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, January 4, 2014

Gunfight in Abilene

When I think tough western stars, I can picture a whole lot of different actors, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Randolph Scott, Steve McQueen and many others. Then there's Bobby Darin who I typically think of as more of a singer/entertainer than an actor. He did act though if not often, like 1967's Gunfight in Abilene, a starring effort for Darin.

Having spent the last two years of the Civil War in a Yankee prison camp, former Confederate officer Cal Wayne (Darin) returns home to Texas having made a vow to himself that he won't use a gun anymore. The war has warped him, and he wants nothing to do with violence anymore, but his town may not let him abide by that decision. A range war is brewing between the farmers who want nothing more than their land to be untouched and the local businessman and banker, Grant Evers (Leslie Nielsen), who is backing the cattle ranchers. Cal is and was friends with Grant, putting him in an interesting spot. He wants nothing to do with the fight, but with Grant's encouragement, he takes the job as the town sheriff, hoping to hold the fight off and save plenty of lives in the process. With violence brewing, even Cal is going to have to decide how much he'll stand by his word and promise to himself to not use a gun.

From director William Hale, this 1967 western is interesting if not particularly good. A B-western with studio backing, it was clearly filmed on the cheap. The opening Civil War segment borrows quite liberally from 1965's Shenandoah for its battle sequences (and the music) only to have the action involving Darin's Cal and his men move to a very obvious indoor set. That sets the tone for the rest of the movie, a small-scale story set almost entirely in one small town. We get stock footage from some other westerns -- notably The Last Sunset among others -- that is rather jarring compared to the film footage for 'Abilene.' For me, this is a western that never really recovered from there on in. It never manages to create an identity for itself, content to be an inoffensive story with some rather obvious limitations.

So how about singer/crooner Bobby Darin as a wild west hero? Well, there's mixed results, but the fault can't be placed on his shoulders too much. The character -- if nothing else -- is interesting. We meet him during the fighting in the Civil War, commanding the remnants of a patrol that's been taken to pieces by Union forces. In the chaos of battle, he even accidentally shoots one of his own men, Grant Evers' brother, a secret that drives him to make the no-gun policy. The time in the prison camp warps him, wanting a clean slate once the war is over. So there's that, right? Yeah, it ends there. Darin does a good job as the brooding former sheriff turned sheriff who may/may not have a death wish. He also has to decide which of two women he loves, if he can ever tell Grant the truth, if he can complete the job without a gun, all that fun stuff. His outfit doesn't help, a perfect, immaculate black hat and what appears to be a beige corduroy shirt and pants set. It's quite a look, not quite the intimidating and iconic poncho worn by Clint Eastwood or the eye patch worn by John Wayne.

In the B-western casting department, there isn't much in the way of star power in the rest of the flick. Nielsen is the biggest name but his character is solely presented....and then allowed to do nothing really. He's off-screen too much and not utilized properly in the movie's last third. Emily Banks is Grant's fiance who was Cal's fiance but without hearing from him for years, she feared he was dead and moved on. Oh, and there's Leann (Barbara Werle), a possible hooker/saloon girl who also loves Cal because we needed an unnecessary love triangle. Donnelly Rhodes is pretty good as Slade, Grant's enforcer who isn't interested in any hurt feelings, just making a big payday. Don Galloway has some fun as Ward, Cal's deputy who tries to back him up as much as possible and also appears to be wearing a rug for a vest. Michael Sarrazin makes a small but key supporting part in his screen debut as Cord Decker, a young farmer returning to his land and family following the Civil War.

It's a weird western in general. It doesn't even break the 90-minute mark but still manages to be dull and slow-moving at almost all times. There's both too much going on in terms of characters and storylines and not enough. Not enough you say? Okay, not enough that's interesting. There is little to no action other than a brutal fist fight between Darin and Johnny Seven's sadistic Loop, and the titular gunfight involves some off-center camera angles and exactly one gunshot. A disappointing end result. It even has a disappointing theme song sung by Darin himself so...yeah, it's got that going for it. Listen below.

Gunfight in Abilene (1967): * 1/2 /****

No comments:

Post a Comment