They are darn good Westerns. Not "great" Westerns. Or "lost masterpieces." Or "misunderstood gems." Or "neglected classics." Just...good, serviceable, entertaining oaters at the very least, with a few of them showing touches of intriguing scripting or direction despite their paltry budgets. Kit Parker Films and VCI Entertainment have released Darn Good Westerns - Volume 1, a two-disc, six-film collection of period and contemporary Westerns that should please fans of the genre (and by "fans," I mean people who love the genre for the pleasures it gives - not for what can be sussed out for a term paper). Titles included are: 1952's Hellgate, starring Sterling Hayden, Ward Bond, and James Arness; 1954's Fangs of the Wild, starring Onslow Stevens, Freddy Ridgeway, and Charles Chaplin, Jr. (!); 1950s Train to Tombstone, starring Tom Neal, Don "Red" Barry, Nan Leslie, and Detroit's own, Bill Kennedy (!); 1948's Panhandle, starring Rod Cameron, Anne Gwynne and future director Blake Edwards; Operation Haylift, starring Bill Williams, Tom Brown, Ann Rutherford, and Joe Sawyer; and Wildfire - The Story of a Horse, starring Bob Steele, Sterling Holloway, and Eddie Dean. Let's look very briefly at each film (I promise).
Kansas, 1867. As the Army closes in on the renegade Civil War terrorists who still haunt civilians, veterinarian Gil Hanley finds himself caught between these unforgiving combatants in post-war Kansas. Innocently treating notorious outlaw Vern Brechene (James Anderson), Hanley, a former rebel who hasn't exactly made any friends by refusing to join his townspeople's vigilante activities, is unfairly accused of aiding Brechene when one of the outlaw's money sacks is found outside his home. Railroaded in a military court, Hanley is sentenced to the wretched Army prison in Hellgate, New Mexico, where renegade-hating commander, Lieutenant Tod Voorhees (Ward Bond), is barely surviving himself out in the middle of nowhere with no fresh water supplies. Hanley strikes up an uneasy partnership with fellow prisoners, led by George Redfield (James Arness), to break out.
SPOILERS ALERT!An intriguing little Western from Lippert Pictures, Hellgate opens with a quote supposedly from Oliver Wendell Holmes, referencing the Gil Hanley character, but I couldn't find that name mentioned anywhere else. Reminiscent somewhat of the Dr. Mudd scandal, Hellgate quickly moves from its initial set-up to a standard prison escape film, with some tough scripting and acting giving it a quality B-pedigree. Co-written and directed by future Gunsmoke and Rawhide vet Charles Marquis Warren (Panhandle's and Zero Hour!'s John C. Champion was the other scribe), Hellgate zips along at a nice clip (despite Hayden's somnambulant delivery) while telling a fairly interesting story. Marquis and Champion seem to enjoy the double-bind Hanley finds himself in - shunned by former Southerner Brechene because he renounced his loyalty to the South, and unaccepted by the Yankees who see a Reb as a Reb - using the theme of an innocent caught between two unforgiving forces nicely once Hanley is locked up in Hellgate. Hellgate itself is well designed by the art department (I love how literal it is: the gate that leads to the horrendous below-surface prison looks built to hold back the undead of Hell), with the scriptwriters ratcheting up the tension by including the element of an out-of-the-way outpost suffering from fever because there's so little water. Director Marquis, enjoying the stark lines of the exterior sets, shoots way up high in the hills, looking down on the actors like ants in the sand. Tough talk runs throughout the film (could they get away with, "callouses on their butts" back then?), while the rough-and-tumble actors comfortable with the action scenes. A familiar set-up, but pulled off nicely with some interesting characterizations, and a no-nonsense approach to the action.
FANGS OF THE WILD
At a beautifully remote mountain lodge, Tad Summers (Freddy Ridgeway) and his dog Shep enjoy the wonders of nature. Not averse to breaking the boredom of his isolation by spinning a few tall tales now and then, Tad tells his father, Jim Summers (Onslow Stevens), who owns the fishing and hunting lodge, and old-timer Mac (Phil Tead), that he sees grizzly tracks - when everyone knows that's a fib. Jim is getting increasingly frustrated with Tad's bogus yarn-spinning, but Mac reminds Jim what it's like to be a boy, while keeping quiet about his own bad influence as a b.s. artist extraordinaire. So imagine the dilemma Tad finds himself in when he witnesses one of his dad's best customers, Roger Wharton (Charles Chaplin, Jr.), kill a man in cold blood and then cover up the crime? No one believes him, and worse, the killer soon knows he knows.
