One of John Wayne's best pre-Stagecoach Westerns, King of the Pecos (1936) is by B-picture standards practically perfect, with 55 minutes of highly effective, non-stop action and melodrama. Made by Republic Pictures, where Wayne spent most of his 1935-52 career, the film is a violent, serious, period Western, quite unlike the formula singing cowboy movies for which the studio soon became best known, and also far removed from the more juvenile "Three Mesquiteers" programmers Wayne was stuck making just a few years later.
A Paramount-owned movie licensed to Olive Films, King of the Pecos looks terrific in high-def, if a notch below The New Frontier, which Olive is releasing simultaneously. As noted in that review, die-hard fans of these kinds of B-Westerns for years suffered through positively dire public domain offerings on VHS and, later, DVD. Those awful video transfers made assessing such films extremely difficult and unpleasant viewing experiences. These releases, on the other hand, are a real pleasure to watch and worth their higher cost (some online retailers are presently offering them at 50% off or more).
"In the '70s," in Texas, land-grabber Alexander Styles (Cy Kendall) loosely interprets Right of Discovery laws to gobble up a cool million acres ("Not bad for a start," he says). At his side are two enforcers: a crooked lawyer to help Styles buy up land on the cheap and a sadistic killer, Ash (Jack Clifford), to gun down those refusing Styles's pittance offers.
One of Styles's victims is a rancher named Clayborn (John Beck), whose water-rich land is certain to become prime real estate when trains come through the territory in the near future. In an opening sequence anticipating Once Upon a Time in the West (1967), Styles orders Ash to gun down the Clayborn family. Their boy, John (Bradley Metcalfe, Jr.), survives the shooting but Ash viciously beats him unconscious with a tree branch before leaving him for dead.
The boy returns to the territory 10 years later as an attorney named John Clay (John Wayne), a man who intends to use the law to take down Styles and Ash. The King of the Pecos now operates a land and water agency out of Cottonwood, selling cattle to ranchers only to fleece them later via worthless scrip payments and by denying their cattle access to the water supply he monopolizes. ("Sounds like a polite form of cattle rustling," John says sarcastically.) Clay takes Styles to court with some success, but in having Styles's land rights overturned the territory is thrown into chaos, for even honest ranchers, resentful of John, are forced to refile their claims or lose all rights to their land.
Although filmed cheaply and quickly (at a cost of just $18,000 and seven shooting days), King of the Pecos is extremely effective and exciting, while the good use of Lone Pine locations lend the film an air of grandeur belying its small budget.
Edited by future director Joseph H. Lewis, King of the Pecos is incredibly well paced. Varying but always interesting action or suspense-filled scenes never let up.
Barrel-chested Cy Kendall and facially-scarred Jack Clifford are like two halves of Henry Fonda's shockingly evil character in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Kendall's Styles unhesitatingly robs and murders his way to the top while Clifford's Ash clearly enjoys doing the bulk (but hardly all) of Styles's killing. King of the Pecos has an unusually high body count, from which women and children are not spared. In these populist films, Kendall was the B-movie equivalent of Edward Arnold, usually cast as the nefarious banker or crooked businessman Depression era audiences instinctively despised and whom audiences in 2013 will certainly recognize.*
The picture doesn't much resemble Republic's later Gene Autry and Roy Rogers Westerns, or even the vast majority of Wayne's pictures for the studio. There's no singing and comedy relief is thankfully understated and actually funny. Hank and Josh (Arthur Aylesworth and Herbert Heywood, the former reminiscent of Harry Morgan) are a couple of Styles's rancher victims who quickly throw in with John. Their comedic byplay, with Hank a crusty cigar chomper and Josh his comically deaf companion, works because the comedy grows out of their characterizations and their role in moving the story forward, as opposed to the literal relief of broader, more conventional sidekicks like Smiley Burnette.
Video & Audio
The New Frontier looks quite good, especially given its age and bottom-of-the-bill, B-picture status. The black-and-white, 1.37:1 image is in great shape, though dissolves and other opticals are a bit beat up. However, these are obviously inherent in the original negative. The opening titles are windowboxed. The Region A disc has decent audio, English only with no subtitle options, and no Extra Features.
The best of John Wayne's B-Westerns released by Olive thus far, King of the Pecos still impresses all these decades later, and at last is available in a form that's equally pleasurable to watch. Highly Recommended.
* (Major Spoiler): During the highly satisfying climax, Styles is crushed to death by his own safe. I know a few Wall Street bankers...
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.