The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Violent Men

A western doesn't have to be done on a huge scale to be a true epic. Sometimes the beauty of an epic western is that it's done on a more personal scale, like 1955's The Violent Men. Echoing characters, relationships, betrayals and backstabbings that Greek mythology and William Shakespeare would have been proud of, this is an underrated gem.

Having been severely wounded during the Civil War, John Parrish (Glenn Ford) moves west and starts up a successful ranch as his wounds heal. It takes some three years, but he's healthy again and intends to sell the ranch and move back East with his fiance, Caroline (May Wynn). Against his better judgment, Parrish is going to sell the ranch to Lee Wilkison (Edward G. Robinson), the crippled owner of the Anchor ranch, the biggest cattle ranch in the territory. In an effort to buy up the whole valley, Wilkison and his wife, Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), try to low-ball Parrish. Making matters worse, they try to strong-arm him, killing one of his ranch hands. Quite content to take the low offer prior to the killing, Parrish has had enough. Outnumbered by Wilkison's small army of gunhands, Parrish -- a former cavalry officer -- goes on the offensive.

Though I've long been aware of this 1955 western from director Rudolph Mate, I never actively sought it out. For whatever reason, I looked it up on Netflix recently and seeing a very impressive cast, I gave it a shot. I'm glad I did. Partially because of its relatively short run-time at just 95 minutes, it isn't remembered as a classic, and I suppose it isn't. What it is is an above average, well-told, exciting adult western that doesn't settle for a status quo in a typical sense. It was filmed in the Alabama Hills in California (along with some location shooting in Old Tucson) and definitely has the look, if not the feel, of a much larger scaled, epic western. I also liked composer Max Steiner's score, sounding somewhat like a Dimitri Tiomkin score. Whatever it reminded me of, I liked it.

While there are very clearly good guys -- Ford's Parrish obviously -- and very clearly bad guys -- Robinson, Stanwyck and more -- this Mate-directed western is far from your typical good guys in white hats shooting it out with bad guys in black hats type of western. Comparing any western to Greek mythology or a Shakespearean play is opening the door for all sorts of criticism, but it's all deserved here. Ford's Parrish is the unquestioned hero while Robinson's Wilkison is the crippled, aging ranch owner. That would be a one-on-one showdown worth the price of admission, but that's the start. Robinson's brother, Cole (Brian Keith), is also having an affair with Martha, who wants nothing more than to own the valley, not really caring which man she's with to get there. Filling out the family tree is Judith (Dianne Foster), Lee and Martha's daughter, who knows exactly what's going on but doesn't know where to start or who to help. As a bonus, Wynn's fiance is also a cold-hearted you know what. Lots of betrayal, backroom deals and back-stabbings around every corner, and everyone is looking out for themselves.

With a cast this good, I probably would have gotten some enjoyment out of the story even if it was a dud. Watching this much talent on-screen can be fun in itself. On the positive though, the cast does a solid job from top to bottom here. The more I see Ford, the more I like him. His Parrish is a great hero, but one with a mean streak as needed. Robinson, Stanwyck and Keith are the three heads of one bad snake, all working against and with each other at the same time. It's only a matter of time before they start attacking each other. Foster is good too as the maligned Judith while Wynn is your pretty typical evil woman looking out for herself. Richard Jaeckel is all duded up as Wade Matlock, the Wilkison's top hired gun. His scenes with Ford are worth it to track the movie down on its own. Also look for Warner Anderson, Basil Ruysdael, Willis Bouchey, Jack Kelly and William Phipps in key supporting parts.

After a somewhat slow start as all the characters are introduced, the story picks up the Wilkisons try to strong-arm Parrish into selling his ranch. He puts his military background into effect, unleashing his own kind of strategic offensive on the better equipped, better outfitted Anchor ranch riders. The action picks up including a classic showdown between Ford and Jaeckel, a night ambush in a rocky canyon, and one form of guerrilla warfare after another. Not a lot of analysis needed for this one. It's a western that mixes elements of a good old-fashioned shoot 'em up with other more adult-themed elements. Well worth checking out.

The Violent Men (1955): ***/****

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