After his first Western, The Savage (1952), which we recently reviewed (click the link for that), Charlton Heston starred in two more oaters for Paramount the following year, Pony Express, released in May, and Arrowhead, in August. Arrowhead will be our next review, so come back soon!
The Western was under full sail in 1953, with some fine examples coming out such as MGM’s The Naked Spur, February, one of the best Anthony Mann/James Stewart offerings, the excellent Hondo in November with John Wayne over at Warners, and of course in April Paramount itself finally released what many regard as one of the best Westerns ever, Shane. But Charlton’s ’53 flicks were not, I fear, in that class. Not at all.
Pony Express was quite a ‘big’ picture. It was produced by Nat Holt, who knew a thing or two about the Western (he’d already produced six with Randolph Scott), and it had a decent budget. It was written by equally experienced Charles Marquis Warren, best known among Westernistas for Rawhide and Gunsmoke on TV but also a habitué of the big screen – one thinks of the very good Trooper Hook (1957) with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, which he both wrote and directed. He used a story by pulp novel/short story hack Frank Gruber. So there was plenty of Western know-how available.
The cast was also a step up on The Savage, with the gorgeous Rhonda Fleming as leading lady, Jan Sterling as a gun-totin’ tomboy, Calamity Jan, you might say (’53 was also the year of Warners’ Calamity Jane and everyone was trying to be Doris Day) and Henry Brandon, who would be Scar for John Ford in The Searchers, as well as other experienced Western character actors.
It is true that the direction wasn’t top notch. Jerry Hopper was a former Paramount editor who graduated to directing but would go on to do mostly TV work. He only helmed four feature Westerns, and of those The Missouri Traveler was barely one (and saccharine, to boot), and the later Madron with Richard Boone was perfectly ghastly sub-spaghetti (and spaghetti is pretty sub to begin with). Only Smoke Signal in 1955 with Dana Andrews was half-good.
But there was some nice Technicolor photography by the excellent Ray Rennahan of attractive Western locations, notably Kanab Creek, Kanab movie fort, the Gap, and Johnson Canyon in Utah.
There’s also some stirring Paul Sawtell music
So despite the direction, this picture could have had what was required to put it in the Hondo/Naked Spur class.
That it was a dud was therefore quite surprising, and most of the blame for that must be laid at Hopper’s door, and, I’m afraid, at that of the writers.
As the title suggests, it’s a story about the founding of the Pony Express mail relay in 1860. Heston plays Buffalo Bill. Now we are used to Westerns being historical hooey, and we excuse it, for they are not supposed to be documentaries but entertainments. But I must say that this one really took some liberties, to say the least of it.
The actual Pony Express was very short-lived (April 1860 to October 1861), was never financially viable and in the end went bankrupt, and it had a limited impact. But it quickly became romanticized as part of the myth of the Wild West. Its employment of young, courageous riders and fast horses was seen as evidence of rugged American individualism of the frontier times, and there was something glorious about the fact that these boys (most were just boys) could carry messages from coast to coast in only ten days in these pre-railroad and pre-telegraph days. Mark Twain, for example, writes with joyful admiration in Roughing It (1872) of seeing a rider rush past his stagecoach on his journey West.
Part of the glamour of the Pony Express was that Buffalo Bill rode for it. All sorts of tales are told of his exploits, such as that he made the longest nonstop ride, from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station and back, when he found that his relief rider had been killed. This trail of 322 miles (518 km) was completed in 21 hours and 40 minutes, and 21 horses were required. This seems to have been true, though there were many other stories told about Cody (some in his autobiographies) that fall into the ‘tall tales’ category. One thing is sure, though: he did not start the business himself and run it. He had just turned 15 when he did his short stint with the company as rider. In the movie, Heston (who was 30 in 1953) is the boss man. He is an experienced (and pretty well invincible) plainsman who invents the Pony Express and sets it all up with his yes-man Hickok.
Hollywood has given us a whole series of Buffalo Bills, each sillier than the last, from George Waggner in John Ford’s The Iron Horse in 1924, through James Ellison (a rather pale Bill) in The Plainsman in 1936, Joel McCrea as the eponymous Buffalo Bill in 1944, Richard Arlen, Monte Hale, Roy Rogers and many more. Over seventy movies have featured Cody. But none was as bonkers as Charlton Heston’s in 1953.
