westerns, 1936 – 67), some nice Lone Pine locations, good music (Hans Salter), adequate writing (Ric Hardman, bizarrely billed as Bronson Howitzer) and some good Western character actors – in this one Charles Drake (a close friend of Audie’s), LQ Jones, Strother Martin and Skip Homeier, all of whose names will ring bells if you are a Western fan.
There were a couple of differences, though. To Audie’s annoyance, it was in black& amp; white, like Cast a Long Shadow, which for a 60s Universal Western was a bit penny-pinching. Actually, though, Ellis W Carter’s cinematography is rather fine and personally I have always had a penchant for well-shot b&w Westerns. And then there’s the interesting idea of the jail-less town using a post in the main street to chain lawbreakers to. This idea – a post or a log – appears in quite a few Westerns, in fact (see, for example, Fury at Furnace Creek). It appears barbaric, perhaps because it’s more public than a jail cell, and there’s a resemblance to the medieval stocks or pillory.
Springsteen, Hardman and the cast managed to create quite a dark, atmospheric piece, and the black & white actually quite suits it. Harold J Stone as the outlaw chief is frightening and LQ Jones’s and Skip Homeier’s characters are really quite sinister, as is the Indian scout Chaca (Henry Wills). Another unusual aspect of this Western is that for almost its entirety Audie has no gun. There’s a good bit where he does the old Tom Mix trick of roping a piece of brush and towing it behind his horse while being chased so that his pursuer can’t see him in the cloud of dust.
The weakest part of the film is in the last reel as we sense that Audie and Estelle (Kathleen Crowley) are going to get together. This is so implausible as to be ridiculous because, first, she has been so vile throughout that any romance with clean-cut Audie would be unthinkable; second, la Crowley was such a bad actress and her sob-story speech is totally unbelievable – you are sure she is lying; and lastly because this part of the script is lousy. The whole thing doesn’t work at all. Oh well, they can’t all be winners.
Universal were at last beginning to have doubts about the viability of repeated big-screen Westerns, and it began to show in their commitment and allotted budgets – and Audie kicking up a stink about the black & white didn’t help. New management was less interested in contract stars and thought Westerns were a thing of the past, the dolts. So it was Allied Artists who put out Audie’s second Western of ’63, Gunfight at Comanche Creek (26), released in November. It was produced by Ben Schwalb (only 5 Westerns) and directed by Frank McDonald, a highly experienced director of oaters (45 of them, from 1936 to this one, his last) who, however, didn’t exactly rival John Ford, if you see what I mean. He was described as “not entirely comfortable as a director.” Still, the great Joe Biroc was DP and it was in color (Audie wouldn’t have done it otherwise), so that’s something.
The biggest weakness of the movie is that it can’t decide whether to be a detective story or a Western. It was in fact a straight (but unacknowledged) remake of AA’s 1957 George Montgomery picture Last of the Badmen. But this movie is stodgy, and it lacks pace and tension.
So the AA experience wasn’t exactly positive. To Columbia then.
Audie rides for Columbia now
It was another remake, or rehash anyway. The Quick Gun (27) was remarkably similar in plot to Top Gun with Sterling Hayden (1955) and Noose for a Gunman with Jim Davis (1960). Never mind, it had good production values (Columbia was like Universal in that regard). It was in Technicolor and the new Techniscope widescreen. It was directed by Sidney Salkow (Sitting Bull, The Great Sioux Massacre, Robbers Roost, etc.) and written by Robert E Kent and Steve Fisher. These guys knew what they were doing. It had a strong supporting cast. It’s no classic, far from it, but it was better than Audie’s recent oaters.
Hold up, it’s back to Universal
Murphy wasn’t under contract at Universal any more but that didn’t stop him doing Westerns released by the studio. It must have seemed like old times: RG Springsteen back in charge, Joe Biroc at the camera once more, Gordon Kay producing, happy days were here again. Bullet for a Badman (28) was written by Audie’s pals the Willinghams (who had done Whispering Smith) and the supporting cast included Skip Homeier, Alan Hale Jr., Mort Mills, Ray Teal and Bob Steele. Darren McGavin was the bad guy. Ruta Lee and Beverley Owen shared the leading-lady honors. It was a return to form for Audie and a picture of some weight. Many regard it as Audie’s best 60s Western. One good feature of this movie is that there are shades of gray in the characters; they aren’t all simply white hats or black hats, though it is true that the headgear shade was generally on the darker side.
No, wait, Fox
By 1964 the dreaded spaghetti westerns were coming and the standard what you might call 1950s American Western seemed to have less and less to say. But Audie bashed on regardless. He starred in Apache Rifles (29), a Fox picture directed by old vet William Witney. It was produced by Grant Whytock, better known for sword-and-cloak dramas but he also did quite a few oaters – he had produced The Quick Gun.
Apache Rifles was a US Cavalry/Indian Western and was already verging on the anachronistic. The first reel is quite pacey but after that it seems to drag a bit (at 92 minutes it was probably too long) but there’s nice Color De Luxe footage of some pleasant locations. We see some signs of Apache atrocities, because now it’s the ‘realistic’ 1960s, but few of Army brutality because it’s not yet the revisionist 70s. It’s improbable and historically inaccurate, but that’s par for the course in a Hollywood Western. And as the sage doc says in the dialogue, “Reality can be a point of view.” It comes as no surprise to learn that both the George Montgomery oater Indian Uprising and Apache Rifles were written by Kenneth Gamet. The pictures are remarkably similar.