A contemporary Western version of The Window, Fangs of the West is about as square-headed as they come...and not bad, either, for that obtuseness. Storytelling at its most primitive, this William F. Claxton-directed cheapie from Lippert doesn't waste a lot of time (try none) on character development or for anything else other than stock situations and action to tell this basic story. And that's fine, because the speed of this effort, along with some nice scenery, allow you to just enjoy the story for what it is: a child's storybook, basically, brought to life. Tad worries that his father doesn't believe or trust him anymore, and then really starts to panic when Dad goes ahead and basically tells the killer what his son told him in private (thanks, Dad). The use of Wharton's wife Linda (Margia Dean) as an unwitting catalyst for the finale, is a clumsy narrative device at best (wouldn't someone be a little creeped out about how she keeps worrying that Tad doesn't like her?), but again, subtlety isn't the point here. When Shep rips the killer apart, and Tad says, "See, I didn't lie, Pop," what kid in the audience back in 1954 didn't understand that message on a primal, basic level?
TRAIN TO TOMBSTONE
On an out-bound train from Albuquerque to (you guessed it) Tombstone, a disparate group of strangers pull together and ward off an Indian attack. Mysterious Len Howard (Don "Red" Barry) is a wanted fugitive; he boards the train at full gallop, but only after plugging the guy who was chasing him. Pretty Doris Clayton (Barbara Stanley) is confined to a wheelchair (it's all in her head); she's off to try and find her wayward soldier fiancÚ, with the help of old crow companion, Aunt Abbie (Minna Phillips). "Saloon keeper" Belle Faith (Judith Allen) makes small talk with sympathetic preacher, Jared Greeley (Bill Kennedy), while kindly Dr. Willoughby is taken with pretty "chorus girl" Marie Bell (Nan Leslie). And Wally Vernon is around as Clifton Gulliver: ladies underwear salesman.
Could it be that the makers of the cult classic The Narrow Margin watched Train to Tombstone for inspiration? Uh...probably not. Confined to just one cheap train car set (with a few action shots of the train in motion, and some shots at the depot), Train to Tombstone is an exceedingly cheap - but speedy - retread of Stagecoach's basic set-up. Even at a trim 55 minutes, Train to Tombstone has time for some lollygagging (Vernon does a few comedy bits), which isn't surprising when you see how threadbare the story and script is by Orville Hampton (who must have died in 1997 from sheer exhaustion, considering the well over 100 scripts he wrote for B-programmers and TV). Directed by seemingly inexhaustible William Berke (ditto on the plethora of titles to his credit), Train to Tombstone is one of those Bs that when seen today, you have to wonder how audiences took it when it sneaked into town for a Monday-through-Wednesday showing on the bottom of a double bill. Pared down to the point of visual shorthand, the final impact of Train to Tombstone is greatly reduced due to the absolutely wretched rear-projection shots of the Indians attacking the train. Often totally out of perspective with the size of the train and the people inside, Indians move crazily in the background, with the camera moving illogically in relationship to the supposedly forward-moving train, until the whole sequence resembles a Three Stooges short. And yet, that naked incompetency somehow becomes endearing in the end, because it's so obvious and earnest. Certainly for me, a boy who grew up under the reach of Detroit's WKBD Channel 50's antenna, the sight of hambone supreme Bill Kennedy covering his face in most shots out of sheer embarrassment (or boredom), made Train to Tombstone an instant hit, and one I recommend to anyone else who remembers Bill's long-gone Bill Kennedy at the Movies program.
South-of-the-border trading post owner John Sands (Rod Cameron) hides an old, storied past. Once a lawman, Sands started to enjoy slapping that leather, and soon became an outlaw, run out of the States for being a gunslinger. Hearing that his brother was murdered in the town of Sentinel, Sands ignores the advice of Doc Cooper (J. Farrell MacDonald) - as well as the pretty britches of hellcat "Dusty" Stewart (Cathy Downs) - and decides to track down his brother's killers. But long-time adversary Matt Garson (Reed Hadley) has other ideas, and he hires three killers - led by baby-faced Floyd Schofield (Blake Edwards) - to plug Sands in the back...because no one can beat him face-to-face in a drawdown.
