The third of eight "Three Mesquiteers" movies that John Wayne starred in before, during, and after John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) put his career into high gear, Santa Fe Stampede (1938) is a decent enough entry in that admittedly juvenile B-Western series. It may be historically significant in depicting a violent act supposedly never before shown in American movies at least, though that claim might not be completely accurate. Either way, if you don't want to find out what happens, you might want to stop reading right here.
For eons various Republic Three Mesquiteers films were released to VHS and DVD by fringe home video labels specializing in public domain movies. Those video transfers always looked terrible; I'd all but given up hope that better-looking editions would ever see the light of day. But, once again, Olive Films dazzles with a spectacularly pristine high-definition transfer.
There's no stampede and no mention of Santa Fe in Santa Fe Stampede. Instead, the plot has the Three Mesquiteers - Stony Brooke (John Wayne), Tucson Smith (Ray "Crash" Corrigan) and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune) - visiting an old pal, Dave Carson (William Farnum). The Mesquiteers had loaned Dave grubstake money for a mining operation some time before, and now that he's struck it rich, Dave wants to share his good fortune, asking only that the Mesquiteers help him register his claim.
There's a commotion outside when two of crooked Mayor Gilbert Ryan's (LeRoy Mason) henchmen, Joe (Richard Alexander) and Mac (Bud Osborne), are caught apparently trying to steal some horses. The two men are put on trial, but the local, alcoholic judge, Henry J. Hixon (Ferris Tayor), unjustly acquits them despite a mountain of evidence.
(Major Spoilers) To put an end to the corruption, Stony suggests sending a signed petition directly to the territorial governor but, en route to deliver the signatures, Joe and Mac began firing at the buckboard carrying Dave and his little girl, Julie Jane (Genee Hall), causing its horses to panic. The buckboard crashes spectacularly into the rocks, killing both passengers. To divert suspicion, Ryan and his men accuse Stony of murdering Dave and his daughter in a plot to own the mine outright.
According to the IMDb, quoting the American Movie Channel (sic), actually American Movie Classics, Santa Fe Stampede was the first feature to depict the murder of a child. I doubt that's true, that probably there's some silent D.W. Griffith one-reeler or whatnot depicting something similar. But, regardless, the sequence is still quite shocking, even today. The camera lingers on the panicked child as the horses race out-of-control, and the buckboard's crash against the rocks leaves no doubt as to the child's horrible fate.
While the recovery of the body and notification of the family are not shown, Ryan, Joe, and Mac's awareness that the girl was accompanying her father beforehand, that the two henchmen knowingly cause her death anyway, and later scenes showing the villains congratulating themselves for their cleverness in stopping Dave from reaching the governor, all make their crime seem especially heinous. LeRoy Mason's wonderfully smug performance makes him an especially memorable and despicable villain.
How all this passed unnoticed by the Production Code is a mystery though not without precedent. A similarly shocking murder occurs in Hopalong Cassidy Returns (1936), in which a wheelchair-bound invalid is roped and dragged, wheelchair and all, down a dirt street at great speed until the man and his chair crash into a wall, killing him.
(More Major Spoilers) Oddly, Ryan is merely arrested in the end. Usually such crimes are balanced with appropriately grisly ends for the "brain heavy" especially, who are usually crushed to death under a boulder or go sailing off the edge of a cliff, usually while attempting a sucker punch against our hero. Here, despite the multiple murders, the attempted murder of Dave's other daughter, and after inciting arson and an attempted lynching of Stony, Ryan is only taken away, without even the mention of a hangman's noose.
Video & Audio
Olive's video transfer of Santa Fe Stampede is another superb, highly pleasurable viewing experience. Culled from revival elements, the black-and-white, 1.37:1 image is pristine throughout. Detail, blacks, and contrast are all very impressive. The Region A disc has decent audio, English only with no subtitle options, and No Extra Features.
Highly Recommended for John Wayne and B-Western movie fans, Santa Fe Stampede is great fun and the transfer is a revelation.
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.