Not Budd’s finest hour but still perfectly watchable
Horizons West was a Budd Boetticher-directed picture produced by Albert Cohen (Border River, The Great Sioux Uprising), and it had a strong cast. Budd was, in a way, quite new to the genre then: he had been second unit director under Charles Vidor on The Desperadoes in 1943, and had himself helmed two quickie low-budget semi-Westerns at Monogram in 1949, the horse story Black Midnight and a Canadian Mountie yarn, The Wolf Hunters. But in 1952 he directed three quite big Westerns at Universal: The Cimarron Kid with Audie Murphy came out in January, the rodeo picture Bronco Buster with John Lund and Scott Brady was released in May and then Horizons West, in December.
I think it’s fair to say that Boetticher was still learning the craft. These oaters are not of the quality of those great late-50s ones he did with Randolph Scott. But they are still pretty decent.
Horizons benefited hugely from its lead, Robert Ryan. He plays Dan Hammond, one of three Confederate soldiers returning to Texas after the Civil War. The others are his brother Neil Hammond (Rock Hudson) and ranch foreman Tiny McGilligan (James Arness, at 6’ 7” or over 2m, tall enough to make the Tiny amusing). Neil and Tiny get right back into civilian life, and Neil follows the straight and narrow, becoming a lawman, but Dan can’t settle down, and goes on to build an empire by rustling, corrupting judges and so forth. Megalomania looms. There will be an inevitable last-reel brotherly showdown – though no actual fratricide.
Ryan, one of the great Western actors, especially as bad guy, dominates this film and frankly overshadows Hudson, who was yet to lead in a Western (that came soon, with Raoul Walsh). Brian Garfield said, “Ryan’s power and excellence are offset by the ineptitude of the young Rock Hudson.” That’s maybe a bit harsh but is basically right. Rock would go on to much stronger Western roles.
Ryan had had small parts in 1940, as a Mountie in Cecil B DeMille’s North West Mounted Police and an uncredited bit-part in Texas Rangers Ride Again, but graduated to second billing after Randolph Scott on two pictures, Trail Street in 1947 and Return of the Bad Men in ’48, then got to lead in RKO’s Best of the Badmen in 1951. So he was already a pretty experienced Stetson-wearer. And he was always tough, tall and terrific. The following year he would be absolutely superb as the bad guy opposite James Stewart in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur.
There’s a good supporting cast on Horizons. John McIntire is, as ever, powerful, convincing and sympathetic, as Ryan and Rock’s father (actually he was only two years older than his ‘son’, Ryan). Raymond Burr is there too (he actually appeared in eleven Westerns before turning to TV), rather impressive as the crooked town boss – Ryan gets him and snaffles his woman Julie (often billed as Julia) Adams too. This was the tenth of Julie’s 30 Westerns and she was always good.
Rodolfo Acosta is a Mexican general. Dennis Weaver, in his very first Western, also appears as Ryan’s overdressed right-hand man, Dandy. So the acting is either passable or downright good.
The photography and music are OK. It was filmed up at Newhall, and California doesn’t really pass for Texas. They all seem to have very brightly-colored costumes; the Technicolor is a bit garish, at least on my DVD.
But the real trouble with this Western is that it’s just OK. It never really grabs you. It’s routine. Part of the fault must be down to Louis Stevens who wrote the screenplay from his own story. It’s a shade wooden and certainly predictable.
It isn’t at all clear why it should be called ‘Horizons West’. Ryan goes south and starts wearing gray Eastern clothes. Perhaps that’s the trouble: there’s isn’t enough ‘Western’ about it.
New York Times film critic Howard Thompson wrote at the time, “A few sturdy attempts at acting and passable Technicolor fail to offset the musty flabbiness of Horizons West, the Universal-International film accompanying the Palace’s new stage show yesterday. Robert Ryan, Rock Hudson and Julia Adams are the hapless stars of this Albert J Cohen production that examines a divided Texas household in the post-Civil War era, throws in a few historical licks and seldom rises above a pat rough-and-ready formula.”
I would put that “musty flabbiness” down to a certain 1940s aura the picture has. It doesn’t seem a ‘modern’ Western along the lines of, say, Broken Arrow or Winchester ’73 (both 1950).
Variety was even less complimentary: “From a rather slow start, it then becomes a session of pretentious, cliche-laden talk that even spurts of hardy action fail to enliven.” Ouch.
Later critics have been politer. The BFI Companion to the Western calls it a “confidently handled Western … which mixes several traditional themes to unpretentious, exciting effect.”
I’d say that it’s not that bad, and Ryan, and many of the rest of the cast, do a good job. It’s not a great Western but it’s certainly more than watchable.