A whitewash in color
Next in our look at the Westerns of that epic year 1953 come the offerings from Universal and Columbia. They were both directed by Raoul Walsh and both starred Rock Hudson. The Lawless Breed had the honor of being the first oater to be released in this annus mirabilis, coming out on January 3, while Gun Fury, the better film in fact, was released in November – a fortnight before Warners’ hugely successful Hondo. But more on Gun Fury next time.
Walsh was certainly one of the great figures of the Western. He went right back to the silent days and first directed a Western in 1914 (the Mutual Films two-reeler Out of the Deputy’s Hands). He learned his craft with DW Griffith, serving on The Birth of a Nation as actor (John Wilkes Booth), editor and assistant director. He took part in two films about Pancho Villa and is portrayed by actor Kyle Chandler in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2004), a rather good HBO movie.
He would have been The Cisco Kid in 1928 but a jackrabbit jumped through his car windshield, causing him to lose an eye and the part, and to wear that piratical eye-patch for the rest of his life – like André De Toth (John Ford and Nicholas Ray adopted them too, even with two eyes). Walsh’s stand-in as Cisco, Warner Baxter, won an Oscar for his part in the movie, In Old Arizona.
Walsh was still directing in the early 1960s, an extraordinarily long career that spanned silents, talkies and the modern age.
He was a masculine, not to say macho character and was famed for his fast, loud lifestyle. He chuckled at what was said of him, that “your idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse”. The very names of his pictures proclaimed the machismo.
In 1930 Walsh brought a Fox prop boy named Marion Morrison to the screen in Fox’s epic wagon-train picture The Big Trail and gave him the name John Wayne. When John Ford used Wayne in Stagecoach he more than half claimed that he had ‘discovered’ Duke, but it was Walsh, a director Ford greatly admired (almost wanted to be him).
Republic’s big picture Dark Command, the Westerns with Errol Flynn – They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Silver River and Montana – then Pursued with Robert Mitchum, Colorado Territory with Joel McCrea, Distant Drums with Gary Cooper, Along the Great Divide with Kirk Douglas, these and more made Raoul Walsh a leading helmsman of Westerns before 1953 dawned.
Walsh perceptively understood that Rock Hudson was good in the genre. Many people think of Rock as a matinée idol who starred in bedroom comedies with Doris Day, but that came later. His first three roles, starting in 1948, were bit parts as a second lieutenant, a detective and a truck driver. In 1950 he was Young Bull, the Indian who kills John McIntire to get the famous Winchester ‘73. He had a small part as Burt Hanna in Tomahawk in 1951 and the following year he graduated to a fourth-billed role as gambler Trey Wilson in the tough Anthony Mann/James Stewart Western Bend of the River. Then he was third-billed as Robert Ryan’s brother in the Budd Boetticher-directed Horizons West. He had come up in the Western world. Walsh rated him highly and put him under contract. He rode very competently and looked the part in cowboy duds. Perhaps he never really ‘shone’ as a Western actor in the way that the likes of Peck, Fonda or Stewart did but he did well as the strong, silent type. His part in The Lawless Breed was his first lead role in a Western (if you discount the only semi-Western Scarlet Angel), and Gun Fury was his third (in between his two Walsh oaters he was back with Boetticher leading in Seminole, released in March ’53 – we’ll look at that one another day). So we can say that by 1953 Rock Hudson was a leading man in the Western genre.
The Lawless Breed was a biopic. Really, it was a whitewash, with a serial killer as hero. We know quite a lot about the Texas murderer John Wesley Hardin because he wrote an autobiography and he was a copious letter writer with many of his epistles surviving. And of course he was big news, so his crimes, capture, imprisonment, release and finally violent death were all covered in detail by the press of the day.
Under the title, we read “Based on the life of John Wesley Hardin as written by himself.” Well, I think that Walsh and his writers William Alland (also the producer) and Bernard Gordon must have read a different edition of The Life of John Wesley Hardin: As Written by Himself than the one I have. Hardin’s autobiography is already self-serving and false enough without the frankly ridiculous changes made for the movie. Oh well, we don’t watch Westerns for historical truths but to be entertained by the myth. And if you watch this one you will be entertained – up to a point.
By the way, if you do want to know about the real Texas killer Hardin, an alcoholic psychopath, read Leon Metz’s 1996 book John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas. It’s excellent.
We open the movie in 1896 with Hardin being released from the Texas State Penitentiary, Huntsville – actually a rather fine zoom-in from on high by DP Irving Glassberg, of Bend of the River fame, accompanied by dark Herman Stein music. Hardin is released with best wishes and good luck from a warder (evidently he was a model prisoner).
