A fairly good "northwestern," Guns of the Timberland (1960) is a loggers vs. ranchers yarn starring Alan Ladd, its story adapted from Louis L'Amour's 1955 novel Guns of the Timberlands. In retrospect its politics are amusing and rather curious, while the conflict presented is interesting and complex. However, most of the characters are painted in the broadest of strokes and the resolution is not believable. The film was made by Ladd's company, Jaguar, and produced by actor-writer-turned-producer Aaron Spelling, his first and only feature film credit until California Split sixteen years later.
Warner Archive's DVD presents the film in enhanced widescreen with no extra features.
Having invested personal fortunes into their logging business, partners Jim Hadley (Alan Ladd) and Monty Welker (Gilbert Roland) and their trainload of lumberjacks pull into the frontier town of Deep Well. Believing they'll be a boon to the local economy, they expect to be welcomed with open arms but instead are treated with total disdain. Grocer Peterson (Steve Pendleton) is flat-out unfriendly, refusing to deliver a large order of goods while the local livery stableman won't rent Jim the 40 horses he needs.
Teenager Bert Harvey (Frankie Avalon, who gets an "and introducing" credit here) offers Jim a ride to the Riley Ranch, but there again Jim is met with complete hostility from owner Laura Riley (Jeanne Crain) and ranch foreman, Clay Bell (Lyle Bettger). Laura orders "trespasser" Jim off her ranch.
The townsfolk all fear that logging will wash away the topsoil, cause mudslides, and ruin the watershed they need for their ranching. Clay, former resident of the now-deserted frontier town of Green Meadows on the other side of the mountain, a once thriving community-turned-ghost town after being destroyed under similar circumstances, is so determined to stop the loggers that he dynamites a portion of the mountain, causing an avalanche that completely obstructs the logging road.
The only other route for the loggers is a road that at one point passes through Laura's ranch, forcing Jim to apply for a temporary easement to gain access. But even armed with the document Clay orders several big trees cut, which fall over the road, again blocking the loggers' path. Using a legal technicality, Laura refuses to grant permission to the lumberjacks to cut the fallen trees on her property, further raising tensions.
Interesting in retrospect, Guns of the Timberland's lumberjacks might be likened to 19th century frackers. Their government grant allows them to cut trees on private land without the owners' permission, even if their deforestation means turning the owners' land uninhabitable. When the people of Deep Well protest, all Jim can do is shrug. "I didn't make the rules," he says, matter of factly. "I've got a government contract." And he's the hero.
Jim belatedly begins to feel a little empathy for the townsfolk, and the movie ends most unrealistically. (If you want to find out how, read below.*) The conflict is annoying ginned up with extreme actions taken by both sides, actions which border on ludicrous. After Clay dynamites the mountain, obstructing the road, the entire town collectively busts a gut with derisive laughter at the expense of the loggers, whose very livelihood is threatened. Later, in turn, the entire town sarcastically remarks, "Great day, isn't it?" to Jim as he passes through town, all with broad smiles and a complete reversal of early scenes in which Jim was treated as if he had the plague. Conversely, Monty decides to fight fire with literal fire, deciding that if they can't harvest the lumber, then he'll destroy the entire town with a wildfire conflagration.
But, overall, Guns of the Timberland ain't bad. The locations, in Quincy, California, and near Reno, Nevada, are attractive and the cast is appealing. Frankie Avalon is pretty good in his feature film acting debut, appearing opposite Alana Ladd, Alan's 16-year-old daughter. As was the trend at the time, teen heartthrob Avalon gets to sing, in this case the hit "Gee Whizz Whilikens Golly Gee," a number featuring, albeit unseen, that popular 19th century instrument, the electric guitar.
Video & Audio
Shot for widescreen, Guns of the Timberland is presented in 1.78:1 enhanced format. The image isn't great; like a lot of ‘50s Warner titles, the color and sharpness are a little off, but for the most part it's a pretty good transfer. Audio is Dolby Digital mono, English only, with no subtitle options, and the disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
No classic but colorful entertainment nonetheless, Guns of the Timberland is Recommended.
* Jim simply decides to try his luck elsewhere, even though this would seem to doom his entire investment. The lumberjacks even merrily sing as the train pulls away. Even more unrealistic, Laura, for no clear reason, has fallen in love with Jim and jumps aboard the train at the last minute, abandoning the thriving ranch she owns. Well, he is a lumberjack and he's okay.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.