Vera Cruz (1954) Review

Director: Robert Aldrich

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, War, Western

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During the Franco-Mexican War, American gunslingers Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) and Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) are hired by the French-dominated Mexican government to escort Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) across rebel-held territory in Mexico. One of the better movies that either Gary Cooper or Burt Lancaster appeared in, this action-adventure-western is not just highly engaging, it was also very influential on the western genre. Wikipedia currently claims that The Magnificent Seven (1960), the westerns directed by Sergio Leone, The Professionals (1966), and The Wild Bunch (1969) all owe a little something to Vera Cruz.

This war-time western has a mean, tough demeanor that would help inspire the tones of various western works to come. Its casual violence, amoral personalities, and stylized gunplay would all be noted by upcoming filmmakers. Vera Cruz feels ahead-of-its-time, more like a 1964 flick, than a 1954 one. The cast is also stacked, featuring the aforementioned Cooper and Lancaster, as well as Cesar Romero (as Marquis Henri de Labordere), Charles Bronson (playing Pittsburgh), Ernest Borgnine (showing up as Donnegan), and Jack Elam (as Tex).

This heightened war/western feature has tremendous action…and lots of it. The big, final battle is a highlight. Gary Cooper really gets the opportunity to show off his inner John Rambo. The runtime is only a little over an hour-and-a-half, so Vera Cruz crams plenty of action scenes and an innumerable quantity of double-crosses into its package. This is nothing if not entertaining.

Vera Cruz is essential viewing for fans of the cast and the genres. The only element that really ages the work is some “Lost Cause”-style reminiscing about the American South (due to the fact that Cooper’s character was a plantation owner). However, this is offset somewhat by the presence of the badass Ballard (played by Archie Savage), a Black gunman who used to serve in the Union military during the American Civil War.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Man from Del Rio (1956) Review

Director: Harry Horner

Genre(s): Drama, Western

Runtime: 82 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Set during the Wild West period, drifter Dave Robles (Anthony Quinn) is made the sheriff of a small town after dealing with some of the local riff-raff. Man from Del Rio is a pretty typical typical western movie for its time period. There’s not much that sets it apart from the rest of the various other 1950s westerns, other than the fact that it stars Anthony Quinn, one of Hollywood’s hardest hard men.

Yes, there is some padding in Man from Del Rio, despite its runtime of only 82 minutes. It should also be noted that there are a few – er – similarities with that other ’50s western, High Noon (1952). One thing that they have in common is Katy Jurado (playing Estella here). Anthony Quinn and her look like they were made for each other in this picture. However, the High Noon-esque finale in the film that this review is about falls a bit on the anti-climactic side.

One should not go into Man from Del Rio expecting wall-to-wall action, but it is blessed with one Hell of a barroom brawl. Filmed in fairly long takes with lots of breakable parts of the set, it ranks among the best one-on-one fights in western movie history. It’s superb (although the Goofs section of this flick’s IMDb profile alleges that the stunt doubles are “very obvious”). Other than that punch-up, there’s some gunplay, but it pales in comparison to that saloon smashing.

This is not one of my favorite western movies, even if Anthony Quinn is one of my favorite actors. The plot has a few interesting beats, but it can’t escape from the shadow of High Noon. If it wasn’t for the Anthony Quinn Factor and the barroom fist fight, this film wouldn’t really be worth watching at all. However, as it stands now, it’s an acceptable way to waste some time, although they really should’ve worked on that ending a bit more.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Iron Mistress (1952) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, Western

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

A movie where Alan Ladd plays Jim Bowie may sound like a home-run, but the 1952 bore The Iron Mistress proves this not to be the case. Ending before the outbreak of the Texan War of Independence, this film concerns itself with the early life of legendary American knife-fighter Jim Bowie (Alan Ladd) as he duels his way across the American South. It barely counts as a western, considering its geographic location, but I’ll let it slide and categorize it as one anyway.

