Ride, Vaquero! before. I don't remember it so well. And yes, I'm such a movie nerd I keep a list of all the movies I've seen, and there it was in August 2008. Pretty seductive, aren't I? So when this western popped up on TCM's schedule, man, it sure sounded familiar but I couldn't remember...well, much of anything at all. Speaks well of the movie, doesn't it? Any-hoo, here it is, a western that clearly left a huge impression on me for a second viewing.
It's soon after the end of the Civil War, but the fighting is far from over in the Texas border country along the Rio Grande. Controlling the area with his gang of gunmen and cutthroats, a bandit named Jose Esqueda (Anthony Quinn) has no plan of relinquishing that control even as landowners and hopeful ranchers move back into the area. At his side is his right-hand man, a cold, calculating gunfighter named Rio (Robert Taylor) who has few if any equals with a gun. Esqueda may have met his match when one of those hopeful ranchers, King Cameron (Howard Keel), buys up all the land he can in hopes of turning it into Texas' biggest cattle ranch. Esqueda is having none of it and intends to drive this stubborn, forceful rancher off his land with Rio's help. There's a problem though. Rio isn't so sure he wants to help anymore after meeting Cameron's beautiful young wife, Cordelia (Ava Gardner). Where does his allegiance lie? More than a few lives hang in the balance.
I'm not always a huge fan of 1950s westerns. Putting the black hat vs. white hat westerns of the 1930s/1940s behind them, the genre moved into heavier, more adult stories and themes. The efforts are a mixed batch where the failed efforts are usually undone by a heavy-handed storytelling technique. What about 'Ride'? It's not great, but it's pretty good and boosted by a fitting, moving and dark ending. Director John Farrow does a pretty decent job with a story that has some flaws, some things being too familiar but with some solid performances that have some fun with genre conventions and cliches. That's how you make an adult western.
Two of the more familiar character archetypes in the western genre are the lone gunfighter, the drifter who moves from town to town looking for work, and No. 2, the Mexican bandit. In steps Robert Taylor and Anthony Quinn to fill those shoes. I'm not always a huge fan of Taylor and his too-often wooden qualities, but I love Quinn in just about everything they do. Without giving away any spoilers, their backstory provides the crux of the story and makes them far more sympathetic...even when that's difficult because of their actions. These aren't good guys. These are bad guys, but they don't play like cliches or stereotypes. Taylor's Rio is quiet, stone-faced and generally pissed. Quinn's Jose loves life and drinking and women and raising hell, but there's more to it. Both men are part of the changing times of the west. They want to be free and live in the wild. Settlement and civilization? They've got no interest in it.
While I didn't remember the movie very clearly, as I watched it parts of it came back to me. Mostly, it was that duo. I love their brotherly dynamic that comes with all its fights and rivalries. Brothers? Yes, but they have that curiosity of who's quicker with a gun. Who would win if it came right down to it? Rio doesn't care, but Jose begins to wonder more and more. The story's focus is at its strongest in that relationship but suffers when Keel and Gardner's husband-wife combo are in the spotlight. Rio is drawn to this beautiful, feisty woman who's loyal most of all to her husband...but can't help but feel drawn to this mysterious, moody gunfighter. Keel's Cameron never seems to realize he's got a threat in Rio. It isn't quite soap opera-esque, but it sure is close and I'm no fan of a love triangle in basically any medium, especially my favorite genre, the western. It's not that Keel and Gardner don't deliver interesting performances, but they're just undone by a lackluster script at times.
Also look for Kurt Kasznar as Father Antonio, a local priest trying to keep it all peaceful in an excellent supporting part. He's not some dull, vanilla priest but ready to pitch in and get the job done. There's also supporting parts for Ted de Corsia as the town sheriff worried about Esqueda and Rio's potential and then familiar baddie Jack Elam as one of Esqueda's men, Barton.
With the better (even just tolerable) 1950s westerns, there's a quality of Greek mythology to the story and characters. 'Ride' certainly has that, especially in its final act as all the different sides come together to settle things once and for all. The ending itself is pretty inevitable. You know where it's going, but the mystery of who's gonna make it through it unscathed adds that dimension of mystery. I liked the movie overall, but the ending is especially memorable and as I mentioned earlier, particularly effective if you were even remotely sympathetic to Rio and Esqueda. It's an interesting western overall with some good performances, cool, good-looking filming locations in Utah (standing in for Texas), and a good score from composer Bronislau Kaper. A classic? No, but pretty decent.
Ride, Vaquero! (1954): ** 1/2 /****