Once in town he immediately fondly pats both a foal and a puppy. Now, you know well that when a character is kind to an animal or a child in the first reel that is clear semiotics for Goody. By being nice to two, the hero ascends to the angelic class. So we know right away that we are not going to see the real John Wesley Hardin, but an anodyne Hollywood one with virtues, forced into crime by unjust circumstance (what doctors might call Jesse James Syndrome).
Then Hardin calls in to a publisher and hands him the manuscript of the 100% true account of his life he was written while inside, to set the record straight, you see. Then the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, and we flash back to a Texas cabin in 1853 with voiceover by Rock telling us that this was where and when he was born. We stay in flashback mode until the last ten minutes of the movie.
His pa is a Methodist preacher, a circuit-rider (hence his son’s moniker) and it’s John McIntire in black, with a long white beard, a sort of Texas Moses-cum-John Brown who prefers fire and brimstone to milk and honey. I am a great McIntire fan and think he was especially good in Westerns. Starting with a couple of rather cheesy Yvonne De Carlo/Dan Duryea oaters in the late 40s, he was unforgettably sinister as the gambler/arms dealer in Winchester ‘73, killed by Rock Hudson that time, brilliant as the Al Sieber-ish scout in Ambush, classic as the crusty irascible rancher in Saddle Tramp (also with McCrea), superb as the California landowner recruiting wives in the fine Westward the Women, and the list goes on. And on. Horizons West, The Mississippi Gambler. What a splendid villain he was as Judge Gannon in The Far Country! Not content with being Al Sieber-ish in Ambush, he actually was Al Sieber in Apache. I can’t think of a Western he was bad in. But for me he was best as a doc – one thinks principally of The Tin Star and The Gunfight at Dodge City. All this before he started bossing the Wagon Train when Ward Bond died in 1960. In The Lawless Breed he is both John Wesley’s father and his Uncle John, changing his beard and acting a bit younger and less reverent. Outstanding, again.
We hear of the War Between the States and how Texas suffered from those evil Reconstruction days (Westerns rarely mention anything good about Reconstruction). We see a young JWH in the late 60s quick-drawing a Colt .45 (1873 model) and shooting at moving targets. It’s a particularly modern pistol actually because he can shoot eight shots without reloading.
But his daddy doesn’t approve, especially when he learns that the boy bought the gun with winnings from gambling at cards. He whips Wes (and McIntire really seems to lay into Rock). The young man is furious and determines to leave. Now there’s a girl in the household, an orphan adopted by the preacher with whom Wes has, naturally, fallen in love. Her name is the rather prosaic Jane Brown, played by Mary Castle, soon to be Frankie in Stories of the Century. She is rather a goody, urging Wes to forsake his drinkin’ and gamblin’ and settle down, which Wes says he wants to do but isn’t that convincing (or convinced). He says he’s going away, to make money for a horse ranch which he and Jane can make their home, and off he goes. “I’ll be waitin’,” Jane tells him.
Now the scene shifts to a low gambling den where a painted lady, Rosie (second-billed Julie Adams, fabulously beautiful) clearly fancies Wes but his heart is pledged to Jane. So she sighs and puts up with it.
Wes gets into a poker game with lowdown Gus Hanley (Michael Ansara, Cochise in the TV Broken Arrow) and Gus cheats, there’s a quarrel, and gunplay, and Gus ends up dead on the floor. The trouble is, it’s post-war Texas and Gus has three brothers, so a feud is certainly in the offing. Luckily for us, these three vengeful bros are played by old friends of ours: Lee Van Cleef, Hugh O’Brian and Glenn Strange the Great. You wouldn’t want that trio gunning for you. Of course, they will be no match for gunman John Wesley Hardin.
So Wes skedaddles, hotly pursued by both the Hanleys and the US Army – Wes manages to shoot a couple of soldiers so he is now in even hotter water. He takes refuge with his uncle, John Clements (also McIntire), a very different character than his preacher sibling, who backs Wes and takes him on a cattle drive up to Abilene to escape the attentions of the military and the fraternal thugs. Also on the drive is Uncle John’s son Jim, i.e. Wes’s cousin, played by Dennis Weaver.
There’s a comic undertaker (Tom Fadden) who has some good lines. He says he’s just buried the Durango Kid in Abilene. It can’t be Charles Starrett: must be another Durango Kid. There were probably several, just as there were many Buffalo Bills and Billy the Kids. Unfortunately, though, the mortician, once back in Wes’s home town, blurts out to the Hanley brothers Wes’s whereabouts, so off to Abilene go Lee, Hugh and Glenn.
