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Five Guns West

Five Guns West
MGM Home Entertainment
1955 / color / 1:37 flat 'adapted' scan / 78 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 14.95
Starring John Lund, Mike Connors, Jonathan Haze, R. Wright Campbell, Paul Birch, Dorothy Malone, James Stone, Jack Ingram, Larry Thor
Cinematography Floyd Crosby
Production Designer
Art Direction
Film Editor Ronald Sinclair
Original Music Buddy Bregman
Written by R. Wright Campbell
Produced and Directed by Roger Corman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Roger Corman's first directorial job is a tidy and small-scale Western, directed with the minimalist trappings for which Corman has become famous. One burnt-out studio star and several hopeful wannabes act their hearts out in what for them was a resume picture; for Dorothy Malone, it worked.

The movie is less interesting for its quality than its place in the development of independent production.


A confederate captain (Larry Thor) assembles a group of condemned prisoners and swears them into the Southern Army. Because of a manpower shortage, they've been recruited for a hazardous mission, with pardons as the reward. The five of them ride to a stage junction, there to waylay a Union shipment of gold and a key Southern turncoat, and bring them both back. Naturally, none of the group plans to keep their oath, especially after they see Shalee (Dorothy Malone), the sexy woman who helps tend the stage stop.

In 1954, Roger Corman had already helped produce or produced a crime story and a lowbudget monster movie, and with Five Guns West he made an effort to break into producing-directing a color Western. Cormanites will instantly recognize the ARC distributor's credit as belonging to American Releasing Corporation - the first incarnation of Arkoff and Nicholson's American International Pictures. The movie is written by one of its actors, R. Wright Campbell, who later wrote The Masque of the Red Death for Corman. Another cast member, Jonathan Haze, is best known as Seymour Krelboyne of the original Little Shop of Horrors, and also tried writing for Corman. Chances are Campbell acted for free to get his writing credit, a scheme that had people from Jack Nicholson to Leo Gordon spending their ample slack time trying to get a script made through ol' Roger.

Roger had by this time left his associate Dan Milner behind, and picked up David Kramarsky as an assistant. Kramarsky almost immediately directed the woefully inadequate Beast With a Million Eyes for Roger. In the cast are Paul Birch and Mike (Touch) Connors, who would repeat in Roger's sci-fi pictures; Dorothy Malone returned from The Fast and the Furious, proving that Corman didn't abuse talent to the degree that they wouldn't work with him twice!

Five Guns West was probably shot in the same 5 acres, on what looks like one of the larger movie ranches in the West San Fernando Valley, perhaps Simi Valley. Floyd Crosby's simple camera setups are designed for one-take wonders, and the well-rehearsed cast goes through their paces in a formula succession of wide masters, twoshots, and singles. The action would seem to be going somewhere were it not for the generic rocks and bushes, and the cutaways to Indians on the warpath taken from another film. When the spies arrive at the stage stop, the action stops, but Dorothy Malone enters to save the picture with her interesting face and assured character acting. The various types (gambler, grizzled old guy, psycho gunman) finally have something to fight over, and Malone has enough theatrical oomph to make us feel like a movie's happening, for a few minutes anyway. Only John Lund, as the leader of the group, acts as if he wishes he were somewhere else.

The action never becomes particularly exciting, and the film peters out to a predictable ending right on time - one of the five just voluntarily rides away from the conflict, and isn't even shot in the back in the attempt. When Five Guns West is over, we feel we've just seen a generic demonstration of the minimal requirement to get a theatrical release in 1955. That's not exactly the same as being entertained.

Those looking for significance point to the fact that Corman's Western has the seed of the plot of the megahit war film, The Dirty Dozen. That's very true, and Corman himself exploited the idea again with his much more ambitious The Secret Invasion from 1964, which is even more like the later Aldrich show. Tellingly, it was also written by R. Wright Campbell. As these were the days in Hollywood when the studio-dominated business treated independents like parasitical fleas, Five Guns West functions best as a reflection of what Corman saw himself doing. Making a movie under these conditions was a reckless gamble, with only a faint dream of a prize of gold at the other end.

MGM's DVD of Five Guns West, a relatively miniscule production, has been given a separate release, while many of AIP's better-known films are sandwiched into Midnite Movies double bills. The box text is careful not to describe the film as an epic, but the really suspicious element of the release is the cannily-crafted cover art. MGM may have had no stills to work from - Corman might not have had a still person on the film! The image we see on the cover, if I'm not mistaken, appears to have been Photoshop-adapted from group shots for The Magnificent Seven. The five men pictured certainly don't resemble our leads. The image of the rifle-toter on the back looks similar to still art for Quigley Down Under, and The Long Riders. It's just a hunch.

Floyd Crosby's functional color cinematography for Five Guns West is nicely registered in the good original film element, which starts with five pistols shooting at the camera, as a background to the modest titles. The encoding looks good, as it should, since there are only 82 minutes or so of video on the disc.

The package claim that the standard transfer is the correct theatrical release format is untrue. The transfer is flat full frame, but the titles matte off perfectly to 1:78 on a widescreen monitor, indicating how the film was projected in the definitely-widescreen year 1955. After the titles are over, compositions become much tighter, with less room all around. With the matte left on, heads are bisected, and everything is tight on the sides. I think that the bulk of the show has been recomposed much tighter on the telecine to get rid of the excess head and foot room, a composition-spoiling tactic familiar from old laserdiscs and VHS releases. The film is claustrophobic and poorly framed most of the time, and it's a shame. As it is, Five Guns West has little to recommend it, but the disc has spoiled our chance to see if Corman had a compositional feel for his scenes.

There's a well-cut original trailer and a Spanish track, and French, English and Spanish Language subtitles.

Savant reasons that Five Guns West was chosen for DVD over many more impressive UA Westerns because it is wholly owned by the studio and an easy legal write-up. The list of UA Westerns we still might anticipate include Bandido!, Day of the Outlaw, Man of the West, The Wonderful Country, and The Scalphunters. There are some major titles in there, tied up for reasons ranging from music rights to restoration woes. 1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Five Guns West rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Good, with a lousy adapted-scan transfer
Sound: Good
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 15, 2003


1. MGM also has some rights to The Secret Invasion, a very difficult movie to see. In it, R. Wright Campbell's brother William gets a main role alongside Stewart Grainger, Raf Vallone, Henry Silva, Mickey Rooney, and Ed 'Kookie' Byrnes - not at all a bad cast.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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