Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Film critics gave the late Richard Fleischer a bad rap for his later CinemaScope pictures, mainly for being a workmanlike director instead of an artist. It was typical for reviewers to suggest that Compulsion would have been better if Orson Welles directed rather than just play a role. Auteur or not, Fleischer's name appeared on many a 50s favorite, like Kirk Douglas' The Vikings. These Thousand Hills is a misshapen western that appears to have been conceived as a much bigger story, and reduced to an ordinary program picture somewhere along the line. The story arc is rudely interrupted in the latter half, so much so that we'd readily believe that the studio cut the shooting schedule short and told Fleischer to button it up and get everyone off the clock as soon as possible.
Ambitious cowboy Lat Evans (Don Murray) works hard while looking for a way to become a property owner, one of the landed gentry. His father lost their ranch and he holds to ideals of respectability. Even though banker Marshal Conrad (Albert Dekker) refuses him a bank loan, Lat will not be tempted into crime. His buddy Tom Ping (Stuart Whitman) plans to get ahead by stealing cattle and hiding them in a mountainous area called "The Breaks." Lat is has an affair with prostitute Callie (Lee Remick) and use her savings to get his start in the ranching business. Careful tending of his herd makes Lat prosper while other cattlemen, like cheat Jehu (Richard Egan) suffer losses; Lat is soon a big wheel and eligible to marry Joyce (Patricial Owens), Conrad's decent but prim niece. Even tough he loves Callie Lat has no problem ditching her to raise a family with Joyce. But loyalties are tested when Lat runs for political office: His competitors force him to help run down the latest rustlers ... who are led by his old pal Tom Ping.
These Thousand Hills is from a book by A.B. Guthrie, author of one of the best stories about pioneer America, The Big Sky. This tale of the consolidation of the cattle industry in Montana shapes up as an epic of almost Edna Ferber proportions, until it rushes to a jarringly fast finish in the second half. A committed and capable cast is let down by a script that either won't face up to the implications of the story, or was prevented from doing so by the Production Code. It's a tale of obvious conflicts between honor and greed, honesty and snobbery. The film ultimately chooses the easy way out.
The Alfred Hayes script doesn't want to make Don Murray's Lat Evans into a total heel, so it decides that he's a noble innocent instead, something we have a hard time believing. Lat's best friend is an unsavory cowboy, yet he retains his essential nobility when it comes to aligning himself with the values of church and law. We're supposed to believe that he's unconscious or something when he carries on a long-time affair with Lee Remick's prostitute, and is surprised that his best friend is a criminal. When it comes down to it, the Lat Evans character is just an apology for the fat cats that built America. Sure, people are hurt along the way but Lat is always on he side of goodness and decency.
We care a lot for Lat until he dumps Callie. As usual, Lee Remick is the emotional bedrock in an otherwise shifty bunch of characters. Don Murray has no choice but to play dumb to deflect our thoughts from his mercenary decisions. His union with the well-connected Joyce is a convenient step into high society, and any acknowledged association with Callie would be social disaster. As in Edna Ferber's Come and Get It, an ambitious man chooses riches over love, but These Thousand Hills sends an entirely unappealing message. Even though Lat eventually fights in Callie's name, she's still a pariah, a defendant in a sordid murder case. Lat's may not tarnish his personal image by defending Callie or taking part in the hunting down of Stuart Whitman's Tom, but the fact is that Lat is rewarded while his true friends are destroyed. He symbolically goes through the mud, but ends up clean once again, reunited with his "forgiving" wife. These Thousand Hills may have satisfied audiences in 1959 but its morality sure stinks now.
The setting reminds us of The Missouri Breaks, as The Breaks are mentioned by name as an outlaw hideout. Lat Evans' growing status as a rancher and politician also reminds us of the Sam Waterston character in Heaven's Gate, and the ranchers' lynching party can easily be interpreted as a prelude to hiring "regulators" to kill rustlers and squatters who steal cattle on the open range.
Don Murray can't do much when his character remains mute at his own hypocrisy, and then claims to represent good values for the territory. Lee Remick is the reason to watch the show, as she positively glows whenever she's allowed into a scene, which isn't often enough. Everyone else performs strictly by the book. Richard Egan's baddie is colorless and the big lynching scene isn't as compelling as it should be. Albert Dekker does a good warm-up for his better role in Robert Parrish's The Wonderful Country. Egan, Whitman and Patricia Owens are okay, but seem like shoo-ins from the list of Fox contract players.
Director Fleischer is comfortable in the great outdoors (terrific big-sky scenery here) and the infrequent action scenes. The movie starts with a rousing bronco-busting set piece and ends with a respectable fistfight. But there's not much to compliment about the dramatic material, which shows no particular finesse or guiding hand. One hesitates to say that Fleischer is the kind of director who can't transcend a weak script, but that's the obvious conclusion. He also hasn't overcome the crazy time-jumps in the narrative. We leap from a montage of Lat taking care of cows to a point several years later when he's got a four year-old son. The movie doesn't establish his relationship with his wife Joyce or his boy before stumbling into its third act complications. With a murder trial and an election in the balance, the film ends on an unsatisfying note -- Lat and Joyce enjoy an unmotivated reconciliation.
Fox's DVD of These Thousand Hills is a sterling enhanced transfer of near-perfect elements; Charles G. Clarke's CinemaScope exteriors are colorful and rich. The two-channel stereo track is accompanied by English, French and Spanish mono tracks. Randy Sparks sings the weak title tune. The rest of Leigh Harline's score is pleasant but unmemorable.
Besides a hyped trailer, the handsome disc includes galleries of production and behind-the-scenes stills.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
These Thousand Hills rates:
Movie: Fair +; Good -
Supplements: still galleries
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 15, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson