Not too bad
After the huge success of Shane in 1953, Alan Ladd fancied himself a big Western star and set up a company, Jaguar Productions, to make more oaters. The first fruit was the Delmer Daves-directed Drum Beat in 1954, released by Warners. There followed, after a couple of noirs, The Big Land, also released as Stampeded, in ’57.
“The principal difficulty, whether you take a salary from a studio or are in business for yourself, is finding the right story,” said Ladd. The Big Land took as its starting point a 1955 Frank Gruber novel, Buffalo Grass. Louella Parsons said Ladd paid $100,000 for it. I’m sure you know Mr Gruber, who wrote literally dozens of short stories and pulp novels, Western and crime, as well as many screenplays and teleplays (creating Shotgun Slade and Tales of Wells Fargo, notably). Jaguar commissioned David Dutort to do up a screenplay from Gruber’s book. Dutort had worked on the fine modern rodeo Western The Lusty Men in 1952 and also on the so-so George Sherman/Guy Madison picture Reprisal! in 1956. There were, too, contributions to The Big Land’s script by Martin Rackin (nine Westerns, from Distant Drums in 1951 to The Revengers in 1972).
The director hired was Gordon Douglas, about whom I was waffling the other month (click the link for that). As I said then, Douglas, as he himself admitted, was capable of churning out some pretty ordinary stuff to provide bread and butter for his family but he also occasionally made a really good picture – my favorites being The Nevadan (1950), Fort Dobbs (1958) and, especially, The Fiend Who Walked the West (also ’58). The Big Land is in the intermediate category between quality and junk.
They put together a nice cast, Virgina Mayo (back from The Iron Mistress, another Ladd/Douglas effort) as female lead, Edmond O’Brien in a colorful part as Ladd’s principal ally, and the excellent Anthony Caruso as chief heavy, with John Anderson as his nasty henchman. John Qualen brought out his Sveeedish accent, by yiminy, from The Searchers the year before. Ladd’s son David, then 9, had a decent part. John Doucette was the livery stableman.
They had John F Seitz (five Ladd Westerns altogether) to shoot it, in WarnerColor, nice Californian locations and music by David Buttolph.
So all in all, the picture had a good chance of being more than passable.
In the end, it was passable.
The principal weakness, though I am sorry to say it, was Ladd himself. Shane had been a big hit alright and had catapulted him to the front rank of Western actors, but though he was very good at the bits genteelly romancing Marian, as tough guy he just didn’t convince. And later Westerns didn’t improve things. Of the twelve he led in, from Whispering Smith in 1948 on, he was only really good in The Proud Rebel in 1958, again with his son, and that because his character wasn’t supposed to be a gunslinging hard case. That’s a personal opinion, of course, and plenty of people thought he was really good (my mother was more than half in love with him, I reckon, and called our family dog Shane).
In The Big Land he is Chad Morgan, an ex-CSA trail boss after the Civil War, driving up one of the first herds from Texas to the railhead in Missouri. We naturally get the inevitable line, “The East needs beef.” There, a thuggish cattle buyer, Brog (Caruso) intimidates all the others and offers Morgan a pittance for the steers, which he is forced to accept. Of course we know this will not stand. And if it had been pretty well anyone else, Coop, of course but anyone, Wayne, Peck, Fonda, even Calhoun or Hayden, we would have believed it. But Ladd? Uh-uh.
The best actor in the cast is O’Brien. He plays an alcoholic ex-architect and ex-railroad man, Joe Jagger, whom we first see lodging in the only ‘hotel’ that will have him, the hayloft of the livery stable. That’s where Morgan and his men have to put up too, because the locals want no part of ‘Rebs’. You might think Missouri would have a few Jesse James-loving Confederate types, but no, not in this town. Morgan saves Joe from a lynch mob led by Reb-hating Doucette, and the two beat it, becoming partners. O’Brien does the withdrawal symptoms (they have no booze) really well.
They come upon an idyllic ranch, the Qualen place, with two gun-toting boys, a small one and a smaller one, and the littler one (David) echoes his brother amusingly (and we will get an echo of this echo when Virginia sings later on).
In the bosom of this family Morgan will gradually hatch a plan to beat out the wicked Brog and get his cattle to market at a decent price. He and architect Joe, now sobered up, will build a new town, and convince the railroad to build a spur to it. Luckily Joe’s sis – Virginia – happens to have as boyfriend a big wheel in the Kansas Pacific, Don Castle, and so they set off to Kansas City to persuade him. This allows Virginia to sing and Alan to take a bath. The wheeze is that they will ship cattle in the cattle season and wheat when that’s ready, and everyone will make money. It’s an all-American scheme. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as you may imagine, quite a lot.
Tragedy will strike, I’m afraid. I can’t reveal the details, of course. That would constitute a spoiler. But I can reveal that tough-guy Ladd will have a quick-draw showdown in the saloon with Brog & hench, and you may possibly guess who wins that one. Also, Virginia’s railroad-man fiancé will perhaps do the decent thing, realizing true love has come to Virginia and Alan. Of course I can’t say that will happen. Just that it’s a distinct possibility.
Some of all this comes perilously close to the cheesy. Generally, though, it just gets away with it, thanks largely to O’Brien and Caruso.
The critical reception was slightly less than ecstatic. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said, “The prospect of scenic magnificence implied in the title, The Big Land, Alan Ladd’s self-produced Western that came to the Paramount yesterday, is only one of several expectations that dribble down the drain as this undistinguished horse opera wearily goes thataway.” He added, “There is nothing particularly scenic in all of this hackneyed live-beef film and a lot that is downright synthetic, so far as scenery is concerned. Synthetic, too, is the story, and even more so is Mr. Ladd, who herewith presents a pasteboard cutout of the cowboy.” He described the ending, then said, “And that is the end of the picture. It could have stopped at any point along the way.” I don’t think he liked it much. The Los Angeles Times said the film “is about as plodding as a western can get and still be called one.”
Myself, I don’t think it’s as bad as all that. It isn’t top-notch, certainly, but it’s watchable anyway. Once.