Now we get the famous (if probably mythical) event of Hardin in a saloon getting one over on the Abilene marshal, Wild Bill Hickok (John Anderson, decked out in Hickokian mustache), which legend says he did by executing a border roll. In the movie Wes doesn’t quite do a border roll, more a deft maneuver of handing over one gun to the lawman while drawing the other. Anyway, he earns Hickok’s admiration and is allowed to keep his sidearms, handy when he has the Hanleys to deal with.
Actually, Francis Ford is the saloon janitor and even gets a one-line speaking part, so he was probably pleased with that (paycheck). The former leading light of the early Western movie was reduced by now to taking menial bit-parts wherever he could find them.
Rock seemed quite lively in these saloon scenes and seemed to be enjoying himself.
Well, the herd sold and two of the Hanleys eliminated – and it’s rather a good scene in the windblown street when Rock gets Lee …
…it’s back home to loyal Jane with a fancy wedding dress from an Abilene tailor. There, he agrees to turn himself in for trial and uses all his farm money to pay a crooked lawyer (Leo Curley). He goes off to the races to win back his cash by beating all comers on Rondo, the fancy nag he has won on the cattle drive, and does so. Rosie’s there too, and the undertaker (who offers him “a drink on the hearse”). Wes and Uncle John go off to the saloon to collect their winnings. But there’s a lawman, Sheriff Charlie Webb (George Eldredge), in the pay of the last Hanley, Ike (O’Brian) who wants to arrest him for that killing of Gus. Wes won’t have it, not till after the wedding, and leaves the saloon, but Webb shoots him in the back, the skunk. Wes is wounded but nails the lawman. He gets away but now he’s shot a sheriff. Uh-oh. You see, all these killings are justified. This JWH never shoots anyone who doesn’t deserve it. “I never killed anyone who didn’t try to kill me first,” he says. Yeah, right.
A posse chases Wes but can’t find him (“He musta taken to the hills!” one member cornily opines). However, he’s holed up at home, and eventually the posse arrives there. There’s a shoot-out and Wes gets away (though hit again) but Jane catches a stray bullet and it’s RIP. Quite convenient, that, for the way is now open for Rosie.
And it’s Rosie who alliteratively whisks wounded Wes away in a wagon, and she becomes his new partner. They wander the West, gambling. Wes now has a mustache.
But then the Texas Rangers are reconstituted and get on Hardin’s trail. They catch up with him in Kansas City, where Hank Worden is credited as a barfly but I didn’t see him, sigh. They escape again.
Now they finally get that idyllic ranch, in Alabama, and Wes marries Rosie. They have a baby, young John, but she writes home with the news and the Rangers intercept the letter. Finally Wes is captured, at a railroad station, and stands trial. He is sentenced to 25 years in the pen.
We are nearing the end now. We flash forward again, and Wes (Rock in gray wig) goes back to the farm, which Rosie has been stalwartly managing, and bringing up the son (Race Gentry, who does in fact look a bit like a young Rock). Wes finds his son twirling a six-shooter, just as he himself had done as a boy, and stupidly strikes the lad to the floor, causing him to go off in a huff. History is repeating itself. Will the boy go bad and become a gunslinger, just as Wes had done when his own daddy whipped him?
The kid goes off to the saloon, Colt on his hip, and there gets into a quarrel with a drunken lout and nearly draws on him, but Wes arrives in the nick of time and intervenes. But wouldn’t you just know it, the lout shoots Wes in the back, just as that sheriff had done all those years before. Oh no!
Don’t worry, though. It’s only a flesh wound, they go off back home, the boy renounces the gun and they all live happily ever after in what is, to be blunt, a pretty sentimental and cheesy ending. In reality, of course, Hardin was a bad husband and father who went to El Paso and set up with a prostitute, and ended up shot to death in a sordid saloon by John Selman in August 1895. But such facts weren’t terribly suitable for a mainstream early-50s Hollywood film.
Well, well, this one was far from Raoul Walsh’s best. Still and all, there are moments, much of it is quite fun and Rock isn’t too bad at all. The relationship between Wes and Rosie is well handled. McIntire is superb. I could have done without the rather preachy message that a badman can change for the better, crime doesn’t pay, etc., which is supposed to be an edifying moral but just comes out weakly – especially as the real JWH didn’t redeem himself at all. But all in all, you could watch it!
Well, you gotta.
The next two posts – two more Rock Westerns of ’53. So come back soon!