The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Burning Hills

Author Louis L'Amour's novels and short stories have been a frequent source for movies and television shows over the years.  His westerns are typically old-fashioned stories where the line is clearly drawn between good and bad, the good guy always wins and usually gets the girl in the process.  It's basically a giant cookie cutter for a movie that can be duplicated time and time again with a few cast changes here and there.  There's one basic element that can ruin it -- check that, there's probably hundreds but I'll be talking about one -- and that's casting.

By the mid 1950s, you'd think Hollywood would have learned and stopped casting white people in roles that they just couldn't pull off; minorities.  Thankfully no instances of blackface come to mind, but Hispanics, Indians, Mexicans and any number of European nationalities were all ripe for the picking.  Some people can pull off playing a minority, but they seem few and far between.  Make-up and a phony accent do not alone make a part believable.  One of L'Amour's early novels of the same name was turned into 1956's The Burning Hills, a western that is undone by some awful choices in casting, several minority related.

In 1965's Major Dundee, Richard Harris laughs at a struggling Charlton Heston, stating 'You make an unlikely looking Mexican."  I love the line for its delivery, but also a trend that still lasts in movies.  Thankfully in this western from director Stuart Heisler only one part qualifies exactly with the Harris line.  That role is 18-year old Natalie Wood playing a Mexican girl, face-darkening makeup and awful accent included.  It's not Wood's fault because she would show in many other movies that she was an above average actress, but it does make a movie hard to take seriously whenever she's on-screen.  All things considered though with this oater, Woods as a Mexican girl is the least of the problems.

After finding his brother murdered on their land with a bullet in his back, Trace Jordan (Tab Hunter) tries to track down the three men responsible for the killing. The trail leads to the ranch house of Joe Sutton (Ray Teal), a rich land owner and cattle rancher, but when Trace confronts him, he is forced to shoot Sutton.  Trying to escape, he too is wounded and is forced to hide at the home of a poor Mexican family, including teenage Maria (Wood).  But time is short for Trace who as he tries to recuperate finds out a posse is gunning for him led by Sutton's son Jack (Skip Homeier) and ranch foreman Ben Hinderman (Claude Akins), and the group won't settle for anything less than Trace's dead body.

Working off L'Amour's novel, the story is everything that can be right about a western.  Simple but effective, exciting and rarely boring.  For all the flaws here, there is potential, much of it in how the chase and hunt are handled.  Characters are ruthless, and their actions often show a complete disregard for anything but the moment at hand.  A fight between Hunter's Trace and a cowboy/gunman played by Earl Holliman is particularly brutal in a knock-down, drag 'em out fight that leaves the viewer feeling like they were part of the fight.  The same for the finale between Trace and Jack as the two basically fist-fight their way down a mountain.  The ending is a little weird though because Homeier's Jack seems to just float away down a river without explanation.

One part casted badly is one thing, but a second and third all but doom a movie.  As mentioned, I can't completely fault Wood for someone else choosing her and casting her as a teenage Mexican girl.  But that said, the part is pretty awful.  Then there's her relationship with Hunter, that perfect kind of movie falling in love relationship where two people fall in love minutes after meeting because of the extremes of the situation they meet.  As for Hunter, he's too vanilla for the part he's playing.  He's not really bad or really good in the lead, he's just there, and that's it.  The western hero needs some sort of edge, and it just isn't here with the part as played by Hunter.

Where the lead is pretty plain, the villain is laughably evil.  Homeier was in a string of successful westerns in the 1950s, usually in a supporting role.  As the villainous Jack Sutton, he's laughable and looks to be auditioning for the part of the original gay caballero.  Decked out in an all black outfit -- leather vest included -- he isn't intimidating at all and any attempts at being that feared bad guy produce laughs, not goosebumps.  It'd be like a meek librarian, glasses perched on his nose, yelling at you.  Some other parts include an underused Akins as the foreman, and Eduard Franz as Jacob Lantz, a Ute tracker leading the posse.  A German actor playing an American Indian, just one more odd choice in a long list from this western.

An overall pretty bad attempt at a star vehicle for rising stars Hunter and Wood, this one bored me to tears.  A few supporting parts make it at least bearable to watch with some exciting, well-choreographed fight scenes, but not much else to go on here.  Watch it at Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 9.   

The Burning Hills (1956): * 1/2 /****

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