The second of four "Three Mesquiteers" Westerns being released to Blu-ray and co-starring John Wayne, Red River Range (1938) is no Red River (1948), but on its own terms is outlandish and amusing, if juvenile. As with Overland Stage Raiders the main draw is the revelatory high-def transfer, which might seem fairly ordinary to the casual viewer but is certain to astound long-suffering B-Western fans not used to such splendiferous presentations.
Unlike Overland Stage Raiders, Red River Range crams a lot of story into its 56-minute running time, including plot elements that turn up again and again in B-Westerns. The Red River Cattleman's Association is concerned about the sudden disappearance of cattle, apparently the work of rustlers, and the Attorney General's office calls upon a Civil Volunteer Reserve team known as the Three Mesquiteers: Stony Brooke (John Wayne), Tucson Smith (Ray "Crash" Corrigan), and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune). Their qualifications are concisely noted on their service card: "Top Hands - Expert Gunman - Closed Mouthed - Dependable - Absolutely Honest."
En route to Red River, the trio bumps into a fellow colleague, Tex Reilly (Kirby Grant), himself working undercover on behalf of the Retail Butchers' Association (!). "Beef prices have hit rock-bottom!" he informs them. Tex has been identified by the rustlers, so Stony hatches an impressive triple-undercover-switcheroo: Tex will pretend to be Stony, while Stony works undercover, masquerading as an escaped outlaw named "Killer" Madigan, who in turn is hiding from the law as tenderfoot Jack Benson, a guest at a local dude ranch. Whew!
As it happens, the dude ranch's guests, playing cowboy, are unwittingly aiding the rustlers by rounding up stolen cattle. The real rustlers, using semis, take over, "slaughter the cattle on the spot, and haul away the dressed beef!" The Mesquiteers eventually find a single small patch of dried blood and part of a hide, exposing the plan. Given the size of the operation one might have expected a vast expanse of stripped carcasses rotting under swarming flies and vultures, but nobody ever expected graphic realism from Republic.
The overloaded screenplay (which includes a precocious boy whose father is murdered by the rustlers) is also oddly structured. Beyond Wayne playing Stony pretending to be a killer pretending to be a dude, which for much of the film features him in pinstripe suits and feigning ignorance of basic horsemanship, it also splits up the team. Conversely, it's fun to watch Corrigan's Tucson ribbing supposed easterner "Benson" and vice versa, especially in a ludicrous brawl they stage in order to pass information about the crooks.
Bizarre as it is, I'd swear the basic story of rustlers slaughtering and stripping cattle on the spot, then smuggling their ill-gotten gain off in refrigerated semis had been done before or would be again, though if another such film exists its title escapes me. (Such B-Westerns do, after all, tend to run together after awhile.)
John Landesman's useful The John Wayne Filmography notes the film cost $40,000, slightly more than Overland Stage Raiders, and for which Wayne received his usual $3,000.
Video & Audio
Red River Range is presented in its original 1.37:1 full frame format, with the opening titles windowboxed, a bit overly so. The word "revival" is superimposed over the credits, suggesting this was sourced from a reissue version. (I wonder if Republic subtly tried tricking audiences into thinking that their reissue was the similarly titled but infinitely superior Howard Hawks blockbuster?) Regardless the image is for the most part dazzlingly sharp and pristine, with only dissolves and stock shots interrupting an otherwise revelatory viewing experience. The mono audio (English only, no subtitles) is likewise terrific. No Extra Features.
Juvenile but lively, and sporting a remarkably good video transfer, Red River Range is Highly Recommended for B-Western fans.
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.