The Big Trees that logging and cutting down trees just isn't exciting as it sounds. Just the same, when 1960's Guns of the Timberland popped up on Turner Classic Movie's schedule, I wanted to give it a shot. It comes from a novel by an author I like a lot, and the cast sounded pretty capable. Yeah, I was wrong. It's now 0-for-2 when it comes to logging movies.
Traveling by train, Jim Hadley (Alan Ladd) and Monty Walker (Gilbert Roland) are heading into the mountains to finish out a contract they've signed. It's 1895 somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, and Jim, Monty and their crew of lumberjacks have been contracted to provide limber for a new railroad line. They've invested much of their own money to help get the job and desperately need it to come through for them. They think the job will be easy...until they get there. The area they're supposed to clear is dominated by ranches that need the trees to provide a watershed for the land. No trees, no ability to hold water in the land. One ranchowner, Laura Rileyy (Jeanne Crain), is at the forefront of the effort to stop them, and the whole town is behind her. Both sides stand to lose everything should the other side succeed. Who will cave and buckle first?
When I see based on a story/novel from western writer Louis L'Amour, I'm always psyched. I grew up reading his stories and still read them today. I haven't read this source story, but it sounds like the movie script switched up the focus of the novel. In the movie, we follow Jim and Monty in their efforts to clear the land. In the book, it sure sounds like it's the other way around as we see from the rancher's perspective. Ultimately, I felt like that went a long way toward dooming the picture. It's hard to support and/or hate either side here. Both sides are doing what they need to do to survive. Yes, it's at the expense of the other side. So really....are there good guys and bad guys? It's hard to judge either side too harshly. Too bad because with that said, all the natural conflict goes out the window. We don't really want either side to win if that makes sense.
I did like the cast even if they are given little to do. I like Ladd depending on the role, and he's decent here because he's paired with the fiery, always fun Roland. Thankfully, Roland avoids the stereotypical 'Ay, chihuahua!' moments he so often resorted to. Ladd seems a little off, some of his lines stepping on other actor's lines, maybe off a second or two as to when he should have said something. I don't know what was going on, but Ladd even looks a little uncomfortable in most of his scenes. Also joining the crew of boisterous, roughneck, fun-loving lumberjacks is Noah Beery Jr., Henry Kulky, and Johnny Seven, some there for comic relief, others for intimidation factors.
On the other side of the line is a really dull crew of quasi-bad guys who aren't so bad. Crain is okay as tough female rancher Riley, but even she falls for Ladd's Jim at the drop of a hat. The most villainous is Lyle Bettger as Clay Bell, Riley's foreman who isn't below some rather nasty methods to get the lumberjacks out of town. Frankie Avalon plays Bert, a young man working on the Riley ranch who finds himself caught between the ranch and the appealing freedom of the lumberjacks. It's actually a pretty good part for Avalon, even if the script finds two opportunities to let him sing. The rest of the townspeople don't make much of an impression, just a sea of passive-aggressive, cackling maroons who revel in all the stunts pulled against the lumberjacks. Mostly, you just want to see them get punched in the face a couple times.
If there is a positive to take away here, it's the on-location shooting. Director Robert D. Webb filmed his movie in Blairsden and Graeagle, California up in the mountains. It may be one big old dull story, but it's nice to look at while you're being bored. That's the biggest issue. The tension is there, but it's just never that interesting. You don't care how things end up, and the finale is a big old cop-out. I didn't have high expectations to begin with, but even those weren't worth it.
Guns of the Timberland (1960): * 1/2 /****