This 1953 remake of the 1925 silent western Pony Express begins when a lone mountain man named William F. Cody (Charlton Heston), or Buffalo Bill as he's better known, fends off a horde of Indians and then, when his horse gets killed in the fray, hitches a ride on a stagecoach that happens to pass by. On the way to the town that is their final destination they stop at an army inspection point only to find themselves the victims of a sabotage - it seems that there are forces at work that would stop California from becoming a state and that these forces are not above killing those who would get in their way. Which brings us back to Cody who, along with his pal Wild Bill Hickock (Forest Tucker), aims to set up the titular courier company that will expedite mail delivery from California to the rest of the states in ten days, rather than almost thirty? With proper communications in place, it seems a sure thing that statehood will follow.
Behind the scenes are the two travelling companions that Cody met on his stagecoach ride - Rance Hastings (Michael Moore) and Evelyn Hastings (Rhonda Fleming) - who are bound and determined to stop California from joining the union. While Evelyn feigns romantic interest in Cody, much to the dismay of his cute but tomboyish friend Denny (Jan Sterling), they've got every reason to want the Pony Express to fail. There will be more to making this work than just gathering up some riders though, and Chief Yellow Hand (Pat Hogan) isn't exactly going to just hand over the horses that Cody wants to get the operation up and running.
Producted by Nat Holt for Paramount Studios and directed by Jerry Hopper from a script by Charles Marquis Warren based on the story by Frank Gruber, Pony Express isn't a classic American western by any stretch and at just over a hundred minutes it feels about twenty minutes too long but it is a fairly entertaining picture thanks primarily to Heston. He's all toothy grin and flamboyant machismo here, with two women fighting over him and he more interested in taking out the bad guys and saving the day than making time with the fairer sex. He's great in the role, even if the character isn't all that well written or really all that interesting and you definitely get the impression that he's having a lot of fun here playing cowboys and Indians. Slightly more flamboyant is Tucker as Hickokck, such a man's man is he that he proudly announces he has no interest in women, though he sure does take a lot of pride in his appearance. Some of the characterizations here are a bit questionable but both actors do well in their respective parts. As to the supporting cast? Rhonda Fleming sure is pretty but given little to do outside of occasionally bicker with the equally pretty (though far less glamorous) Jan Sterling, whose character is generally a source of comic relief for the first eighty percent of the film. Moore makes for a good snake in the grass type character while Hogan plays his Indian chief as the same sort of 'noble savage' stereotype that you often see in westerns from this age.
The movie is very nicely shot, with lots of great landscapes and a really wonderful sense of just how 'out there' California was during the period in which the movie is set coming through effectively. Ray Rennehan's camerawork is top notch from start to finish, making great use of light and shadow and doing some interesting things with color as well. The score does a fine job of emphasizing the action and the drama and if this isn't a film at all concerned with historical accuracy or period detail, it's nevertheless an entertaining western made all the more fun by Heston's fiery performance.
Pony Express arrives on DVD in a 1.33.1 fullframe transfer from Olive Films that probably could have used a little more restorative love than it's received here but which overall looks decent enough. Some color fading is evident, especially during the first ten minutes or so, but there isn't any heavy print damage even if some minor specs pop up throughout the movie. Grain looks nice and natural here, and detail isn't half bad. Black levels aren't reference quality and are frequently more like dark grey but there are no issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono track isn't going to blow your speakers and it does show its age and limited range but the dialogue is clear enough to follow without giving you ear strain. A little bit of hiss creeps in here and there if you listen for it but otherwise the track is properly balanced and clear enough to work.
There are no extras outside of the static menu and chapter selection options.
Pony Express is far from a classic example of the American western film but it's got a fun cat and moves at a pretty good pace, offering up ample doses of action and adventure despite playing to clichés more often than not. Heston's fan base will appreciate this more than others, no doubt, but those with an affinity for the genre should get a kick out of this. Olive's DVD is barebones and not all that well restored but it does offer the movie up in decent shape and comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.