Character-driven Western with a good lead performance. Olive Films, purveyor of all those fun Paramount library titles, has released The Jayhawkers!, the 1959 oater from Paramount starring Jeff Chandler, Fess Parker, Nicole Maurey, Henry Silva, Leo Gordon, and Herbert Rudley. A rare action/drama departure for comedy director Melvin Frank, The Jayhawkers! focuses less on hot lead and horses and more on character motivation, with a compelling context (the pre-Civil War "Bleeding Kansas" border skirmishes), and a solid turn from Jeff Chandler. No extras for this decent VistaVision« transfer.
Pre-Civil War Territory of Kansas. Cam Bleeker (Fess Parker), a prisoner of the Territory for leading raids deemed in opposition to the Northern Army and the "Free State" government, breaks out of jail and, shot through the shoulder, makes his way back to his ranch, hoping against hope that the reports of his wife's passing are wrong. Delirious with fever, he believes Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey), the new owner of Cam's spread, is his wife, but when he recovers, she sets him straight: she and her deceased husband, who was shot by pro-slavery Missouri "Red Legs," bought the ranch after Cam's wife died. She runs the ranch alone, along with her two little children, and she asks Cam to stay and help out...or she just might go into Knight's Crossing and collect the reward on him. A posse tracks down Cam, though, after he's adopted into Jeanne's family, and takes him to meet Governor William Clayton (Herbert Rudley). Clayton wants Cam to infiltrate Luke Darcy's (Jeff Chandler) growing guerrilla army and bring him to justice. Darcy, originally a "jayhawker" who led raids to protect Kansas from pro-slavery terrorists, has now become a power-hungry dictator who takes over Kansas towns by subterfuge and deceit, with the goal of controlling the entire Territory like his hero, Napoleon. Cam wants no part of helping Governor Clayton's plan until he learns that Darcy was the "other man" in his wife's life...and that Darcy is responsible for her death.
An unusual assignment for director Melvin Frank, who specialized almost exclusively (along with his writing/producing partner Norman Panama) in comedies (Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, White Christmas, Knock on Wood, The Court Jester, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, A Touch of Class), The Jayhawkers! isn't a forefront title that jumps out when you think of 1950s Westerns. Short on action but long on character-driven story, The Jayhawkers! eschews scenery-for-scenery's sake, as well (another convention of late '50s widescreen oaters shot on location), relying on quite a few interior sets and studio mock-ups, as well as backlot "location" work (a result, perhaps, of a less-than-top-lined budget). With the emphasis on story and character over the more flamboyant cinematic elements of the typical '50s studio A-list location-shot Western, that different tack may account for The Jayhawkers! playing more like a really good Western TV episode rather than something like The Big Country or The Searchers.
Not that that's necessarily a bad comparison for The Jayhawkers!, considering the high quality of TV Westerns broadcast during that period. And like those TV Westerns, you're not going to get too terribly "deep" material, either. The Jayhawkers! is thoughtful, with some intriguing ideas laying the groundwork for the storyline...but it doesn't marry its form and content in a way that transcends most ordinary offerings from the genre. I'm certainly no expert on the historical period of the pre-Civil War Kansas/Missouri border fighting (I had to look some stuff up to refresh my memory), but The Jayhawkers! seems to get the overall tensions right―if in a highly sanitized fashion (there's no way a 1959 Hollywood Western could show the absolute barbarism of the messy political guerilla fighting that marked that period of American history). Characters talk an awful lot about "freedom," but the word "slavery" isn't used nearly as often. The script doesn't come right out and say it, but one assumes that Jeanne and her husband came to Kansas specifically for abolitionist motives (she said her husband was "asked" to come, and that he believed in "freedom"). Cam's background is kept deliberately fuzzy and non-political, lest we tag him a murdering terrorist (for either side). He makes a point of telling the Governor he led raids neither for the North or the South, but for his "home," a hazy point that apparently is in keeping with the historical record, since many Kansas and Missouri border residents were caught in the middle of the feuding political factions of which they wanted no part.
To get Cam involved, the abuse of his wife at the hands of Darcy is employed, adding another interesting level to the story when Cam finds himself essentially forgiving Darcy when he's told by Darcy that his wife was a flesh-and-blood woman and not a saint on a pedestal: she wanted Darcy, and he took her, and she even said she loved him (a point that seals the deal for na´ve Cam). Of course the irony is that Darcy had previously admitted he treated women like wine bottles: empty them and throw them away. The fact that Darcy could be so callous with Cam's own wife, and that Cam would still accept him, backs up Cam's own admission that he's unable to resist Darcy's personal power and magnetism. That's probably The Jayhawkers!'s most interesting aspect: Darcy's Napoleonic sense of destiny and his ability to sway others to his side. The theme of Darcy and Cam bonding like brothers is fairly conventional, and we pretty much know how it's going to play out in the end, but Darcy's ability to bring not only Cam but Jeanne into his fold is well designed. This is amplified by Jeanne, whose experience with European dictators causes her to bring Cam up short, telling him that he's a fool to follow Darcy, because giving up your freedom in exchange for living your life the way you're told to live it, isn't worth it (sounds about like today, doesn't it?). If Darcy can convince her he's not such a bad guy (he talks about his mother and worries about Jeanne's daughter, and she's sold), then everyone is in trouble with this kind of charming-yet-vicious demagogue.
And to Jeff Chandler's credit, he's excellent in getting across the noble-yet-innately-twisted aspect of Darcy's megalomania (that strong, beautiful speaking voice works well here). Chandler never got a lot of credit from the critics during his relatively short career (probably due to the frequently bad movies he was assigned), but he's just fine here as the well-spoken, educated despot who has almost convinced himself that his brutal tactics are means justified by the end results (that sound familiar, too?). Fess Parker's turn is a little trickier, and I'm not sure he pulls it off entirely. Parker, a competent actor, may have complained that old Walt wouldn't let him stretch beyond Davey Crockett during his contract days with Disney, but old Walt was pretty shrewd about performers, and he may have been right that Parker's forte was strong, basic heroes, not conflicted anti-heroes (it's really tough seeing the quiet, poised, innately decent, honey-voiced Parker...and picturing a maybe murdering jayhawker). Even with the assistance of top pro cinematographer Loyal Griggs (Shane, White Christmas, The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told), director Melvin Frank can't manage to wring much (if any) meaning out of the mise en scene, but he does show a deft hand with the performers, helping to keep the intriguing dramatics simple and to the point...which, on the whole, turns out to be an apt description of The Jayhawkers! itself.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.