Not Raoul’s or Kirk’s greatest Western but still worth a look
In the 1940s Raoul Walsh moved from the big dashing oaters such as Dark Command or They Died With Their Boots On to a smaller, darker kind of Western, that one might think of as a psycho-Western or a Western noir. One thinks of Pursued in 1947 with Robert Mitchum, and Colorado Territory in 1949 with Joel McCrea. In the non-Western vein Walsh was making the likes of White Heat with James Cagney and The Enforcer with Humphrey Bogart and maybe those rubbed off a bit on his Westerns too, and in fact Westerns in general after the war were becoming tougher and more intense. Along the Great Divide in 1951 continued in that vein and while it does not have the same power as those other movies, it still has qualities that make it worth seeing today.
It was Kirk Douglas’s first Western and it almost seemed as if he hadn’t quite mastered the art yet. He looked uncertain, somehow. Not that he is bad. He plays a driven man (always good in Westerns), not a man driven to revenge this time but rather one desperate to expiate a tragic sin of his past.
The drama, written by Walter Doniger, later a director, is potentially gripping. US Marshal Douglas saves Walter Brennan (click the link for our recent essay on him) from a lynch mob determined to hang him for the murder of a big rancher’s son and then takes him across the desert for trial, pursued by said big rancher and crew. He doesn’t care if Brennan is guilty or not – that’s not up to him – but if he’s going to hang, he’s going to hang legal. Brennan is excellent as an amiable rogue, and able to shine even more with Douglas’s slightly low-key performance.
The desert journey is also a journey into the past and into the psyche, as Brennan reminds the guilt-ridden marshal of his father – a US marshal who was lynched by those he arrested because his deputy son didn’t follow the law and accompany his pater to take the accused to trial. There will be other Oedipal shenanigans.
Brennan’s daughter Virginia Mayo has to come along for the love interest. She plays a tomboy type, full of vim ‘n’ vinegar. She cynically romances the marshal in order to get his gun. Mayo had, of course, been one of the great features of Colorado Territory for Walsh, and you can read our essay on her Westerns here and on that particular film here.
Kirk is also accompanied by two deputies, John Agar (better than usual, I’d say) and Ray Teal (solidly excellent as always). Some interesting arithmetic takes place as this party of goodies and baddies in a ratio of 3 : 2 gradually changes. One deputy dies, another turns his coat. They capture the second son of the rancher (nasty James Anderson) until now Kirk is outnumbered 1 : 4.
Morris Ankrum, also back from Colorado Territory, is one of the better actors, as the fanatical father crazed by his lust for revenge, a real swine.
There is the classic ordeal of crossing the desert without water, another stock Western theme – man against nature. There’s some excellent expressionist black & white photography by Sid Hickox, a real artist, of the Lone Pine, Yuma AZ and Mojave Desert locations, especially in the (obligatory) sandstorm. The music by David Buttolph is also quite good, suggesting danger and hardship. Sadly, though, part of the plot is that Brennan torments Douglas by endlessly singing a particular song. He of course also torments us. It’s no better when Kirk joins in.
Like most movies directed by Walsh, this one moves along at a good pace (not easy to do when you are recounting a slow trek across a desert in which the characters are reduced to walking). The trial at the end is dispatched briskly in a series of rapid testimonies (it’s a travesty) and there’s the dénouement we kind of expected after a shoot-out in a stable. In fact the too-pat happy ending jars with the noir tone of the rest of the film.
There’s a hint at the ‘wicked cattle ranchers versus plucky homesteaders’ theme but it’s pretty cursory. More interesting and better developed is the notion of law and justice and how they do not necessarily go together.
Douglas disliked the picture a lot. In his autobiography he said that he only did it as a contractual obligation, and he was dismissive of Walsh, who seemed to get off on violence. He also disapproved of the mistreatment of animals during filming. Of the picture he said he detested it from start to finish.
Not up there on the Parnassus of Westerns, not even at the top of Walsh oaters, Along the Great Divide (heaven knows why it was called that) is still worth a watch, despite Kirk’s animadversions.
Reviews of the day weren’t ecstatic. Bosley Cowther in the New York Times didn’t care for Kirk in a Stetson: “His appearance in a western role, riding horses and twirling six-shooters, is just a little shy of absurd. And Virginia Mayo’s clawin’ and jawin’ as the spitfire is in that region, too.” And in general he said of the cast and crew, “The best that they’ve accomplished is a routine western, second grade.” Variety didn’t much like it either: “Douglas tries hard with his characterization and would have brought it off successfully had the scripting stuck to straight western action and not gone off in mental maneuverings.” The Variety reviewer also didn’t care much for Virginia Mayo’s performance: “Mayo’s character has several good scenes but mostly misses. Her dialect isn’t consistent.” Later reviews weren’t much better. Brian Garfield thought Along the Great Divide the weakest of Walsh’s ‘noir’ Westerns.
But I don’t mind it.
It was remade in 1956 as an episode of Cheyenne, with Morris Ankrum reprising his part.