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Somebody finally made a great picture about "Bleeding Kansas" during the Civil War -- Chinese director Ang Lee's 1999 Ride With the Devil is a genuine unheralded classic. The moderately budgeted studio westerns of the past couldn't muster the resources to mount epics with a civil war background, taking place in both rural and city locations with thousands of costumed actors. Even more troublesome, the politics and action of the Kansas-Missouri insurrections before, during and after that war are far too complicated for the average Hollywood sagebrush saga.
That doesn't mean that producers didn't try. 1959's The Jayhawkers is a modest production that uses the lawless years as a background for a highly simplified story having almost nothing to do with historical fact. What's left is a spare, serviceable western with some interesting production angles.
Before the Civil War, Kansas is terrorized by Luke Darcy (Jeff Chandler), a swindler-warlord who leads a criminal army called the "Jayhawkers". Luke likens himself to Napoleon and is convinced that if he can take over enough of the state, he can form his own independent armed fiefdom. To take a town, Darcy sends his bandits on raids disguised as piratical "Red Legs". Then Darcy comes along with his Jayhawkers and offers to protect the town from those terrible killers, if it will surrender to his control. Operating out of a hole-in-the wall hideout, Darcy dreams of his empire as he luxuriates in gifts from towns he has liberated from Union control. He's particularly callous with women, using them and then dispensing with their services.
The story begins when the unjustly imprisoned Cam Bleeker (Fess Parker; the name sounds like an auto speed accessory) breaks jail and returns home. He discovers not his wife but immigrant Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey of The Day of the Triffids) and her two small children. Jeanne purchased the farm with her late husband after the death of Cam's wife. Although he quickly becomes attached to his potential new family, Cam has sworn vengeance against the man who led his wife astray and then abandoned her. Cam is arrested and taken not back to jail but to the new Territorial governor, William Clayton (Herbert Rudley). Clayton wants Luke Darcy captured, and offers Cam a pardon if he'll join the Jayhawkers and arrange for Darcy's arrest. Cam refuses until he's told that (ta da!) Luke is the very same man who despoiled his innocent wife, and then left her to alcoholism and death.
The Jayhawkers is a prime example of a western based on the notion of a private empire being established in the West. Vincent Price tried to become The Baron of Arizona and Edmond O'Brien tried to establish a new southwestern Confederacy with Indians as slaves in Rio Conchos. Actually, "Big Ranch" western epics like Duel in the Sun and The Furies toy with the idea of rich cattlemen forming enormous economic empires free of state or federal control, where the rich don't have to pay taxes. Hey -- this theme is more contemporary than I thought.
Jeff Chandler's Darcy's political swindle is more direct; he takes control of towns by pretending to liberate them from fake bad guys. The dopey townspeople fall for it every time. If this is a Cold War allegory, the message must be than almost anyone can walk in and subvert democracy, just by declaring the need for security (it worked, didn't it?). What Darcy has that other crooks lack is charisma. Fess Parker's Cam penetrates Darcy's lair ready to kill but is soon swayed by the man's big ideas and enthusiasm. Darcy even convinces Cam that what happened with his wife was not his fault. Cam goes for it and supports the warlord -- would Davy Crockett do this?
Meanwhile, Cam's potential new wife is put in jeopardy by Darcy's slimy triggerman Lordan (Henry Silva), who sees through Cam's subterfuge. Actually, there's a "male love" jealousy angle here even more overt the Robert Ryan / Robert Stack / Cameron Mitchell triangle in Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo. Darcy has an obvious attraction to Cam, and Cam's respect for Darcy becomes a strange adulation. Pushed aside as Darcy's #1 cutthroat, Lordan tries to rape Jeanne and then turns Cam in for the price on his head. Hell hath no fury like a gunslinger scorned.
The story's conflicts are not resolved on a grand scale. Filmed in VistaVision, the production lacks detail. A single western back lot set stands in for all 4 or 5 of the Kansas towns raided by the Red Legs and liberated by the Jayhawkers. Darcy's fairly elaborate outlaw hideout is constructed in Bronson Caverns. Jeanne's house is an interior studio set and the rest of Kansas is represented by some rolling hills covered with dry grass and few if any trees. The Eastern Kansas area, it must be said, looks nothing like these arid Southern California locations.
Melvin Frank's uncomplicated direction doesn't try for grand effects, but the film shows little evidence of guidance behind the performances. Jeff Chandler makes lengthy speeches about conquest and the rights of the powerful, but he manages a consistent intense tone. Fess Parker doesn't seem aware that his character is basically a morally conflicted creep. Cam can't keep his word to Jeanne or the Governor or even to Darcy, but Parker plays him as if all problems can be solved by acting calm and shooting somebody. Nicole Maurey is quite good in the role of The Western Woman Who Serves as the Hero's Conscience. Henry Silva is bland, letting his face do his menace-making for him. Leo Gordon has a good stretch as a luckless Jayhawker who can't seem to do anything right -- Darcy has a habit of shooting his own men for any infraction of his draconian rules. Look fast up front and you'll see a young Harry Dean Stanton as a sheriff's deputy. The Jayhawkers is a better than average western, but don't look to it for historical accuracy.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Jayhawkers is a real oddity. The transfer is colorful and sharp, but also consistently marked by fine scratches and digs that show up as tiny white flaws. These small scratch marks run horizontally, not vertically, because the film was shot in the sideways-running VistaVision format. All I can figure is that the original camera negative must have been used to print many 35mm and perhaps even 16mm reduction copies. The flaws are not much of a hindrance, but they are definitely there.
A big surprise is the music score by Jerome Moross. Best known for his Aaron Copland-like "BIG" orchestral sound for William Wyler's The Big Country, some of Moross's scores had the same general rhythms and even themes. The Mountain Road could be an unused part of the Big Country score, and the later The Valley of Gwangi revisits the same patterns and feeling as well. Moross' score for The Jayhawkers again repeats the same galloping motifs, and crashes in whenever the Jayhawkers set out on another raid. The movie is a pleasure to watch, just to hear this grand music.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Jayhawkers Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.