The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Slaughter Trail

If there's anything one thinks of in a western it's the cowboys vs. Indians, the gunfighters, the cattle drives, the outlaws. One thing I clearly don't associate westerns with is singing, whether it be musicals like Oklahoma! or even singing cowboys like Gene Autry. They just seem out of place. 'Hey, I just saved the pretty school teacher from bandits, let me get my guitar out and sing about it a little!' So you might ask, how do you make it worse? Combine the two with a ballad soundtrack that runs throughout and not singing cowboys, but singing cavalrymen. That evil combination comes to fruition with 1951's Slaughter Trail.

With a brisk running time of 78 minutes, director Irving Allen apparently did not have enough in the way of a story for a feature length movie. By my guess, there's about 30 minutes of actual story and 48 minutes of ballad soundtrack and various asides with characters bursting into song. There's not enough here to make a worthwhile Gunsmoke or Bonanza episode much less a theater-released movie. Other westerns have used a ballad-like sountrack, High Noon comes to mind, but never this much. Four and five minutes pass as a cavalry troop rides across the desert, not a word spoken, with the 'Slaughter Trail' ballad booming.

There's also six different musical numbers thrown in with the story when the ballad isn't blaring. Some fit better than others, like a dance at a fort in Arizona, but most seem thrown together to make the movie a little longer. At one point, Andy Devine's Sergeant Macintosh actually hands another soldier a guitar and asks him to play so he serenades the troopers. How sweet. All this happy singing is just out of place in a story that a typical B-western could have handled nicely, or at least better than this clunker.

Working together to knock off stagecoaches and the money/gold/jewels they're carrying, outlaw Ike Vaughn (Gig Young) and Lorabelle Larkin (Virginia Grey) hit the jackpot when they discover a purse full of diamonds onboard a stagecoach. Ike passes them off to Lorabelle for safe-keeping so he and his gang can get away. But as they run, the gang steals three horses from a small group of Navajo Indians, killing two of three. The one survivor returns to the tribe where the chief calls for war because the white men broke the treaty. At the nearest outpost, Fort Marcy, the commander, Captain Dempster (Brian Donlevy) has to figure out what to do in hopes of stopping what could be a bloody rampage.

This B-western story is nothing new or inventive, but it is a good story if nothing else. There's never enough time spent on that story though for it to be any good. There are some limitations with the budget as seen in the finale. The Fort Marcy set is a great, expansive outdoor location that was used in a long list of movies in the 40s and 50s. It's situated in a small valley ringed by hills. But when the Navajos attack, they're attacking on wide, dusty plain in the middle of nowhere. We never actually see the warriors in the same shot with the soldiers firing at them. There's also the angle that Donlevy's Dempster takes about the three outlaws. He won't turn them over to the Navajos, instead posting them outside the walls to apparently be brutally killed. Ends justify the means I guess.

Known as much for playing the evil villain as much as anything, Donlevy gets a crack at playing the heroic good guy and does pretty well as he looks out for his daughter and the fort and even tries to work some magic with Grey's Lorabelle, a forced movie relationship if there ever was one. He even compliments her, 'That was quick thinking,' when she picks off an Indian about to kill someone. Smooth talker that Capt. Dempster. Young as Ike Vaughn is all right, the outlaw with the maniacal laugh. Devine is his typically annoying, braying self as the apparently veteran cavalry sergeant.

On to one more thing that bugged me that I can thank all the John Wayne movies I've watched for helping me spot. Chuck Hayward was a long-time stunt man who always got bit parts in westerns and war movies, a face you'd probably recognize, if you've seen enough of these movies. In Slaughter Trail, he plays two bit parts, one as the Indian survivor in the beginning and two as the Indian scout working for the cavalry. At one point, his two characters are actually in the same scene together. Talk about a small budget, but that is just impressive. A stinker all around, I fortunately could not find a trailer for this gem. Steer way clear of this one.

Slaughter Trail (1951): */****

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