Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott pairing I had not seen. That entry? From 1959, Westbound, actually the sixth of seven films the director and star worked together on. Where does it end up among the seven? Read on and find out!
It's late in the Civil War as the Union and Confederacy continue the bloody fighting, both sides looking for more gold to bankroll all the fighting. One of the keys? Getting that gold from California across the southwest to safety so it can be deposited in banks and mints. In steps John Hayes (Scott), an extremely capable Union cavalry officer who has a background in running a stagecoach line. He's now being sent to start up a line on the fly, one that will be running coaches full of gold being shipped as fast as humanly possible. The task is incredibly difficult, especially because Southerners in abundance are going to do their damnedest to stop him from succeeding. First up on that list is his former employee, Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a Confederate sympathizer who's hijacked much of the already-established stage line. Into it all, Hayes steps in with little room for error and less time to get things right.
As a western fan, it is hard not to like these films, these seven pairings between Boetticher and Scott. Their reputation has grown over the years -- thankfully! -- to the point that western fans look to these films as some of the best of the genre, a canon to be recognized. Where does 'Westbound' fall? Right in the middle. I liked it a lot, but I can't put it on the same level as 7 Men from Now and Ride Lonesome, my two favorites of the bunch. It's better too than Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone, putting it instead among Comanche Station and The Tall T as the 'good, but not great' entries. None of them are bad, just some better than others. 'Westbound' is one that grew on me during its 72-minute running time. Something clicked in about the 25-minute mark or so, and I was hooked.
I've made no bones about my dislike and worry over so many heavy, overdone adult westerns from the 1950's. The drama, the emotion, the betrayals, it was all laid on so thick. One of many beauties of the Boetticher/Scott films is their outlook on the west. There was good, bad and those caught in the middle, those who have to decide to do what's right (and possibly dangerous) or just go along with the easy payday, what's easy. Among westerns -- and films, stories in general -- there's nothing more direct than good vs. evil. Where will everyone fall in the end? Boetticher follows the similar formula, the same archetypes and at just 72-minutes, 'Westbound' is a fast-moving, often dark, adult western that flies by. An excellent, underrated final product.
Leading the way and navigating through the good and bad is star Randolph Scott, an ideal lead for these movies, a necessary front man. Movie-in and movie-out, Scott was what these movies needed. His John Hayes is no different, resolute in getting the job done no matter what odds are stacked against him. He doesn't see black or white or shades of grey. Hayes sees what is right and intends to get the job done. There's never a doubt of his intentions. These aren't anti-heroes, but instead, a last wave of true western heroes. Scott throws himself into those parts with abandon. He's believable. You buy it that he will never take the easy way out. But you ask, even when a lost love (Virginia Mayo) is waiting there to be swept away? NO! Our hero wouldn't dream of it! What about a lovely young bride (Karen Steele) who he's clearly attracted to? Double NO! It just ain't gonna happen, a true western hero, a dying breed by 1959 in the genre.
There's some good parts all around in this Boetticher western. I liked Duggan a lot as Putnam, the Confederate sympathizer determined to stop Hayes but even he has limits. His enforcer, Mace (Michael Pate), has no such limits, providing some tense moments as their plan is put into action. Mayo is Putnam's wife, a woman torn by her past feelings of Scott's Hayes and her genuine feelings for her current husband. Steele is a bright spot also as Jeanie Miller, a young bride to Rod (Michael Dante), a Union soldier who lost an arm in the fighting and was sent home. There's an interesting dynamic among Hayes, Jeanie and Rod as the stage plan comes together that takes some surprising turns as the story develops. Wally Brown provides some comic relief as Stubbs, the stagecoach driver, with John Daheim memorable as the sneering henchman of Mace's...Russ.
Nothing flashy, nothing too out of the ordinary. It wouldn't fit with Boetticher's straightforward, no-nonsense smile. This is a western at its finest with a story that doesn't pull any punches, a hero who it's easy to root for, villains you can't wait to see get their due, and all of it wrapped tightly in a nice 72-minute package. If you're a fan of the other Boetticher/Scott pairings, you'll definitely enjoy this one too.
Westbound (1959): ***/****