Even with Kirk Douglas, who I usually cannot stand, in the lead role, this is definitely one of the best and most accomplished classic Westerns that I’ve seen. It probably helps a great deal that the narrative seems to have been a great influence on Monte Hellman for his great revisionist piece, The Shooting. Such a connection is probably loose considering that both films are essentially plotless, but that’s how Westerns should be. Gorgeous photography, snappy dialogue, and emotional backstories that unravel at a perfect pace. If this is not quite a masterpiece, than it is pretty close.
Marshall Len Merrick interrupts a necktie party hosted by an angry mob with the intention of bringing the mob’s captive to legal justice. The suspect is Tim Keith and he has been accused of murdering the son of Ned Roden, a ranch owner. His mob now shifts their focus to taking not only Tim Keith, but his daughter and Merrick as well. The latter group must now make it to Santa Loma, through the dry and hot desert, before the Roden clan catches up to them. Even if they get there, death is still awaiting Mr. Keith but if they don’t, then the body count might just be greater.
What better way to combat Kirk Douglas’ usual set-chewing persona than to place him on location? Perhaps that does sound a bit like a sad attempt at a pun, but honestly, his usual sensibility seems to take a back seat when juxtaposed with some of the most gorgeous visuals of any Western I’ve seen. The landscapes are sort of inherently astonishing, but the way in which Walsh captures them is even more impressive. There is a sense of wonder and mystery to the character’s surroundings that is reminiscent of the much more prominent (and famous) vibe in Antonioni’s trilogy. In addition, such visuals are handled a grace that rivals Hiroshi Shimizu, whose films place as much important on the natural as this one does.
Compared to the later work of Anthony Mann, or even Budd Boetticher, Walsh doesn’t seem to have all that much attention and interest in his characters. On the other hand, he does create an unbearable amount of tension that manages to squeeze some “emotional exposition” so to speak, from all the characters. They aren’t shallow like the first sentence in this paragraph may have implied, but just humans tortured by society’s own emotional expectations. Perhaps this is present in every remotely “deep” Western, since the confusion of masculine identity is inherently available in the plot description of any conventional Western from the 1950s, but here, it seems to be of particular interest to Walsh. Hopefully, all this analyzing doesn’t cloud ones appreciation of the film, as it is to be enjoyed on a much visceral level than this essay would indicate. But like all great films, there are plenty of nuanced details to be discovered on future viewings.