The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thunder Over the Plains

Ever heard of a carpetbagger? It is a particularly nasty piece of American history. Following the Civil War, they were northerners who moved into the south looking to make a profit off the Reconstruction Era. You see them briefly in Gone With the Wind, even a John Wayne western like The Undefeated, but because it was such a despicable profession of sorts...well, we're not going to see a whole lot of movies about them. When we do, like 1953's Thunder Over the Plains, they're the easiest of villains to root against.

It's 1869, some four years removed from the end of the Civil War, and the wounds are still fresh from the war. Texas has not yet been readmitted to the Union as a state with tensions high as carpetbaggers ravage the Texans trying to get back on their feet with corruption and high taxes. A Robin Hood-like bandit, Ben Westman (Charles McGraw), has stepped forward and with a small, loyal gang wreaks havoc on the carpetbaggers' efforts to earn their ill-got profits. A Texan who fought on the Union side and remains in the cavalry, Capt. David Porter (Randolph Scott) finds himself in a sticky situation. He tends to agree with Westman's actions, but he's honor-bound by duty to try and bring Westman to justice. All sides are pulling at the captain, both inward and outward, as he deals with pressure from his own commander, his wife, his fellow officers and the $-for-eyes carpetbaggers.

By the 1950s, star Randolph Scott was doing westerns exclusively. From 1945 on, Scott only made two non-western films. Think about that. This was a man who knew what he wanted, what he liked doing at work, and what audiences wanted to see him do. John Wayne would take a similar approach in the latter stages of his legendary career. The issue becomes that other than Scott's pairings with director Budd Boetticher (7 different films) and later Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country), his 1950s westerns are typically okay at best and dull and far too familiar at worst. Unfortunately, 'Thunder' falls into that category. While it has some potential and Scott is reliable as ever, it's just missing that special something and ends up going off the rails near the halfway point.

That ends up being the most frustrating part in this western from director Andre de Toth. 'Thunder' has a ton of potential. For a 1953 western, it's surprisingly dark. The post-Civil War setting in Texas during Reconstruction isn't exactly commonplace in the genre. There is a variety of characters with some great heroes and equally awful villains. But in a movie that runs just 82 minutes, it can't sustain that energy. The story begins to meander near the 45-minute mark and limps to the finish. One pretty major subplot isn't even addressed or given a worthwhile yeah, that kinda sucks. Everything gets all jumbled together with too many characters and twists and secondary plots, and the ship never rights itself. A western that could have been pretty good ends up being disappointing and below average.

So while I'm not a huge fan of Randolph Scott's western, I am a big fan of Scott himself. This is a part he specialized in, the resolute, loyal and tough as nails western hero who's going to do what's right no matter what it takes. A sheriff, a cavalry officer, a drifter, he played tweak versions on this throughout the last 17 years of his career and did it well. He's undone by a script that has his Capt. Porter simply trying to keep too many plates spinning. At home, his wife (Phyllis Kirk) incessantly talks about leaving for a different post. At the fort, his friend and commander (Henry Hull) nags and nags without actually offering any help. As well, a new officer arrives in the form of Capt. Bill Hodges (Lex Barker), who resents the posting, isn't too partial about using his new silver pistol and has his eyes set on Mrs. Porter.  It's not Scott's fault. All the way, he's going for it. A true pro even in one of his lesser efforts.

Who else to look for? Buried deep in the credits are Hugh Sanders and Elisha Cook Jr. as the corrupt carpetbagger and the the equally corrupt tax commissioner sticking it to recovering Texas. In the familiar face department, look for Lane Chandler, James Brown and a very young Fess Parker in supporting roles.

I wish I liked this one more. Scott is excellent, and McGraw's Ben Westman is a very cool character that is underutilized. I would have loved to see a movie that focused far more on those two characters and their very interesting dynamic. As is, 'Thunder' disappoints. It has potential, but it never delivers unfortunately.

Thunder Over the Plains (1953): **/****

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