Pretty darn good
It is often said that Westbound was the weakest of the seven Westerns that Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott in the second half of the 1950s, and that may or may not be true, but it doesn’t mean it was a bad film. It may suffer a bit by comparison, but to call it a “dud”, as Ben Kenisberg did in The New York Times is way too harsh.
Certainly Randy was good as the tough Union Captain John Hayes, given in 1864 (though of course as usual all the guns etc. are 1870s) the mission of running the Overland stage line, which had been his civilian career, in order to ensure that gold from California gets through to finance the Union war effort (it ought really to have been called Eastbound). He is gritty, determined and not afraid of violence, yet at the same time decent and noble – Randolph Scott, in fact. He was beginning to look his age, though, and he does seem a little less animated than usual.
Perhaps it lacked a really charismatic villain. Lee Marvin and Richard Boone in earlier ones were a hard act to follow. Andrew Duggan, only fifth-billed, plays Clay Putnam, a former friend of Hayes’s and former rival for the hand of glam Virginia Mayo. Putnam is now husband of said Mayo and a rich man but – oh, no! – a Confederate sympathizer! His principal aim is to stop that gold getting through. Mr. Duggan was encouraged to go into drama by his wartime commander Melvyn Douglas, and he became a very popular character actor in all sorts of genres but as far as Westerns go we think of him maybe as Murdoch in Lancer, or on the big screen as the pious priest in The Bravados, the smoothie rancher who wants the whole valley in Domino Kid, or the decent but dull goody (he wasn’t so effective as goody) in Return to Warbow. He had also been, of course, in another of the Boetticher/Scott Westerns, Decision at Sundown, in which he played the crooked sheriff. I think he’s quite good in Westbound (better than some give him credit for) as a villain with saving graces.
Despite her second billing after Scott, and above the title, Mayo has a very limited time on the screen – probably not more than ten or twelve minutes total – and she wasn’t happy about that. Most of the limelight fell on Karen Steele as ‘the other woman’. Ms Steele was at the time Mr Boetticher’s paramour and he gave her many loving close-ups. Mayo was not on top form. She later said, “It wasn’t a good part. This was my last film for Warners and I was having trouble getting to work because I was having my teeth taken out due to an abcessed tooth. I did the film, but the fact is, I wasn’t in the picture at all. Karen Steele was the director’s girlfriend, and it was not my picture. Scott was very courteous and mannered, but I didn’t get to know him at all.” Still, in her short part Mayo is good. Did she marry Clay only for his money? Does she still really love Randy? We never quite know. As well as her last picture for Warners, this was the last of her 1950s Westerns (she did a couple of ‘geezer Westerns’ in the 60s) and from the first, Colorado Territory in 1949 with Joel McCrea, through Along the Great Divide with Kirk Douglas, The Iron Mistress with Alan Ladd, Devil’s Canyon with Dale Robertson, The Proud Ones with Robert Ryan, The Big Land back with Ladd, The Tall Stranger once more with McCrea and finally Fort Dobbs with Clint Walker, she was always memorable, strong – and beautiful.
Steele (billed third, after Mayo) also appeared in Ride Lonesome and Decision at Sundown (all her big-screen Westerns were Boetticher/Scott pictures) but I don’t think she was, um, entirely convincing as a plowgirl and farmer’s wife. Still, she does her best. The captain is attracted to both, but both are married. If the hubbies are goners, though, will our hero go for the fancily dressed dame (Virginia) or the sturdy Westerner (Karen)? Well, I think we know.
Of the rest of the cast, honors go to Michael Dante. The IMDb bio tells us that there are only two honorary Arizona Rangers: Michael Dante and George W Bush – I know what you’re going to say. Ah, but Michael Dante wasn’t president of the United States. No, actually, I was going to say but George Bush doesn’t have a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. Dante did five feature Westerns (that’s five more than Bush), from Fort Dobbs with Mayo in 1958 to Winterhawk in 1975, via two mid-60s Audie Murphy pictures, Arizona Raiders and Apache Rifles. I don’t think he really stood out in any of them all that much but he is really good in Westbound as Rod Miller, the one-armed Union soldier back from the war, psychologically as well as physically damaged, “just half a man” as he says to his wife Jeanie (Steele). The new stage-line manager (Randy) gives a purpose to the ex-soldier’s life, as well as teaching him how to lever a round into the breech of a Winchester one-handed, John Wayne style, a handy skill, you will agree.
After Dante I would say acting plaudits should go to Michael Pate, not, for once an Indian, but this time a mean gunslinger, wanted in three states and hired by Clay – a part very similar, in fact, to that which he had played in another Randolph Scott Western, A Lawless Street, four years before. His role is not exactly subtly written, and he’s a pretty generic cynical and ruthless gunfighter, but he does it very well. He tells Duggan, “Trouble with you, Clay, is that you’re rich enough to be an honorable man. I can’t afford it.”
