A scout for the U.S. cavalry for 15 years, Sam Vanner (Gregory Peck) is retiring to a little ranch he purchased up in the mountains years ago. But before he can retire, he steps forward to help a mother and her 9-year old son get to a train station. The woman’s name is Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint), and she’s lived the last nine years as a captive of the Apaches. Her son is a half-breed, and his father, a warrior named Salvaje, wants his boy back. Sam quickly figures out what’s going on as bodies start to mount all along the trail. Instead of putting Sarah and her son on a train, Sam offers for them to move in with him at his ranch. They accept, but the deadly Salvaje is still out there waiting.
Let’s start with the positives, led by the villainous Apache warrior, Salvaje (translated as ‘savage’ or ‘wild’). For one, the character isn’t even seen until well over an hour into the story. He’s a presence, a fear hanging in the air even when he’s not around. People hear his name and quake with fear. When he does show up, he is still never seen clearly. Instead, there are lightning quick shots of a man poking his head over a rock with a rifle or an arm or leg disappearing into the woods. It’s not until the end we even get a good look at him, and even then we never get a good look at his face.
Unfortunately, it takes almost 75 minutes to get to the point where Salvaje makes his move for his family. The first hour-plus is a road movie and a rather boring one at that. Instead of story development or character background, we get shots of Peck and Saint riding across the desert. The locations are gorgeous, but if I wanted to see gorgeous western locations I’d go visit the Rockies or Yellowstone. Great on-location shooting can be the cherry on top of a good movie, making it a great one. But using the locations instead of story or character, a movie is going to suffer.
It’s hard to criticize Peck or Saint for their performances -- or director Robert Mulligan for that matter -- because the script provides no background about either one other than a line in passing here or there. Peck’s experienced cavalry scout is a fixture in westerns, but what else is there for the character? He wants to get home to his ranch and seems like a decent guy, offering to help a mom and her son when he doesn’t have to. But how’d he get to this point? Even a quick monologue from one of the cavalry officers who seem to know him pretty well would have sufficed. Instead, there are long sequences with little dialogue that seem awkward without that talking.
As for the odd casting choice, Eve Marie Saint seems out of place. She is a fine actress, but her part requires her to stutter – she hasn’t spoken English in years – and look worried. Instead of just spilling her guts and telling Vanner that her homicidal husband is after them, Sarah just tells him they need to leave. Also, for a white woman forced to live with Apaches for nine years, she looks pretty good. The only other cast member given more than a line or two of dialogue is Robert Forster’s Nick, a half-breed scout Sam taught everything he knows. SPOILERS Of course, following the rule that the coolest character typically dies, Nick is fated to meet his maker before the credits roll. SPOILERS
Not a bad movie but not a good one either. A bad movie can be entertaining, but ‘Stalking Moon’ is pretty dull and even a worthwhile final 30 minutes can’t save the story. It had some potential to be a pretty decent western, but it never lives up to it. Disappointed I can’t recommend this one, but there just isn’t enough positive to bring up. For die-hard western fans only. Sorry, I couldn't find a trailer, but that might be for the better.
The Stalking Moon: (1969): * ½ /****