Intriguing but disappointing, The Wonderful Country (1959), is a peculiar, mildly confusing Western starring and executive-produced by Robert Mitchum. It's more interesting today for its singularly offbeat casting, excellent score and cinematography than as an adaptation of Tom Lea's well-regarded 1952 novel. (And despite the fact that playwright-anthropologist Robert Ardrey adapted it.) Robert Parrish directs a cast that includes singer Julie London, comedian Jack Oakie, John "Sgt. Schultz" Banner, and baseball great Leroy "Satchel" Paige.
An MGM "Limited Edition Collection" manufactured-on-demand release, The Wonderful Country gets a decent 1.66:1 widescreen transfer, 16:9 enhanced for widescreen TVs. No extras.
Mitchum plays Martin Brady, an American who has spent nearly his entire life across the border in Mexico, to the point where he speaks with a thick Spanish accent. (Technically, Mitchum does this extremely well and is thoroughly convincing but, nevertheless, it's an idea that probably should have been dropped.)
Brady is a gunfighter working for the Castro brothers, who govern Northern Mexico. In that capacity Brady crosses the Rio Grande into the Texas town of El Puerto, to deliver silver pesos and gold ore to German gunrunner Ben Sterner (John Banner). However, as he's arriving into town Brady's valuable Andalusian stallion is spooked by tumbleweed, Brady is thrown and badly breaks his leg.
Ellen Colton (Julie London), the unhappy wife of the new U.S. Cavalry commander Maj. Stark Colton (Gary Merrill), calls for the genial and generous local physician, Doc Stovall (Charles MacGraw), who agrees to set the broken leg in exchange for letting Brady's stallion stud with his mare.
As Brady recuperates, Maj. Colton and Texas Ranger Capt. Rucker (Albert Dekker) each in turn ask Brady to join them, the former hoping Brady can arrange a joint operation with the Castro brothers to wipe out all the Apaches who are raiding into Texas and hiding out in Mexico. Too many cooks: a third party, jovial railroad agent Travis Hight (Jack Oakie) also talks to Brady about his plan to pay the Castros to wipe out the Apaches on behalf of the railroad. Further, after more intrigue Brady is ordered by the older Castro brother (Pedro Armendáriz, in a breezy performance) to assassinate his younger sibling (Victor Manuel Mendoza).
Rucker, for his part, suspects Brady fled to Mexico as a boy after shooting his father's murderer. However, says Rucker, the murderer was already a wanted man, meaning Brady could legally return to the United States if he wants to. Partly because he's attracted to Ellen and she to him, he seriously considers the idea.
The Wonderful Country introduces a number of interesting ideas and/or presents them in unusual ways, but the picture never seems to be getting anywhere. It's short on action and long on brooding, sometimes overly symbolic introspection. (Also a problem with Robert Parrish's Saddle the Wind.) Rights to the novel were apparently first acquired by editor-turned-director Parrish and Gregory Peck, but for whatever reason Peck eventually dropped out. When second choice Henry Fonda turned down the leading role, it eventually went to Mitchum, who came aboard as both star and producer. The United Artists release is credited to Mitchum's D.R.M. Productions.
Mitchum's fine, but his character remains enigmatic throughout, despite some obvious effort to portray him as a man without a country, mistaken for a Mexican by Americans yet regarded as a gringo by his Mexican employers. The idea of being a stranger in a strange land, even when that land is one's childhood home, is interesting, and throughout are little scenes exemplifying this theme. Brady, for instance, becomes friendly with Sterner's newly arrived German nephew Ludwig (Max Slaten), but the uncle cautions him to keep away from gunman Brady, that he's a man to do business with and nothing more. (Banner is quite good in these scenes, a real contrast to his broad Hogan's Heroes characterization.)
There's also a subtext of Maj. Colton and the Castros (and, to a lesser extent, Hight) jockeying for control of Indian land on a hazily-defined border, but Brady's yearning for acceptance on either side of it dominates. The picture repeatedly loses its way in a sea of good intentions, especially in the resistant romance between Brady and Ellen. The final scene hints at a close bond between Brady and his prized horse, a major component of the novel, but that gets lost in the jumble as well.
Mitchum, who was flirting with a singing career around this time, might have suggested sensual vocalist London, and it's fairly certain he recommended "Satchel" Paige, who has a small but pivotal role as a Buffalo Soldier under Maj. Colton's command. Paige clearly is no actor but he has a certain, older Woody Strode-like screen presence.
Technically, The Wonderful Country is a handsome production, filmed in Mexico by Floyd Crosby with music by Alex North.
Video & Audio
Presented in 1.66:1, 16:9 enhanced widescreen, The Wonderful Country is pretty grainy but generally looks quite good, with decent color and contrast. The region 1 encoded disc also offers good Dolby Digital mono audio, English only with no alternate language or subtitle options. No Extra Features.
Unusual and worthwhile because of Mitchum's performance, The Wonderful Country is an interesting failure. It's the kind of story that might work better as a Larry McMurtry-type television miniseries, but as a 97-minute feature is all over the map and never cohesive. Still, Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.