The same team of producer, director and writers did the next one too, but this time released by Columbia. Arizona Raiders (30), which came out in August 1965, was also a remake of a George Montgomery outing, this time The Texas Rangers, and once again the original was better. It’s yet another Quantrill tale (how Westerns loved him) and this time Fred Graham was Quantrill (or Quantrell). It’s quite 60s, with blood, torture, people shot down without mercy, and so on. Audie co-starred with Buster Crabbe, pushing 60 but still ridin’ and shootin’ with the best of them. Buster’s glorious Western career had started back in 1933 when he appeared with Randolph Scott in To The Last Man. Arizona Raiders and the rather odd little film The Bounty Killer, both in ’65, were to be his swansong.
Audie’s last ever Universal oater, Gunpoint (31), released the following year, was a ‘proper’ 50s Western, with Gordon Kay producing, lovely Utah locations, stirring Hans Salter music, an excellent cast (Denver Pyle, Edgar Buchanan, Royal Dano, et al), a tight if traditional Willinghams screenplay, and Audie on top form. It was directed by Earl Bellamy (The Toughest Gun in Tombstone, Seminole Uprising, Blackjack Ketchum, Desperado, etc., going back to Charles Starrett oaters in the 40s). In many ways it would have been better if Murphy had bowed out with this one, but there would be a few weaker pictures to end with.
The end of the affair
Later in 1960 Audie followed the dusty trail of many of his compadres, the one that led through the LAX departure lounge, and flew off to Spain to make a spaghetti (or paella) western. The result was The Texican (32). Like most Eurowesterns of the time, it was pretty bad.
Accompanying him on the plane (it must have been a jumbo) was Broderick Crawford, now 55, who was in a similar position. He would only do an AC Lyles geezer-Western afterwards, Red Tomahawk, and a couple of Western TV shows and that was all she wrote. In The Texican he plays a typical crooked saloon owner in a frock coat (rather an ample one). There was another Western vet on board, even more aged than Brod. He was as old as the century, in fact, and like Brod would only have a last-gasp AC Lyles oater or two to go after this one. It was none other than our old pal Lesley Selander, B-Western helmsman extraordinaire. Could the director manage an otherwise Spanish cast and crew and make a rattling good Western, as of yore?
The screenplay was by Laramie writer John C Champion, who was also one of the producers. Champion and Murphy formed a company, MCR Productions, to make Westerns in Europe, though in the end this was the only one they did. It was in fact a remake of Champion’s own script for Panhandle, the 1948 Allied Artists picture, Champion’s first film, also directed by Selander. Audie would take Rod Cameron’s part, Brod that of Reed Hadley. You do rather get the impression that Murphy, Crawford, Selander and Champion, their careers all flagging, got together one evening in Laurel Canyon or somewhere and cooked up the idea of a really cheap and quick Western made in Spain that they could get Columbia to release Stateside. I don’t know if that’s how it happened, but it could have been.
Apart from Audie and Brod, all the rest of the cast were Spanish, and the movie was post-dubbed, often not very well. We get this kind of thing: “There’s nothing to worry. About folks.” Audie goes through the motions and is barely credible as the bad guy with a price on his head coming back for vengeance. As usual he doesn’t have a hair out of place and his duds are fresh from the dry cleaners. Brod mumbles and gabbles his way through his part, as per usual.
The sound is poor and the music sometimes drowns out the dialogue. The gunshots are those stupid overloud spaghetti ones which always have a ricochet whine even when they don’t hit anything. I’m afraid the whole thing is pretty grim. Panhandle wasn’t bad, in a ’48 B-Western kind of way, but this one is certainly not an improvement.
The last proper Western Audie led in was 40 Guns to Apache Pass (33), released by Columbia in May 1967. It was not a glorious filmic farewell, being an average Western at best. It was also the last Western movie to be directed by William Witney (though he went on with TV Westerns till ’82). By the late 60s we had a right to expect slightly more nuanced films about Apaches. But the Indians in this picture are out-and-out baddies, referred to as savages and no one contradicts that. The movie isn’t lousy or anything. But it’s routine and derivative, Audie had certainly done better. And the picture looked an anachronism in theaters flooded with spaghetti westerns, which were then (unfortunately) in full flow.
Audie bows out
A Time for Dying (34) was Budd Boetticher’s last Western as well as Audie’s. It is a flawed film. It has its moments and on paper it should have been good, or at least solid: it was written by Boetticher, it was produced by Murphy and he played Jesse James in it, as he had all those years ago in Kansas Raiders. Victor Jory took the part of Judge Roy Bean. It was shot on location round Tucson by the great Lucien Ballard. All that should have made it top-notch.
Though shot in 1969 it didn’t screen till 1982. In ’69 Audie was ill and he had not made a film at all in 1968, the first year that happened since he started doing movies. Boetticher was also going through a bad patch. The two formed their own company, Fipco, to make films. This was to have been the first of several.
But the story and script were poor, and even the direction. We get 60% of the film before Jesse even appears. Despite the star billing on the poster, Audie doesn’t even happen along till 42 minutes in and then he only really has a ride-on part. Fipco had great difficulty finding budget. The film is only 69 minutes long, which does leave you feeling a little short-changed. The ‘stars’ were pretty much unknowns except for Jory. The movie has an almost spaghetti look and feel to it. And because of the title you kind of know how it’s going to turn out.
It was to have starred Peter Fonda but that didn’t happen and Richard Lapp, who looks like a teenage Charles Bronson, was OK but, to be brutally frank, only OK. Audie’s son (from his marriage to Pamela Archer) Terry has a bit part as a youth casually hanged by the drunken bully Bean and a younger son, Skip, has a small part too.
It was a sad end to the big-screen Western.
So long, Audie, and thanks
In May 1971, Audie Murphy was killed when the private plane in which he was a passenger crashed into a mountain near Roanoke, Virginia. He was 45. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. His is the cemetery’s second most-visited gravesite, after that of President John F Kennedy.
Thanks for reading if you got this far!