Stylishly directed by old pro Lesley Selander, Panhandle now has the added interest of not only for being co-written by The Pink Panther's Blake Edwards (along with ubiquitous John C. Champion), but also for featuring the future director in a co-starring role. Watching Panhandle, you get a feel for themes and structures that will factor into future Edwards projects, including the physically outsized set-pieces (there's a great barroom brawl, along with an iconic, expectations-breaking shoot-out at the end), and the witty, backtracking dialogue (Cameron's tale of facing Billy the Kid to fascinated gunslinger Edwards is hilarious when Edwards, all worked and demanding to know what happened, suffers a stinger when Cameron nails him, saying simply, "He killed me."). Edwards seems interested in tweaking some of the conventions of the genre (the shoot out in the rain, just like Cameron described with Billy the Kid), but his scenes between Cameron and the ladies slows things down a bit. Selander, shooting in sepia tones (preserved here on the DVD), has a nice way with making epic-looking frames that don't depend on widescreen formatting. The arrival of the three gunslingers looks like something out of Shane, while the final gunfight, in the pouring rain and wild wind, has a weird vibe that wouldn't be out of place in a Spaghetti Western. Too bad some of the acting isn't quite up to par (and that would include Edwards). Overall, though, an interesting little revenge oater.
In and around the high mountain deserts and plains of Ely, Nevada, a punishing series of summer droughts and winter blizzards in 1948 play havoc with the cattle ranchers who are at the mercy of the elements. Bill Masters (Bill Williams) looks forward to going into business with his brother, Tom (Tom Brown), who recently discharged from the Air Force and for whom Bill wants to buy an adjoining ranch so the brothers can expand their business. Certainly Bill's son Roy (Tommy Ivo) would like to have his glamorous flyboy uncle around, but Tom isn't at all enthusiastic about ranching. He still has his head in the clouds - something that Bill's wife Clara (Ann Rutherford) could tell all too well. Even Tom getting married to his Air Force sweetheart Pat (Jane Nigh), can't convince him to settle down to ranching. He leaves Bill, and that tears it for the brothers. But a devastating winter starts decimating the cattle on all the nearby ranches, and rancher George Swallow's (Joe Sawyer) plan to distribute hay like the Berlin airdrop leaves Bill cold...when he finds out Tom is involved.
A simple little contemporary "Western," Operation Haylift is part family drama and part real-life documentary footage of the airlift that did occur back during that horrible winter of 1948. While the feuding brothers angle is fairly stock (written by actor Sawyer and soon-to-be Dirty Harry scribe, Dean Riesner), it's interesting in a primitive neo-realist way due to the use of real houses and rooms for the settings, as well as some evocative location work in the picturesque Ely. As well, the documentary footage taken of the operation (whoa, check out those frozen dead cattle stacked up like logs) is fascinating in its relative primitiveness (those tin-can planes look mighty cold). There isn't a satisfying resolution to the brothers' fight (they're mad, then they make up like nothing happened), but for a curiosity piece, Operation Haylift is an acceptable time passer precisely because it doesn't seem to fit neatly inside an established genre. It almost plays like one of those instructional 16mm films we all watched in school (way before suitcase-sized VTR machines spelled the death knell for the Bell & Howell), and on that aesthetic note, it works just fine.
WILDFIRE - THE STORY OF A HORSE
Some horse thievin' has been goin' on in town, and some folks would like to blame wild horse Wildfire, as a jinxy leader of a group of wild horses who want the ponies back at his desert hideout (still not quite sure how that all works...). Of course, Happy Haye (Bob Steele) doesn't believe that, nor does his sidekick, Alkali Jones (Sterling Holloway). They protect Wildfire when the real cutthroats want to kill him, nursing him back to health when he suffers a leg wound. Soon, Happy joins the local sheriff, Johnny Deal (Eddie Dean) to bring the real rustlers to justice - but not before singing a song, and having Wildfire save Happy in the nick of time.
I've always enjoyed listening to second-tier cowboy singer Eddie Dean, and he has a real nice one for this film - On the Banks of the Sunny San Juan. It's probably the highlight of this typical B-oater, with fans of Steele and Holloway getting exactly what they expect from these Western vets (it's still a little strange to hear Pooh's voice coming out of a cowboy). There are plenty of chances for Steele to hop into the saddle, and draw-down on the bad guys, while the simple story of rustlers and a misunderstood horse goes down easy with the converted. I wish the story had focused a bit more on Wildfire, actually (he seems to come and go without much rhyme or reason), but this isn't a dog-and-pony show, but a Western, so action has to come first. Not very memorable in any way, but passable all the same.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.