The Iron Mistress (named after Bowie’s iconic Rambo knife) is dismally low on action. There is one sword-versus-knife duel illuminated only by lightning that’s fairly interesting, but there’s little other excitement. As I stated earlier, this flick ends before the Texan War of Independence, so don’t expect a depiction of the Battle of the Alamo.

The second act here is almost guaranteed to put you to sleep, and the first and third parts aren’t anything to write home about either. Alan Ladd plays Jim Bowie as just another Alan Ladd character. The runtime is too long, and the whole thing is about as memorable as a day spent entirely inside the confines of your own home. The way slavery is shown here is problematic, but, being a picture released in 1952, you already knew that, right?

Even Ladd aficionados will find this one a trudge. It’s hard to think of positive things to say about a flick that you almost dozed off while watching. I guess the budget seemed reasonable, giving it respectable production values. Is that a compliment? I don’t even know anymore. Well, there’s not much left to say, other than “avoid the The Iron Mistress.”

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Man Without a Star (1955) Review

Director: King Vidor

Genre(s): Western

Runtime: 89 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Man Without a Star is just about as generic as westerns get. Take note that I didn’t say “bad,” just “generic.” The story’s about drifter Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) who settles down to become a ranch-hand and, you guessed it, gets involved in a range war. This picture was directed by King Vidor, who, according to IMDb, was the uncredited director of the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

This is a pure, unadulterated western flick with few frills. It greatly benefits from the presence of Kirk Douglas, a real movie star, who makes the whole thing a lot livelier than it would’ve been with a lesser actor. His character’s obsession with indoor bathrooms and aversion to barbed wire are nice touches. Kirk is so charismatic that the filmmakers felt the desire to give him a semi-musical number. It’s not much, but he does sing a ditty in a saloon.

Man Without a Star isn’t an action-packed tale, but there are just enough moments of that sort of stuff to keep the audience in their seats. Don’t expect much and you’ll end up having a reasonable time. The film climaxes with an impressive stampede sequence and a tough fist fight between Douglas and the villain, Steve Miles (Richard Boone).

Keep your peepers peeled for the unmistakable Jack Elam in a small, uncredited role at the beginning. This feature also has one of the most melodramatic scar reveal scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s a highlight. Man Without a Star is pretty standard-issue stuff, but the Kirk Douglas Factor prevents it from ever becoming boring. For what it’s worth, it’s a Hell of a lot better than director King Vidor’s next project, the dire War and Peace (1956).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Fighting Caravans (1931) Review

Directors: Otto Brower and David Burton

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Fighting Caravans is an early sound western that stars the great Gary Cooper. To be frank, it’s nothing that special. Clint Belmet (Gary Cooper) is a Wild West scout who pretends to be married to lone Frenchwoman Felice (Lili Damita) on a covered wagon caravan headed to California. Of course, the journey will be perilous (those Native Americans aren’t going to give up their land without a fight), and Clint and Felice just might fall in love for real.

This flick is decidedly an old-timey affair. There are times when it feels creaky, even by the standards of the time. The comic relief, provided by drunken mountain men Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall), will probably provoke as many eye-rolls as actual laughs. The action scenes, such as a large barroom brawl and a battle at a river crossing with some Native Americans, feel somewhat clunky, but they’re alright, I suppose.

The movie is not particularly friendly to the indigenous populations of North America, who’re treated as faceless baddies to be gunned down. The “i-word” (the one with a “j” in the middle) gets thrown around incessantly. This contributes to the Pre-Code nature of film, since this picture was released prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code. Other Pre-Code content includes Gary Cooper’s character trying to bed Lili Damita’s character as part of their husband-wife act.

