Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Castaway Cowboy (Buena Vista, 1974)

 

Pineapple cowboys

 

Personally speaking, Disney live-action Westerns are not really my thing. They have always been quite popular, I’m sure, and many people still like them, especially perhaps young children and some of their parents, but I wouldn’t normally pay to go to a theater to see one. Still, this one starred James Garner, and in my entirely futile if compulsive desire to see every extant Western, I dutifully sat through it at home.

 

 

It is in fact barely a Western at all, being set in Hawaii, or the Sandwich Islands as they were called then, and the picture was shot on Kaua’i. It’s a story of how Costain, a Texas cowboy (Garner) washes up on the shore of an island – we are never quite sure if he deserted or was pushed overboard – and is taken in by one of those wholesome families Disney liked, comprising a widow, Henrietta MacAvoy (Vera Miles) and her oddly-named young son Booton (Eric Shea, 14). Because she’s a widow, we know instantly that it will be lurve with the handsome Texan in the final reel.

 

The patrician beauty Ms Miles was of course a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, and Westernistas will think of her chiefly in The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, though in fact she did nine feature oaters in all. In Castaway, she’s one of those polite, slightly posh but feet-on-the-ground ranch owners, and handles it fine.

 

It will be lurve

 

I do try to be tolerant, or at least forgiving of child actors. It’s amazing that they learn all those lines and do as well as they do. And in Castaway a child has a big part. Like many juvenile Westerns, this one has the hero palling up with the kid, who becomes more or less his sidekick, in order, I suppose, to provide a character with whom the audience can identify. But Master Shea was, I’m afraid, pretty painful to watch. He shouts all of his lines at the top of his lungs and as he was so small the result is a piercing squeal strong enough to shatter glass. The director, a drama coach, his parents, anyone, should have told him to dial it down at least 90%.

 

Jim was very understanding

 

But that director was Vincent McEveety, who helmed 101 episodes of different Western TV shows but only five features, the best of which (it was only relative) was Firecreek in 1968. And he seems to have given young Shea his head, unfortunately.

 

Vincent at the helm

 

The villain of the piece is a slimy frock-coated local merchant, Bryson, who woos the widow but clearly has designs on her land and is willing to wed her to get it. Bryson is played by Robert Culp, best known for I Spy but he did a lot of Western TV shows and three other features (The Raiders, Hannie Caulder and The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday). Bryson has a grunt/henchman (Gregory Sierra) to do his nefarious bidding.

 

He smiles and smiles but is a villain

 

Most of the rest of the cast consists of happy Hawaiians, led by a very fat maid wearing a tent (Elizabeth Smith). The basic plot is that Costain reckons the ranch is prime cattle country and there are wild beasts in the brush, so he has the mission of training up these Hawaiians to become cowboys. They are exceeding incompetent at first, giving rise to much slapstick humor which doubtless delighted the kiddies but makes the rest of us wonder how long it was going to go on for.

 

Stereotype happy islanders

 

But eventually they get the hang of it. The last reel deals with the thwarting of the schemes of the bad guy (he arranges a stampede, naturally; you can’t have a cattle Western without one). There’s also some mumbo-jumbo as one of the recalcitrant Hawaiians (Nephin Hannemann) takes against the Texan and casts a magic spell on a cowboy but is later constrained by Garner’s fists to recant and lift that curse. I hate mumbo-jumbo.

 

The bad guys join forces

 

I was sorry for the poor cows, who were close to maltreated.

 

Garner (reunited with Miles after their One Little Indian) deploys some of his Mavericky charm but is generally quite tough (this was post-Sledge). Later he recalled that the best thing in the film was the Hawaiian scenery. Well, quite.

 

Howard Thompson in the New York Times wrote a rather patronizing but probably pretty accurate review (rather like mine, I suppose) calling the picture, “a homey, comfortably amusing and nicely colorful package”. He added, “Yesterday the children—flanked by smiling parents—took to it like popcorn, at the midtown Festival Theater”.

 

You could watch it. If you are ten.

 

There’s quite a lot of standing around talking

 

 

2 Responses

  1. Many adventure films have a western feel or aspect.
    The archipelago could have seen more westerns. After all, with the Parker Ranch on Big Island, it hosts one of the largest and oldest ranch in the US. Hawaian cow-boys are called the paniolos (from español, as many if them were from Mexico).
    It could have been easy also because many Hollywood stars had their habits there such as John Wayne used to spend his vacations in deep sea fishing parties as well as Richard Boone.
    John Ford Donovan’s Reef was also shot in Kauai. Not a western but endless brawls with Lee Marvin…

    1. I like the idea of Ford, Wayne, Boone and Marvin making a Western in Hawaii. It could have been a goodie.

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