Talking of the writing, here we have another reason why Westbound was not perhaps quite up to the standard of the others in the series. Burt Kennedy’s contribution to others of the cycle is incalculable. But the screenplay of Westbound was by Berne Giler, from a story by him and Albert Shelby Le Vino, one of six Westerns Giler did, about the best being Showdown at Abilene, while Le Vino (good name, that) was an older hand who went back to the silent days but in talkie terms co-wrote Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die, Paramount’s fun contribution to the Wyatt Earp myth. The Giler/Le Vino script of Westbound is a bit on the predictable side, not terribly original, with fewer sharp lines and not as ‘dark’ as the Kennedy ones. But once again, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s decent enough.
When Mace’s gang attack the stage and kill everyone aboard, including a child, Clay can take no more, and he fires Mace. “And to think this happened in the name of the Confederacy!” he bitterly remarks. “Whether the South wins or loses means nothing to me – never has!” is gunman Mace’s cold reply. In fact, though no one would ever accuse Boetticher of being a Confederate sympathizer, the pro-South characters are generally quite decent folk, despite their bullying of Miller – just misguided, Budd seems to be saying. The pro-Reb doc is actually a good guy.
Visually Westbound is nice, filmed in WarnerColor (very good quality on the DVD) in attractive Warner Ranch locations by J Peverell Marley, a DP who knew what he was doing. Boetticher, even in a short Western (it’s only 72 minutes), takes his time with long shots of riders or the stage in the landscape. Marley shot six Westerns, including The Left-Handed Gun for Arthur Penn, a mannered picture in many ways but visually fine in black & white. Still, it wasn’t Charles Lawton Jr, who shot The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, for Columbia, and the locations weren’t Lone Pine. Well, you can’t have everything.
The picture was back at Warners, where the series had started, because Scott’s partner Harry Joe Brown was not involved with this one. Randy was doing it as a contract obligation and Budd agreed to help him out and direct it. It would turn out to be Scott’s last Warners picture. Westbound was a project of top Warners producer Henry Blanke, said to rank only behind Hal Wallis and the Warners themselves in the pecking order. He had produced The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948.
Actually, Westbound was shot before Buchanan Rides Alone, in September 1957, so really and truly it was the fifth in the series, not the sixth, but Warners held it back and it wasn’t released till April 1959, eight months after Buchanan.
As for the rest of the cast, it’s good to see some old stagers, if you’ll forgive the pun, making an appearance, such as Kermit Maynard as the driver, Walter Barnes as the stage depot cook, and Jack Perrin and Buddy Roosevelt as extras.
We are in Julesburg, Colorado, surprisingly Reb in its sympathies – the townsfolk all taunt the one-armed bluebelly and tell him he deserved what he got for fighting the South.
There’s a good scene in which a Union-hater stage station manager (Barnes) meanly puts salt in the pie of Corporal Miller but is then made to eat it himself by Randy, another good bit when his wife (Steele) slugs the town bully in the jaw, and a rather silly one in which gunman Mace (Pate) shoots Randy’s gunbelt off. Mace has six henchmen, so the movie piously observes the convention of 7. The scene in which Miller goes out with his Winchester (cocked) to do the evening rounds is very dramatic and well handled. Other good moments: when under attack, Mace shoots out the lights – something I’ve always wanted to do (Shoot Out the Lights by Richard Thompson being a favorite song of mine) and the final showdown, in town at night, is also pretty well done, although I’m not quite sure why all the townsmen suddenly turn out guns a-blazin’ to help the Union captain out. In the last few scenes we get to learn which blonde Randy will go for (both husbands being now conveniently deceased).
Apparently the stagecoach that goes over a cliff to its doom had been on the Warners lot for thirty years and was riddled with termites. They decided to retire it in grand style. Still, the old girl had enough fire in her to send one of her wheels bowling off in Steele’s direction, nearly running her down. Mayo probably said damn when it missed.
There’s chirpy music by David Buttolph, appropriately almost Stagecoach-like, while the stage is bowling along. Actually, it’s probably too jaunty and the movie lacked the lower-key and darker scores of the Ranown ones which enhanced the menace and bleakness.
The movie actually lost money in the States, though made a profit in the end because of popularity in Europe. In December 1959 Warners actiually paid Scott $110,000 not to make the one remaining film on his contract. They were afaid of losing too much money. That must have stung, though Randy was doubtless happy to bank the hundred grand.
The critical reception wasn’t bad. Variety said, “Boetticher’s direction keeps the action at properly spaced peaks, thus bringing the chases, gun battles and ambushes right out where audiences can get lost in their excitement.”
All in all, Westbound is, I believe, a highly enjoyable Western. It’s not mediocre, as some have suggested – Robert Nott, for example, in his fine book The Films of Randolph Scott, says that Boetticher didn’t “make much out of mediocre material”. It was shot in 20 days for only $565,000 (still more than the Columbia ones got) but it’s no weak second feature – far from it. Jean-Luc Godard, in homage to Budd Boetticher, has his characters in Breathless go into a movie theater to see this film – though would I be naughty if I said that was hardly a qualification for cinematic greatness? Boetticher, who was very down on his own movies except Seven Men from Now, said Westbound was “crap”. It wasn’t.