Drum Beat (1954) Review

Director: Delmer Daves

Genre(s): War, Western

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Alan Ladd and Charles Bronson in a war-western together? What could possibly go wrong? During the Indian Wars of the late 1800s, an experienced fighter of Native Americans named Johnny MacKay (Alan Ladd) is dispatched to the Wild West to bring peace between White settlers and Modoc Native Americans led by “Captain Jack” (Charles Bronson). This movie may have helped Bronson establish himself as an actor, but it’s still rubbish.

When film historians talk about old western flicks that were racist against Native Americans, Drum Beat is probably one of the pictures that they’re referring to. According to this production, “good” natives went to their shitty reservations with big smiles on their faces, while the “bad” natives challenged the Whites’ attempts to steal their lands. The work’s prejudice is pretty blatant, some of the worst I’ve seen in the genre.

To add insult to injury, Drum Beat is just plain boring. The action scenes aren’t terrible (there is a big battle or two), but Alan Ladd doesn’t find himself in the middle of the mayhem as much as he should. The movie seems to have had a respectable budget, but it’s all wasted. The picture should’ve run only about ninety minutes, but, in an effort to make it more epic, it drags on for a little over 110 minutes. President Ulysses S. Grant (played by Hayden Rorke) appears on a couple of occasions, but nothing memorable comes from this.

So, that’s two major strikes against Drum Beat: racism and tedium. Normally, I’d try to come up with a third strike to complete the baseball analogy, but this movie isn’t worth the time. You’re out! The film is more likely to make you want to go to sleep than it is to excite you. Nope, this one is not recommended. If you need a flick to watch that touches on the Indian Wars, check out something like Winchester ’73 (1950) or Ulzana’s Raid (1972), instead of this turkey.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Ride, Vaquero! (1953) Review

Director: John Farrow

Genre(s): Western

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Ride, Vaquero! is a pretty typical western for the time period. It’s in color and it looks like it had a reasonable budget, but it doesn’t really add up to anything particularly memorable. The story’s about rancher King Cameron (Howard Keel) who decides to stand up to bandit warlord José Esqueda (Anthony Quinn) and his enforcer Rio (Robert Taylor). I don’t think that I have to tell you that a violent confrontation between Cameron and Esqueda is inevitable.

The best thing about Ride, Vaquero! is its talented cast. Anthony Quinn may not get top billing, but this is definitely his show. His performance is just so much more animated that those of his co-stars. Robert Taylor’s pretty stoic, but he’s a bit of a bad guy here, which is different from your typical role for him. Ava Gardner, as Cordelia Cameron, isn’t given anything to do. Jack Elam shows up as henchman Barton, but his role doesn’t really come into play until towards the end of the runtime.

This western is one of those films that promises big action, but doesn’t deliver. Did the budget run out or something? There’s a reasonable shootout at a ranch with one party attacking on horseback and the other defending, but that’s just about as good as it gets. The grand finale could be considered a damp squib on the action front. It does have a scene where a villain tortures another character by shooting him a few times in non-fatal regions of his body, which was unexpected, but, by that point, does anybody care?

There’s not much else to report about Ride, Vaquero!. I’ve seen more forgettable westerns, but don’t take that as a compliment. Anyway, it’s acceptable entertainment for fans of Anthony Quinn and Robert Taylor, but those interested in Ava Gardner and Jack Elam’s roles will be left empty-handed. Those looking for intense action will be less than thrilled. The audience for this one is elderly people who want squeaky-clean, old-timey westerns with no swearing, nudity, or graphic violence.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Guns for San Sebastian (1968) Review

Director: Henri Verneuil

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Western

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Anthony Quinn goes full “spaghetti western” (Italian-made western movie) in this 1968 film. Hell, it even has a musical score from Ennio Morricone! Things don’t stop there, though, with Charles Bronson showing up as Teclo, a village Hellraiser. Set in the 1740s, this flick is about Mexican bandit Leon Alastray (Anthony Quinn) being mistaken for a priest by a remote town and helping them fight off a raid by the Yaqui Native Americans.

Yes, the plot of Guns for San Sebastian does sound vaguely similar to that found in The Magnificent Seven (1960), which Charles Bronson also starred in. Even the Mexican village set in this film looks very similar to the one from that 1960 release. Was it actually filmed at the same location? I don’t know for sure, but, despite being a European co-production, it was shot in Mexico, just like The Magnificent Seven. Anyway, the outsider(s)-defending-a-helpless-community formula makes this a watchable action-adventure flick.

While not overflowing with physical combat, Guns for San Sebastian does feature some bracing action scenes. Anthony Quinn gets a chance to pile the corpses high, and the overall body count is astronomical for a western movie. There is a great deal of explosions and people falling off of horses. Seeing Quinn and Charles Bronson in the same production is fun, even if the pacing lags a little. The narrative probably could’ve been tightened up a tiny bit.

To be honest, Guns for San Sebastian probably isn’t quite as badass as I’m hyping it up to be. The cast and action may be incredible, but the movie can be on the somewhat slow-moving side. That’s largely forgiven when the movie concludes, but it’s still a criticism that should be made. It’s worth recommending. A bit of trivia about the work is that it was originally conceived as a project for Quinn’s The Guns of Navarone (1961) co-star Gregory Peck in 1964.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

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.