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King of the Pecos
Savant Blu-ray Review

King of the Pecos
Olive Films
1936 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 55 min. / Street Date January 22, 2013 / 24.95
Starring John Wayne, Muriel Evans, Cy Kendall, Jack Clifford, Arthur Aylsworth, Herbert Heywood, J. Frank Glendon, Edward Hearn, John Beck, Mary MacLaren, Bradley Metcalfe, Yakima Canutt.
Jack Marta
Editorial Supervisor Joseph H. Lewis
Written by Dorrell McGowan, Stuart McGowan, Bernard McConville from his story
Production supervised by Paul Malvern
Produced by Trem Carr
Directed by Joseph Kane

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

After seeing Olive Films' Blu-ray of the 1936 Republic picture King of the Pecos, I have to think that modest, bread 'n' butter '30s westerns are ripe for a serious cultural comeback. Critics ignored them when they were new and sneered at them in the 1950s, when big budget all-star oaters were the rage of Hollywood. But the fans were always there. Specialty theaters in big cities showed westerns exclusively, and the loyal could name-check their favorites whether they were silent legend holdovers, touring sagebrush sensations like Tom Mix and Gene Autry, or those strange hybrids the Singing Cowboys. John Wayne spent most of the Depression years riding the range for Republic and other studios while trying to establish himself at the majors; this after sharing the failure of an expensive, experimental (65mm) super-western by Raoul Walsh.

King of the Pecos is a somewhat generic but absolutely charming minor western, so simple and innocent that one cannot help but smile as it plays out. For complexity, don't expect Hamlet. Scurvy business opportunist Alexander Stiles (great character creep Cy Kendall) comes to a valley he wants, murders Mr. and Mrs. Clayborn (John Beck & Mary MacLaren) for their land and files for water rights on every parcel available for homesteading. But Stiles' scar-faced gunman Ash (Jack Clifford) leaves the Clayborns' young son alive. Ten years later, the orphaned John Clayborn (John Wayne) returns to the area as a lawyer and a gunfighter. Stiles has forced the local ranchers to work for him or to surrender their profits, based on the untruth that he owns all the available water for cattle. Helped by his comic sidekicks Hank and Josh (Arthur Aylsworth & Herbert Heywood) John proves that Stiles' claims are phony in court. A new train line is announced for Sweetwater, only 60 miles away, and the ranchers suddenly see a prosperous future in their cattle herds. But Stiles directs his gunmen to do what it takes to retain total control. John Clayborn has won his legal battle, but now must pick up his guns.

It's all here, folks. John Wayne's smiling, gracious John Clayborn wears a white hat and rides a beautiful white horse. Not one of Stiles' henchmen can intimidate him face to face, not even the man-faced Pete, played by Wayne's own double Yakima Canutt, one of the most famous stuntmen of all time. King of the Pecos has peppy showdowns and two or three ambush shootings; Stiles is always an underhanded cheat and Clayborn a shrewd straight arrow. At least three times during the show someone will order everyone to saddle up and chase the bad guys, which means a lot of horse-to-horse shooting and some really hairy horse falls.  1

John Wayne is an irresistible hero, with a congenial attitude and a friendly, honest smile. A gesture towards a romance is included when Clayborn takes a fancy to rancher's daughter Belle Jackson (Muriel Evans). She gives John a sweet smile until she gets the notion that he's responsible for the local problems. Wayne's two sidekicks contribute corny comic relief, the running gag being that the near-deaf Josh consistently misinterprets simple sentences. King of the Pecos is a no-stress pleasure to watch.

In John Wayne's old Depression-era movies, bankers and businessmen are almost always presented as despicable villains. Stiles is essentially a racketeer who forces the local beef growers to pay half their profits to him; their contracts for water access basically say that their cattle is his property. Stiles even carts around an enormous strong box to hold his ill-gotten loot, the "biggest safe West of the Pecos". By the final fadeout Stiles and his goons are sent to Boot Hill and as each one dies we're naturally supposed to cheer. It's too bad that this simplistic (but satisfying) morality doesn't spill over into real life. Politicians get plenty of public support to keep business interests free from pesky regulatory laws designed to keep them from raping and looting the country.

