Industry trade reviews of the 1940s liked calling pictures such as Texas (1941) "lusty," "he-man" Westerns, and that's as good a description as any. Episodic but action-packed, the film is alternately comical, epic, and -- well, lusty with plenty of he-man thrills. Its biggest asset is its teaming of 23-year-old William Holden with 25-year-old Glenn Ford as close friends looking for adventure after the Civil War. They're baby-faced yet brashly confident, full of youthful energy, ambition, recklessness and fun -- it's almost like Gunga Din in the Old West. Neither has quite settled into their familiar screen personae, and Holden's part especially is more like the wide-eyed but driven young men Leonardo DiCaprio seems to specialize in than the cynical anti-heroes for which he would be most remembered.
The picture opens in 1866, in Abeline, where railroad baron Windy Miller (George Bancroft) has built a train line specifically to deliver badly-needed beef from Kansas to the war-weary east. As the townsfolk rowdily celebrate the completion of the railroad, former Johnny Rebs Dan Thomas (Holden) and Tod Ramsey (Ford), unable to find work, are caught stealing a pig and, though penniless, fined $150 by a firmly pro-Union judge. Miller comes to the boys rescue, and they return the favor by volunteering Dan as a last-minute replacement in a local boxing match.
Later, the pair witnesses a stagecoach robbery and ambushes the bandits, but Tod is nearly hanged when he's captured by a posse. Fleeing the posse, the pair splits up, with Tod eventually landing a respectable job at Dusty King's Cradle T Ranch, while Dan falls in with rustlers -- the same bunch behind the stagecoach robbery -- at the X-L Ranch. Both fall for Rancher King's daughter, "Mike" (Claire Trevor), and join a massive cattle drive to Abeline.
Like most A-Westerns of the period, Texas tends to play like a B-Western with a lot more extras and production values. It has none of the poetry of, say, a John Ford Western (despite the presence of Stagecoach's Trevor and Bancroft), but makes up for this with enough action crammed into its 93 minutes for five movies. The opening scenes have a vividly wild, untamed West quality, and though it plays like a self-contained two-reel comedy, the boxing match is funny and outrageous. The stagecoach robbery and Dan's hijacking of Mike's horse and buggy is effectively shot for maximum fast-paced excitement, while the cattle drive and big shoot-out at the end have a moderately epic quality.
The picture becomes bogged down when the rustlers and a larger conspiracy becomes the center of attention. It's much less interesting than the simple friendship between Dan and Tod, and their rivalry for Mike's hand, which rises well above the standard romantic triangle.
Director George Marshall, after scoring big with Destry Rides Again (1939), infuses Texas with a similar brand of comic action set pieces. Holden is very good, very funny flirting with Claire Trevor, who holds her own quite impressively. For an actress remembered almost exclusively for creating the archetypal hooker with a heart of gold (in Stagecoach) and gangster's alcoholic moll (in Key Largo), Texas showcases her in a refreshingly different light.
Video & Audio
Texas is presented in its original full frame format in a very good black and white transfer. The image is sharp with deep blacks. As usual with Columbia's titles from this era, there is a fair amount of speckling but it's not bad. Japanese and Spanish subtitles are included, but there are no Extra Features, not even a trailer.
Though its climax is rather routine and predictable, the friendship between William Holden's Dan and Glenn Ford's Todd has a resonance that raises Texas several notches above the average Western. Like its main characters, the film is load and noisy and a lot of fun.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.