Author and naturalist Zane Grey has been called the "greatest storyteller of the American West," drawing on his colorful past and rich life experiences to capture the elusive spirit of the "Old West" in the written word. In 1872 Pearl Zane Gray was born in Zanesville, Ohio, a town named for his mother's ancestors who settled it. Growing up, he took great delight in fishing and the American pastime, baseball. The latter would lead to a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in dentistry, and a brief stint in the minor leagues. It was after a fateful hunting trip to Arizona that Gray fell head over heels for the western frontier and its history and, with the support of his wife, turned his attention to writing full time. Under the pen name Zane Grey he would go on to popularize the western genre in literature and become one of the first millionaire authors.
Throughout the teens, '20s and '30s, Grey had at least one bestseller in the top ten at any given time and like most successful writers, his works inspired several films. Many of the earliest adaptations were made during the silent era and were produced by Zane's own motion picture company, which he later sold to Paramount Pictures who would then go on to adapt dozens of Grey's works. In the 1940's RKO had picked up where Paramount left off, by feeding the need for cheap, entertaining westerns and war pictures. When their reliable leading man Tim Holt was drafted to fight a real war, they scrambled to fill his empty saddle and cast the relatively unknown Robert Mitchum in his steed. West of the Pecos briefly reunited Mitchum with Nevada director Edward Killy, but an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in the WWII picture Story of G.I. Joe propelled Mitchum into the big leagues.
Chicago meat-packing tycoon Colonel Lambeth (Thurston Hall) travels with his daughter Rill (Barbara Hale) to their Texas estate on doctor's orders. Unfortunately for them their stage coach is robbed by road agents and one of the drivers, Tex, is shot and left for dead. Tex's friend, Pecos Smith (Mitchum), and his sidekick, the "Irish Mexican" Chito Jose Gonzales Bustamante Rafferty (Richard Martin actually originated the character in the WWII picture Bomabardier and would reprise it in countless westerns) find Tex who identifies his killer, Sam Sawtelle, with his dying breath. Pecos vows to avenge Tex's murder, which won't be easy feat to accomplish as Sam, along with his brother Brad, keeps "law and order" west of the Pecos with their ruthless band of vigilantes. Meanwhile, Rill learns the hard way that this wild and lawless frontier is better suited to men than a lady. So, she takes a page from Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," and disguises herself as a boy, much to her father's chagrin.
Pecos confronts the Sawtelle brothers in their saloon and kills Sam, even managing to get away with the unwilling cooperation of the disguised Rill. Pecos is able to repay the favor when he finds the Colonel and Rill lost in the desert, having wandered off the trail. The Colonel offers Pecos a job running his ranch and even vows to stand by him after he confesses why he shot Sam Sawtelle. Of course, once Pecos and Chito hook up with the Lambeth's, gender-confused-hilarity ensues, with a generous helping of pre-Brokeback Mountain shenanigans thrown in for good measure. It's interesting to note that the idea of Pecos slathering liniment on Rill's pert posterior, skinny dipping with her, or snuggling up under the stars is only presented as shocking because Rill is a WOMAN, rather than a young boy, which leads me to believe that this kind of behavior was all too common in the Old West.
It's a good thing that Pecos and Chito gain the assistance of the Lambeths, as Brad Sawtelle and his band of vigilantes waste no time in trying to off Pecos. During a daring river crossing Rill falls off her horse and nearly drowns, but Pecos saves her and manages to get them both to shore. However, her hat falls off as he's attempting to revive her, revealing her luxurious head of curly, brown hair. Rill is humiliated and wants to dismiss Pecos, but after talking it over with her father she realizes that she likes Pecos too much and decides to keep him on, regardless of her hurt pride. Unfortunately for Rill, it's not long before Col. Lambeth's lawyer, and her fiancé, Clyde arrives to handle the vigilantes… legally. Pecos' only chance of clearing his name and bringing the Sawtelle gang to justice is by finding the other coach driver Slinger and getting his confession. Before you get the impression that a courtroom dram is about to unfold, Sawtelle and his vigilantes show up and a gunfight breaks out.
I'd always considered myself a fan of Robert Mitchum, but upon watching this, along with his previous western Nevada, I realize that I haven't actually seen that many of his films. Of course, the ones I have seen, including Night Of The Hunter and Cape Fear, are compelling enough to make anyone a fan. It was very interesting to see a much younger Mitchum, playing an easy-going, fun-loving character as opposed to many of the brooding roles he'd be known for later in his career. I'll eventually have to watch Story of G.I. Joe, if only to see the performance that catapulted him onto Hollywood's A-list. It's almost a shame, as the combination of Mitchum's presence and Edward Killy's competent direction elevate this from your typical B-western of the era into an exciting and rather fun film.
Picture: This movie is presented in a 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio, with some edge enhancement and a nice B&W picture, but as a full restoration wasn't performed there are still several places where the film shows it's age.
Audio: This film is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital Mono.
Extras: Lions Gate Home Entertainment has included some nice Extras on this DVD, including "Outdoor Adventures," which was filmed during two of Grey's extended fishing expeditions and is introduced by his son Loren Grey, another shorter fishing film "Fisherman's Pluck" and the biography, "Zane Grey: An American Legend." "Outdoor Adventures" and "Fisherman's Pluck" are in B&W, while "An American Legend" is in color, but all of these shorts show their age.
Conclusion: Lions Gate Home Entertainment has opened the floodgates on these "Zane Grey Western Classics," but I for one am not complaining. I've been impressed with every one of these DVDs and have grown to appreciate Zane Grey's contribution to the image of the Old West. It also highlights the lack of quality classic western releases currently available on DVD. Thankfully, John Wayne and Sam Peckinpah's estates are seeking to rectify the matter as we speak, but I'm talking about the lost gems like these which have gone unnoticed for the last several decades. While these releases haven't exactly been "perfect," they've certainly been entertaining. West Of The Pecos is Recommended.