King of the Pecos was made in six days by the best talent available in Republic's corral. The director is Joseph Kane, who directed 113 pictures. After losing his job as an editor at Paramount, he cut just one picture at Republic, and was picked to direct Gene Autry's first film. From then on he was that little studio's top director. Kane's editorial supervisor was a young Joseph H. Lewis, a great future director who would later express his appreciation for the lessons learned from Kane. Cameraman Jack A. Marta had shot Raoul Walsh's silent What Price Glory and would spend practically every sunny day of the '30s and '40s shooting for Republic and Kane. He'd eventually shoot most of Bert I. Gordon's monster romps, as well as Steven Spielberg's breakout TV movie Duel.

Some of the show's exteriors were filmed up at Lone Pine, a popular distant location. Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott fans will instantly recognize various filming sites among the potato-like rocks, especially a couple of narrow, twisting passages that are perfect for ambushes. The writers of King of the Pecos give Wayne a refreshingly naïve escape route when the bad guys trap him in a cave and start a fire to smoke him out: the Duke simply announces that there's a back exit, "like a badger hole", and exits. I guess we have to assume that Ash and his thugs stand by that cave entrance all night, waiting for Wayne to emerge.

The earliest champions of early talkie 'programmer' westerns I know are a few late- '60s English critics, possibly because they grew up spending their rainy English weekends at special kiddie Buckaroo Matinees, enraptured by the wide-open spaces and snappy gunplay. Today there is of course a vocal fan base for every kind of film. Here in Los Angeles we have the Autry National Center that keeps up a continual program of western movie events. Go to one of their meetings, and you'll find fans that can identify every bit player up there on the screen. Probably the horse he rode in on, too.  2

Olive Films' Blu-ray of King of the Pecos is stunning -- a perfect transfer of a 76 year-old movie, with a razor-sharp soundtrack. After years of awful 16mm dupes and cheapo DVDs made from God-knows-what elements, we can finally see these things in prime condition.  3 Republic didn't cut corners on quality -- the unpretentious cinematography is not rushed and the desert skies are filtered to enhance the contrast contrast. The soundtrack is excellent, with punchy gunshots often heard in perspective. The fans will be enthusiastic over this release. Those that like John Wayne but aren't old-time western fans, will still find King of the Pecos a pleasant experience.

Reference: Interview with Joseph Kane in Todd McCarthy & Charles Flynn's fine book
Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System.
Kane said that a westerns-only theater called "The Horseshoe" once existed on Hollywood Blvd. across from the Pantages Theater. Its actual name was "The Hitching Post". (Thanks to "B".)

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, King of the Pecos Blu-ray rates:
Movie: for vintage sagebrush fans Excellent, for tinhorns Good.
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: none
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 14, 2013


1. King of the Pecos may distress animal-rights conscious viewers -- it pulls some pretty dirty and potentially harmful tricks on horses. They tumble end over end during high-speed horse falls, and not always with tail footage to tell us if they get up again. In one shot the leading horses in a galloping wagon team appear to be yanked downward: a running W? We see the violent wreck from an angle that makes it look like the animals are really given the works.

2. Back at UCLA in the 1970s a western of this ilk couldn't find a student audience of any size. Expert on vintage movies (and Savant college associate) Robert S. Birchard was already an authority on western film history, and frequently stopped by the apartments of retired movie folk he'd met or tracked down. I was along for the ride one day about 1974, when Bob visited an old-time movie director who claimed he was "still getting some projects in line." His place was covered in exciting memorabilia, including a saddle on a display rack: he once directed from horseback. It was like a scene from Hearts of the West.

3. Actually, it's fairly safe to say that many Blu-rays of older pictures now look better than original theatrical release prints, which were at least two generations removed from the original negative. Better color timing for digital video can smooth out all kinds of anomaliesÉ and perform unwanted revisions.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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