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When I reviewed the 1955 I Died a Thousand Times, the remake of Raoul Walsh's High Sierra it slipped my mind that the Humphrey Bogart gangster film had been adapted a third time, as the 1949 western Colorado Territory, again directed by Raoul Walsh. 1 Although High Sierra is the iconic classic of the three, Walsh's western version is probably the better scripted story. Both gangster versions are hobbled by a sentimental sidebar about the love of a melancholy gangster for a club-footed teenager. In the Bogie film it's classic stuff, but not particularly good moviemaking.
Edmund H. North and John Twist's adaptation keeps the framework of W.R. Burnett's original plot while improving on most of the details. A literal adaptation would have outlaw Wes McQueen traveling on parole, meeting up with a family in a soft-top Conestoga and falling in love with their club-footed daughter; he'd then grow more bitter as he sees his new confederates in crime spoiling the caper through inexperience and stupidity. Trapped by the righteous police, Wes would then fight a last-ditch battle atop some mountain, as a defiant loner who just tried to "bust out". Like, proto-existential, man.
Colorado Territory uses the "bust out" phrase but changes most everything else to suit the western setting and the specific actors. With the fundamentally ethical Joel McCrea in the lead, Wes McQueen is no longer a burnt-out case but an outlaw who has acquired some perspective about his profession: he desires to make one big score and then quietly retire. Wes escapes from prison and saves a stagecoach, making friends with homesteader Fred Winslow (Henry Hull) and his attractive daughter Julie (Dorothy Malone, with two good feet). At a lonely Spanish-era "ghost mission", Wes meets the untrustworthy henchmen assigned to him, Reno and Duke (John Archer & James Mitchell). That Duke talks like an intellectual doesn't make him any more reliable. Wes also meets Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), a feisty, shapely frontier woman who quickly falls in love with him. She's apparently the "Colorado Territory" of the title, as the action all seems to take place in New Mexico. Or, since New Mexico became a state so late in our history, maybe it was called Colorado Territory as well.
The caper takes shape during trips to the nearest town. A bedridden old buddy of Wes's has set up a train robbery, but everybody on the job is a dirty double-crosser save for Wes. A cool hand at dealing with backstabbing creeps, Wes easily turns the tables and prevails. But he misjudges Julie, who is far too eager to turn him in for the reward money, even after he's staked her father to a new start on his farm. Only Colorado turns out to be true-blue loyal, and Wes proposes that they marry instead. But the future doesn't look good -- it's unlikely that the lovers can make the border before the posse closes in.
Raoul Walsh directs Colorado Territory with his usual no-nonsense clarity. The movie begins with a clever escape from the hangman's noose and proceeds directly to an exciting stage holdup. We immediately size up Wes McQueen as a rare kind of criminal hero who wants to change but isn't ashamed of the life he's been leading. Joel McCrea's bad guy characters were some of the most gentle in westerns, as seen in the remarkable drama Four Faces West, the only western I can think of where a gun is never even fired. 2 Virginia Mayo adopts an interesting look and attitude contrary to her usual Technicolor blondes. Perhaps suggested by Jennifer Jones' Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun, Colorado Carson is sensual and openhearted, the kind of woman a man might risk his life to be with. Colorado Territory doesn't lack for romantic chemistry. Even as a prepubescent child, I couldn't help but notice that Ms. Mayo frequently appeared in movies with her blouse torn or pulled down to bare one shoulder. I wrote about the Mayo Factor as it related to boys growing up in the 1950s in my essay on Invaders from Mars -- we sheltered kids were immediately drawn to this actress who was like a sexier version of our mothers.
Enough with sex, back to Colorado Territory. Walsh's film also has a hard edge, not as raw as that of the director's White Heat but one that clearly makes it an 'adult' western for 1949. The double-crossers are particularly venal, with train conductor Ian Wolfe's disloyalty mirrored in the attitude of his greedy bourgeois wife. Even after Wes has spared their lives Duke and Reno immediately sell him out. Walsh coldly returns to their plot thread with a disturbing shot of them already hung by the posse, with no mention of a fair trial. We can tell that the movie is working at that point, as we really don't want Wes to suffer the same fate. Clearly weary of the scarcity of decent people, Wes isn't surprised when Julie is ready to betray him as well. She wants to go back East to be the unwed mistress of a rich man.
Raoul Walsh's second shot at the same story isn't as sticky as his first effort. The fatal finale at a cliff-side Indian dwelling is similar to the rocky finish in High Sierra, but with vital differences. The screenwriters don't have to make our heroes panicked or stupid to be tricked out into the open. Colorado falls into a trap only because the sheriff (Morris Ankrum) is unusually clever. The ending is set up like a tragedy but instead plays out in a typically Raoul Walsh manner. Things just happen when men take their chances with the law. Short, sweet, no excuses. Colorado Territory is a solid picture.
With no cute dog to gum up the works, the film's sentimentality is reserved for a padre who wants to marry the romantic fugitives. He might be there as insurance against the censors, what with Wes and Colorado never actually repenting their "evil ways". Interestingly, the final disposition of the robbery loot is left up in the air, or in this case, forgotten atop a confessional booth. Let's go to New Mexico this summer -- maybe it's still there!
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Colorado Territory is a mostly clean copy of this fine western that never quite made the top rank of favorites or classics. The B&W image has a scratch or two but we're too impressed by Sid Hickox's sharp cinematography to really notice. The enormity of the cave dwelling location is made apparent at the end, when an Indian scout climbs atop the mesa to draw a bead on our hero. It looks as if it ought to take hours for the man to get up there.
A trailer sells the film as an ordinary action picture, but it apparently did quite well on release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Colorado Territory rates:
1. I was reminded of this by fellow critic Dick Dinman, who told me that I'd missed out -- in his opinion Colorado Territory is the best movie of the three.
2. The great Joel McCrea can be a crook or a romantic hero and still evoke some of the nobility of Henry Fonda. Colorado Territory is true to older forms of the western, in that Wes McQueen doesn't do a single mean thing to anybody. They say that for Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country McCrea and Randolph Scott drew straws to determine who would play the good guy and who would play the bad guy. I doubt that the casting was ever in doubt -- we don't mind the stone-faced Scott playing cynical, but McCrea wouldn't seem right doing that.
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