Bleeding Kansas. It's naturally a touchy subject, especially one for a feature film, but that doesn't seem to stop 1959's The Jayhawkers!
It's shortly before the Civil War in 1860, and Cam Bleeker (Fess Parker) has escaped from the territorial prison in Kansas. Wounded with a bullet in his shoulder, he returns home to find a very pretty French widow, Jeanne (Nicole Maurey), living in his home and on his land with her two kids. He finds out the truth, his wife died months earlier from unknown reasons. It's not long then before he's caught by the army and offered a choice. Bleeker will earn himself a full pardon for his past actions if he can somehow bring Luke Darcy (Jeff Chandler) to justice. With a small army of fighters and gunmen, Darcy intends to turn Kansas into his own country, seemingly without a preference to free or slave state. The only problem is that Darcy has forted up somewhere in the foothills, and no one knows where his hideout is. Making Bleeker's decision easier, he finds out Darcy may have somehow been involved with his wife's death. He takes the offer having to first find Darcy and his gang of Jayhawkers, but he doesn't know the full truth.
From director Melvin Frank, I remembered this one vaguely from watching it as a kid. A huge Davy Crockett fan then (and now to be fair), I watched it for Fess Parker, the mountain fortress sticking with me all these years. It popped up recently on a movie channel I didn't realize I had so I thought it was as good a time as any to catch up with it. Let's start with the positives. A quasi-western about Bleeding Kansas gets points just for having some balls. That is one particularly nasty period in American history so quite a challenge for a modestly budgeted western. So there, No. 1, an attempt at originality. On top of that, it's a very pretty western, shot with some impressive vistas and horizon shots that John Ford would have been proud of. Also, composer Jerome Moross turns in a score that's all around solid, big and booming (a little too "epic-y" at times) to keep up with the action and developing story.
Never quite the huge film stars they could have been -- Parker more of a television star thanks to Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, Chandler with a career tragically cut short by his sudden death in 1962 at the young age of 42 --both Chandler (getting top billing) and Parker are well cast. I liked the darkness of either character. Chanlder's Jeff Darcy is an egomaniacal maniac....but a really smooth, charming one. He wants Kansas, ALL of it for himself. His methods are brutally harsh, innocent people caught up in his wake, but for many, there's a method to his madness as his followers increase. Parker too gets a good shot at a significantly darker role than he'd previously had and doesn't disappoint. His Cam Bleeker (also a nomination for Coolest Name Ever) is hell bent on revenge and his target is Darcy. The relationship between the two men is maybe the most surprising thing about the movie, mostly good, some questionable.
Because every western needs a female character -- read = Sarcasm -- we get Maurey as Jeanne, a French widow who ends up with Bleeker through an odd set of circumstances, one after another. Her children are very badly dubbed it seems to the point it can be distracting listening to them talk. It's not that this is a bad or uninteresting character, it's just that she seems out of place and forced into the story. Henry Silva is a slimy scene-stealer as Lordan, Darcy's right hand man and brutal enforcer while Don Megowan and Leo Gordon play two of his Jayhawkers. Herbert Rudley plays the Governor of Kansas, cutting a deal with Bleeker. Also look quickly for uncredited Jack Kruschen and Harry Dean Stanton as a sheriff and deputy in pursuit of a fleeing Bleeker.
Unfortunately, it ain't all positive. A potentially really dark story with a revenge-seeking convict cutting a deal to capture a maniacal, power hungry man just should have been better. It just should have. Parker's Bleeker seems to fall awfully easy for Chandler's Darcy and all his motivations. Even when something goes horribly wrong late in the movie, Bleeker is pissed.........but really only to a point. For the sake of the movie he keeps on going to get his revenge, but even then, the brakes get tapped. All I ask is commit to the darkness or don't go there at all. There's even a bizarre scene in tone early as Bleeker "teaches" Jeanne's two French-speaking children English, or at least a Parker-like English. Bleeker instructs them "I'm a-going, she's a-going, he's a-going" and keeps on going. It's a painful scene in execution and completely out of place.
That's the biggest deal breaker. It's a lot of potential here that is never tapped. For a movie that runs 100 minutes, just not enough happens. Lots and lots of talking with no real payoff, including an ending that I felt cheated a bit. A decent watch thanks to some interesting casting, but mostly this was just a disappointment.
The Jayhawkers! (1959): **/****