Good bad guys
Sidney Salkow was quite a well-known director at the time. He did a fair number of Westerns, directing a great many TV shows but also twelve features, between The Pathfinder in 1952 (also with George Montgomery) and The Great Sioux Massacre in 1965. Probably the biggest was Sitting Bull with Dale Robertson in 1954. I don’t think any of the pictures was in danger of winning an Oscar but most are perfectly watchable as oaters.
George was of course on fine form in the mid-50s. This was still three years before he starred in Cimarron City on TV and he’d been leading in feature Westerns since the early 1940s. By the 1950s his pictures were frequent releases. He led in three Westerns in 1950, one in 1951, three in ’52, three in ’53 and three in ’54. He wasn’t, ahem, the most fluent of actors, but he was tall, gruff-voiced – and had a splendid hat.
The plot, adapted from the Grey novel by Salkow himself, John O’Dea and Maurice Geraghty, is, shall we say, improbable and also rather confused. The basic premise is that rancher Bull Herrick (Bruce Bennett), confined to a wheelchair after a bronc rolled on him, hires two rival rustler gangs because he thinks that each will keep the other from robbing him. It’s like the chief hen in the coop inviting in two foxes. It isn’t very likely, and indeed, it doesn’t work. In the end the two bosses gang up together and agree to split the herd. Of course there will be double-crosses, and, as I said, some confusion along the way.
O’Dea only wrote two other big-screen oaters, a Rin Tin Tin picture in 1958 and another Montgomery one, Jack McCall, Desperado, in 1953. Geraghty was more of a specialist, writing or co-writing nineteen Westerns, dating back to the 1930s and going on until the Elvis oater Love Me Tender in 1956.
Former-Tarzan Bennett had quite a good sideline in Westerns, most notably as Cody in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre but also as Daniel Boone, Trail Blazer, and as one of The Younger Brothers. Of course he was not the first or last disabled rancher to appear in a Western – we think especially of Edward G Robinson in The Violent Men and Ray Collins in Vengeance Valley.
Good news: the two gangs of bad guys are led by Richard Boone, then 38, and Peter Graves, 29. Second-billed Boone still had two years to go before Have Gun – Will Travel started but he was already well launched on his Western career, having appeared in four Western features in 1952, several each year thereafter and in February 1955 (Robbers’ Roost was released in May) he was the chief bad guy in Ten Wanted Men with Randolph Scott. For me, he was always best as a villain.
Graves, fifth billed, though younger was also a pretty experienced Western hand, having appeared in Fort Defiance, War Paint, The Raid and The Yellow Tomahawk before 1955, and he did two other oaters in ’55 to add to Robbers’ Roost, Wichita and Fort Yuma. He would never become quite the Western star his brother James Arness would (and interestingly, they never appeared on screen together) but he had quite a distinguished career in the genre. He would back with George in Canyon River the following year. Unlike Boone, I feel he never quite convinced as a bad guy; he did goody parts better.
The female lead was Sylvia Findley. Who? I hear you ask. Quite. This was her only Western and indeed one of only two films she ever appeared in. She plays Helen, rancher Bennett’s sis from back East. It doesn’t take a genius to tell that George will fall for her. Various other gang members lust after her too but they won’t get a look in.
There are quite a lot of songs, some very much more 1950s-crooner than 1870s-minstrel, delivered by Tony Romano, as gang member Happy Jack. This was his only Western, poor soul.
Good news, though: arch-heavy Leo Gordon is another gang thug. George gets to punch him out. Poor Leo, in Western after Western he got to lose fist-fights, whereas he was a genuinely strong and frightening man who could have beaten up the vast majority of his fellow actors with one hand tied behind his back – though George was no slouch himself as far as height and physique were concerned. Leo too was a heavy in Ten Wanted Men.
So a pretty good cast, then. Early on a mysterious stranger (Montgomery) arrives in town and carefully studies the wanted posters. It rapidly becomes clear that he’s good with his guns (he’s called Tex so naturally he has two), and he joins Boone’s gang on the Herrick ranch. He shows no interest in women and so Bennett assigns him to bodyguard sister Helen. Little does he know that romance will bloom. There’s a smoothie in town, though, Bob (William Hopper) who fancies la belle Helen – and with brother Bull Herrick in a wheelchair, and not at all well, he also has designs on the ranch.
Tex seems to ask a lot of questions of everyone, and seems especially interested in where the gang’s horses came from. Is he perhaps an undercover lawman?
But now Helen finds a wanted poster on Tex. He’s really Jim Wall, and wanted back in Texas for murder. Oh no! She doesn’t let on to anyone but she sends him packing.
She gets to bathe in a pool (you know how in Westerns however dry the terrain, there’s always a handy pool for the heroine to bathe naked in) and we see her daringly bare legs as she tiptoes into the water.
Boone double-crosses Graves, rustles the whole Herrick herd and hides out in Robbers’ Roost. You know, the Elzy Lay/Butch Cassidy hideout in Utah (no Butch or Sundance in this story though). The movie was actually filmed in Durango but it’s very attractive and very Western cañon country and will do nicely for Utah. There’s an especially good Mexican Hat-type rock where they keep watch.
Well, it builds up to an exciting ending. The trouble is, it’s all rather confusing because there’s Boone’s gang and Graves’s gang and they are all galloping about and shooting each other around Robbers’ Roost, but as the characters have not really been delineated, and they’re not wearing uniforms, of course, we can’t tell who’s shooting and who’s getting shot, who’s winning and who’s losing. Furthermore, the sheriff arrives with a large posse and joins in the shootin’, so that adds to the confusion. I fear it was the fault of an over-complex plot and inadequate directing. Oh well.
I don’t think it constitutes a spoiler to say that the bad guys get deceased, Tex gets the gal, and we finally get an explanation for what he’s doing there. No, he isn’t a lawman.
Pretty good stuff, I reckon, though for me anyway not quite up to the standard of The Lone Gun.But you know, I always like a Monty oater.