If you’re going to watch Fighting Caravans, please keep in mind its 1931 release date. Cooper and Damita (who’s probably better known as being the wife of Errol Flynn for a while) can’t really rescue this oldie. That being said, it looks like it had a decent-sized budget and there is some action to be found here. The feature was quickly remade as Wagon Wheels (1934) with Randolph Scott in the the Cooper role.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Americano (1955) Review

Director: William Castle

Genre(s): Adventure, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Americano is a thoroughly mediocre western movie only notable for its setting. American rancher Sam Dent (Glenn Ford) travels to Brazil to deliver some cattle, but finds himself embroiled in a range war. Apparently this adventure picture was actually partially filmed in Brazil, which is a nice touch, but it’s certainly not enough to redeem the work.

One of the very first things I think of when I try to remember The Americano (Heaven forbid) is the animal footage. Being shot in South America, there’s plenty of exotic wildlife on display here (probably mostly photographed by the second unit), with these creatures often stealing the spotlight from the humans. Glenn Ford is his usual tough guy here, and Cesar Romero (who would later play the Joker in the 1960s Batman television series) gives an Anthony Quinn-esque performance as bandit Manuel Silvera.

The biggest flaw with this picture is the severe lack of action. A shoot-’em-up this ain’t, although we do get a sweet pitchfork fight towards the end. A western doesn’t have to have wall-to-wall action to be good, but it certainly helps elevate generic material…and generic this is. The film is almost more concerned with a quasi-musical number than the rough-and-tumble stuff. I guess the filmmakers wanted some dancing to appeal to as many viewers as possible.

Yes, it’s set in Brazil, but take that away, and it’d be even more forgettable than it already is. The Americano isn’t really a bad feature, but it could’ve been so much more. I wouldn’t describe it as “offensive,” even if the the Goofs section of its IMDb profile reports that, despite being set in the Portuguese-speaking part of South America, most of the Brazilians either speak Spanish or “a terrible mix of the two.” Nice.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Blowing Wild (1953) Review

Director: Hugo Fregonese

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Could Blowing Wild be considered a western movie? It’s set in South America around the time of its release date (1953), but it still involves tough guys wearing cowboy hats wielding six-shooters in confrontations with outlaws on the fringes of civilization. I’d say it has enough western film tropes to qualify as one. The plot of this flick is about a group of oilmen – Jeff Dawson (Gary Cooper), Ward “Paco” Conway (Anthony Quinn), and Dutch Peterson (Ward Bond) – fighting for survival in bandit-infested territory in Latin America.

Blowing Wild features two of the greatest tough customers to ever grace the silver screen: Gary Cooper and Anthony Quinn. They’re in top form, as you would expect, and they’re backed up by an exquisite sense of atmosphere. At times it feels like an oil-oriented (rather than gold-oriented) version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Backing up all of this is a surprisingly good theme song: “Blowing Wild (The Ballad of Black Gold)” sung by Frankie Laine, with music by the great Dimitri Tiomkin.

This is an excellent look at adventurous, hardy men trying to make a living on the edge of human advancement. There’s lots of action (by 1950s cinema standards) to keep you on the edge of your seat. We’ve got gunfire, punches, explosions, and speeding vehicles. Blowing Wild also has a bit of a romantic triangle, but it’s nothing that can’t be solved with a little violence.

This is one of the best action-adventure movies of the 1950s. It has a unique plot and setting, with quite a bit of physicality and excitement. It takes the western genre and sets it in mid-twentieth-century South America, which succeeds like gangbusters. I find it shocking that this picture isn’t more popular. It does contains a brief moment of unintentional humor, though. When the opening credits end, a title proclaims that “All events, places and persons depicted in this film are fictional,” which is immediately followed by another title saying that this story is set in “SOUTH AMERICA.” I didn’t know that that continent was fictional.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Gunsight Ridge (1957) Review

Director: Francis D. Lyon

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

If you like your western movies short, simple, and action-oriented, Gunsight Ridge might be worth looking into. During the Wild West period, lawman Mike Ryan (Joel McCrea) investigates a series of stagecoach robberies orchestrated by bandit Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens). This film is best thought of as a piece of cinematic comfort food…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Gunsight Ridge benefits from a notable amount of action. It’s not the most hectic western ever made, but it has enough shots fired and fists thrown to keep viewers from nodding off. The highlights are a horse stable punch-up and the final, mano-a-mano shootout at the geographical formation in the flick’s title. The body count’s small and the carnage is all bloodless, making it relatively family friendly by the standards of the genre.