The ridiculous plot of Pony Express reduces Wild Bill Hickok (fourth-billed Tucker) to little more than a sidekick. The real Hickok was a decade older than Cody and befriended him in the Civil War when Cody was just a boy, becoming a sort of mentor. So if any sidekicking was to be done, it was Cody who should have served Hickok. Tucker isn’t bad, in fact, in his frock coat with brace of pistols, butts forward (Heston remains in buckskins throughout) but the script doesn’t give Hickok much of a chance.
It isn’t enough for Cody to set up the Pony Express and be threatened by Indians, say, or outlaws. The story invents some twaddle about Californian separatism, with a brother-and-sister team of plotters (Michael Moore and la Fleming) in cahoots with the boss of the Overland Stage line (Stuart Randall) who fears the Pony Express will drive him out of business. California will secede if Californians see the Pony Express service doesn’t work. I mean, honestly. I know you have to suspend credibility to watch Westerns at all but you’d have to be a moron to swallow this. And this skullduggery aspect means there is a lot of plot and thus a lot of talking, death for a Western – The New York Times reviewer said, “the picture threatens to become an arch conversation piece”.
You can tell the brother is a rotter early on, though, because he pulls a derringer. Talking or firearms, they all seem to have Colt Peacemakers, which is a bit odd for 1860/61.
Naturally Yellow Hand (an uncredited Pat Hogan) has to appear as the Indian arch-enemy. Yellow Hand (who probably wasn’t even named that; he was Heova’ehe or Yellow Hair) actually fought Cody on July 17, 1876, at Warbonnet Creek in Sioux County in northwestern Nebraska, and some stories tell that Cody scalped him – “the first scalp for Custer”. In Pony Express Cody slays Yellow Hand in ’61 when setting up the Pony Express, and he does so in a rather casual and undramatic way, fortunately not scalping him. Up to then Yellow Hand talks in that irritating way Hollywood Indians so often did, you know, “Ug, me big chief”, and so on.
Calamity Jane often appears in Cody/Hickok movies. She doesn’t in this one, not by name anyway, but there is a Calamity-like figure, the feisty Denny (the remarkably wasp-waisted Sterling), whose unrequited love for Cody persists throughout the picture. For me, there was no contest – lovely, elegant Rhonda versus tomboy Jan? But of course Rhonda is a villainess so Jan’s chances get better.
There’s a famous scene where the two gals bathe in adjacent tubs, but it isn’t as saucy as it sounds; in fact it’s all very chaste. Sigh.
One good thing: Jim Bridger has a cameo appearance. He’s played by Porter Hall and he is lord of Fort Bridger and a chum of the two Bills. Trivia addicts will note that Hall played Jack McCall in The Plainsman in 1936 so he had murdered Wild Bill. But all seems to have been forgiven and forgotten in Pony Express. They are bosom pals in this one. There is actually no evidence that Bridger ever knew or even met William F Cody or JB Hickok. But hey.
The actual pony express service doesn’t start till the last ten minutes of the film. But then there’s loads of action as the staging posts are dynamited by the bad guys (dynamite wasn’t patented until 1867 but never mind). Then Cody himself rides the last leg of the relay into Sacramento to save the day in the nick of time and foil the evil secessionist anti-American plotters. There’s a last-reel shoot-out which The New York Times called “a fine, lickety-split finale”. So it isn’t all unalloyed junk. There are some good bits.
But overall, this is a poor movie.
It did get some box-office traction, partly perhaps because the Pony Express was a popular Western theme and maybe also because Heston was getting well known (he’d been Andrew Jackson in The President’s Lady). But of course it couldn’t compete with Hondo ($8.2m gross, 13.6m tickets sold) and certainly not with Shane ($20m gross, 33.3m tickets).
Brian Garfield said that Holt was aiming to make a large-scale DeMille-style picture “but the result is a juvenile B-movie gone rampant.” He added that “both stars overact” and “some of the dialogue is funny but it’s hard to tell whether that was intentional.” Dennis Schwartz said of it, “The 101 minutes is not justified to tell this modest story. Also the directing by Jerry Hopper lacks imagination and he fails to give the film an overall shape.” Too right.
Still, one thing you can say: it wasn’t as bad as Heston’s next Western would be.