There’s a whole sub-genre of capture-the-wild-horse Westerns. Many cowboy stars felt they had to do one. Joel McCrea did two. These yarns concern a magnificent stallion whose running free offends the cowboys: half of them want to corral it and break its spirit while the first instinct of the other half is to shoot it. Some of these oaters, big-screen and small, were aimed at juvenile markets but a rather darker, certainly more adult example was a modest-budget black & white Columbia picture from 1948, in some markets titled Fury, more usually known as Thunderhoof.
It was produced by Ted Richmond, best known for the later Papillon but he made a number of Westerns, with Audie Murphy especially, and the year before Thunderhoof he did another wild-stallion one, King of the Wild Horses, which starred Preston Foster. The same year as Thunderhoof, Richmond produced another Western, one we reviewed recently, Adventures in Silverado, directed by Phil Karlson, and Thunderhoof united the star of that, William Bishop, with Foster, also helmed by Karlson.
Foster was a composer, songwriter, guitarist and author who is probably best remembered as an actor for Kansas City Confidential, another Phil Karlson-helmed picture, but he did quite a few Westerns, leading, for example, in the 1937 version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat, in Geronimo in 1939, and in Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James in 1949. In 1943 he’d done yet another horsey flick, as Roddy McDowall’s dad in Fox’s My Friend Flicka, and its sequel in 1945, Thunderhead: Son of Flicka. He had a big, booming presence and was quite good in oaters, I thought.
As for Bishop, he spent three years at Columbia after the war, before freelancing, and did nineteen feature Westerns altogether, such as the 1951 The Texas Rangers (Karlson again) with George Montgomery, The Oregon Trail with Fred MacMurray, The Walking Hills and Coroner Creek with Randolph Scott, Top Gun with Sterling Hayden, and more. He was often the villain. In Thunderhoof he’s the bad guy again, though one with saving graces, just as Foster is the hero, but with flaws. It’s quite subtle in that way.
Second-billed, though, between Foster and Bishop, was the historically-named Mary Stuart, and this was appropriate because it’s a love-triangle story (or love-quadrilateral if you count the horse).
Margarita (Stuart) is Scotty Mason (Foster)’s beloved wife but Scotty’s young protégé Kid (Bishop) falls for her, and ructions are the result. Ms Stuart “reigned on Search for Tomorrow (1951) for nearly four decades and became one of TV’s most popular daytime ladies,” as the IMDb bio puts it. She only did three Westerns, this one by far her biggest role. Otherwise she was ninth-billed on a Randolph Scott oater, The Cariboo Trail, and was ‘townswoman (uncredited)’ on another, Colt .45. So that wasn’t a glorious career in the saddle. But she’s actually rather good in Thunderhoof, as the conflicted young wife, grateful to the husband who pulled her out of some squalid cantina where she was a singer, but she doesn’t love him passionately, while the Kid is dashing and fun and handsome, if essentially unreliable, and in the end she falls for him, with tragic consequences.
So there are only three actors, five if you count Dice, who played Thunderhoof, and his mare (uncredited mare).
Karlson was an old hand who’d started as a prop boy and worked his way up but he was stuck for a long time at outfits like Monogram and Eagle-Lion, making B-pictures really. But he gained a rep in the 1950s with some tough, realistic and violent crime films, noted for their gritty location shooting and his close attention to detail, and as far as Westerns went, as well as the ones noted above, he helmed the likes of Gunman’s Walk and They Rode West. He didn’t do badly.
There was some studio work of course but a decent amount of location shooting too, the majority in fact, in wild desert locations – the IMDb Filming & Production tab doesn’t say where, unfortunately, but you can spot saguaros here and there and yucca brevifolia. It looks pretty barren and austere terrain in the Sepiatone black & white, shot by Henry Freulich.
The writers were Harold Jacob Smith, who only worked on this and two other Westerns, with input by Kenneth Gamet, who was much more of a specialist, being a favorite writer of Randolph Scott and scripting many other oaters, The Maverick Queen, The Last Posse and more. Although there is no screen credit to the effect, the story was based on White Silence by Jack London, in his The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North (1900).
In the first reel, the Kid is quite a sympathetic, if wild character but when in Mexico they finally capture the wild stallion that Scotty so longs to own, the Kid makes for the roped horse with a whip. This is the turning point: the Kid is clearly a bad guy. Scotty, on the other hand, although he has taken the wild horse, stops the Kid and is nice to the beast, talking softly to it. And when the stallion’s wild mare follows them, the Kid (naturally) wants to shoot it. He misses and Scotty warns him not to try again. You don’t need a degree in Western Semiotics to get the message.
Unfortunately, in the struggle Scotty broke a leg and, splinted up, he has a hard job of getting the horse back to Texas, especially when he develops a fever. The three of them come across a strangely abandoned farmhouse and are glad of the food and water they find there. Scotty improves, and they set out again for Texas.
This is where it all starts to go badly wrong, though I shall not reveal how. The ending is rather improbably happy; it would have been better with a bleaker last scene. But, though this is clearly a cheaply-made black & whiter, I think it’s well done, and deserves a look. There’s an ongoing atmosphere of tension, including sexual tension, and definite noir tinges.
It reminded me at times of The Ride Back, that Anthony Quinn/William Conrad Western of 1957, in its ‘smallness’ and tone, though in my view The Ride Back was a superior film.
Some critics have been damning. Erik Maurel calls it “un film que j’ai trouvé non seulement ennuyeux et peu captivant mais également sans grand intérêt ni tension” (a film that I found not only dull and unexciting but also lacking in interest and tension). Brian Garfield said that the “silly plot is filled with coincidences and anti-climax”. But I am not alone in liking it. Phil Hardy calls it “one of the most ambitious B Westerns ever, part allegory and part psychological drama.” He adds that “Smith’s clever script and Karlson’s tight direction are superb.” Ivan Shreve on Classicflix says, “I was really bowled over by Thunderhoof, an ambitious programmer where the hunt for the horse is really secondary to its themes of jealousy and frustration. It reinforced why I’m such a fan of Phil Karlson’s work, and among the ‘new’ classic movies I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year it’s unquestionably among the top five. Highly recommended.”
Well, if you see it, let me know which opinion you favor!