This feature definitely fits the “traditional western” mold. There’s no moral ambiguity here, with the white-hat-black-hat tropes largely being in place (well, except for the fact that Joel McCrea’s good guy wears a black hat and the villain wears a white one). Gunsight Ridge is undemanding entertainment, and that’s okay.

All aspects of this picture are adequate. It doesn’t really go above and beyond the call of duty, but it does give off those cozy, lazy-Saturday-afternoon vibes that some audiences are looking for. Joel McCrea’s a solid action hero and the moments of physicality prevent the pace from lagging. Gunsight Ridge is no Earth-shaker, but I don’t regret viewing it.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937) Review

Director: Mack V. Wright

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Western

Runtime: 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1937 b-movie The Riders of the Whistling Skull is an early cinematic entry into the “Weird West” subgenre. That phrase refers to western genre media with fantasy/supernatural, horror, or science-fiction elements. This flick is about three cowboys – Stony Brooke (Robert Livingston), Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan), and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune) – who go on a quest to find a lost city out West that’s been overrun by Native American cultists. Oh, yeah, they also bring a ventriloquist dummy with them.

This is a very low-budget affair, but that’s part of its charm. The Riders of the Whistling Skull is cheaply-made, yet it manages to keep the audience’s attention. It’s the fourth entry into the The Three Mesquiteers series, a franchise of Poverty Row westerns that featured a trio of Wild West gunslingers. John Wayne actually appeared as the Stony Brooke character in several of the pictures in the prolific series, but this isn’t one of them.

The action sequences here are fair-enough, but nothing that special, as the heroes battle against a small army of Native American cultists. Speaking of indigenous peoples, the movie’s depiction of them is somewhat racist, but what do you expect from a micro-budget 1930s b-western? If you’ve come here looking for an enlightened look at racial minorities in such a picture, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

As of right now, Wikipedia and IMDb refer to this feature as “Riders of the Whistling Skull,” without the “The” at the beginning of the title (I’m pretty sure that I saw a “The” at the beginning of the title during the movie’s opening credits sequence). Anyway, this is a pretty solid action-adventure film all things considered. It’s less than an hour in length, so it’s a painless viewing. This western is good, corny fun with a unique plot

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Winchester ’73 (1950) Review

Director: Anthony Mann

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Winchester ’73 is a fabulous fusion of the psychological western and the action-adventure-western, combining the brains of the former and the brawn of the latter. This movie helped reinvent actor James Stewart’s career, allowing Hollywood’s iconic Mr. Nice Guy to be cast in somewhat tougher roles. The plot here is about cowboy Lin McAdam (James Stewart) hunting down a Winchester rifle across the Wild West that was stolen from him after he won it in a sharp-sho0ting competition.

Action-packed by the standards of its original release, this western packs a surprising amount of content into its ninety-two-minute runtime. From the contest for the titular rifle at the beginning to the bullet-ricocheting finale, this is a constantly engaging movie. James Stewart is violently obsessed with tracking down his gun, which is a notable departure from the sort of roles he enjoyed before 1950.

This firearm-filled film even has some slight war picture elements, thanks to a battle that erupts between American government troops and some Native Americans. The depiction of said Native Americans is a mixed bag for sure. On one hand, the leader of the indigenous rebels, Young Bull, is played by, uh, Rock Hudson. On the other, he does get a brief opportunity to mention the atrocities committed against his people by the White man, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

This acclaimed western movie is a treat for fans of the genre. It makes a few references to the famous events and people of the Wild West era while also creating its own legends. Jimmy Stewart plays a very slightly darker character than usual, but the psychological aspects of the picture never get in the way of the rousing action. Winchester ’73 is a flick worth cherishing.

My rating is 8 outta 10.