-You’re new in the territory.
-The law isn’t.
That exchange takes place during the tense standoff that opens Raoul Walsh’s Along the Great Divide (1951). This is a film that examines notions of law and justice and, like any quality western, also looks into the hearts of the characters and their motivations. The framework of the story is a fairly standard pursuit through vast open spaces but the fact that it’s got a relatively small cast allows time for the psychology of each of the main players to be thoroughly probed.
When Len Merrick (Kirk Douglas), a US Marshal, chances upon a mob of angry cattlemen bent on a lynching he’s duty bound to call a halt to proceedings. His dogged determination to see the law run its prescribed course will plunge him into a tangled mess of jealousy, revenge and violence. The man on the end of the rope is Pop Keith (Walter Brennan), a homesteader whose fondness for rustling has landed him in deep trouble. Keith has been accused of the murder of the local cattle baron’s son, and the father is keen to visit justice on the old man personally. With the reluctant help of his two deputies (John Agar and Ray Teal) Merrick takes the prisoner into custody and sets about escorting him back to what passes for civilisation, and a fair trial. However, the relentless pursuit of the lynch mob means that the lawmen, with Keith’s daughter Ann (Virginia Mayo) in tow, need to alter their plans. If their prisoner is to be delivered into the hands of the proper authorities then the only way to do so is by traversing the unforgiving desert in high summer. This punishing trek is further complicated by ambush, treachery and the psychological taunting of the marshal. Keith has stumbled upon a dark secret in Merrick’s past relating to his father, and baits him mercilessly every step of the way. The situation isn’t made any easier when Merrick not only finds himself becoming attracted to the daughter but he also realizes that his doubts regarding Keith’s guilt are growing by the day. By the time the climax rolls round, Merrick will have to face down both his enemies and the demons of his past before he can make peace with his own conscience.
Along the Great Divide is typical Raoul Walsh fare, with hard men braving a hostile environment and battling both the elements and themselves. For the most part, the movie was shot outdoors on location at Lone Pine and the director made the most of what the landscape had to offer. The ambush among those familiar rock formations is skilfully handled, and the desert crossing has a realistically dusty and arduous feel. This was the first western role that Kirk Douglas took on and he seemed to slip very naturally into the genre. He portrays Merrick as a complex yet competent man who tries his best to do the right thing, even though he’s not always sure what that is. Walter Brennan is as reliable as usual as the wily old timer whose amiability and charm are undercut by a streak of malice that he freely indulges at Merrick’s expense. In the role of the tomboyish daughter Virginia Mayo is also highly effective, with her tough and feisty character giving a grittier edge to the romantic angle. As for the support cast, John Agar and Ray Teal are fine as Merrick’s deputies, the former loyal and steadfast while the latter is conniving and slippery.
This movie has made an appearance in R1 as part of the Warner Archive programme, but there’s an excellent pressed disc available in R2 from France. Warner obviously had a strong print to work with for that R2 disc presents the film very appealingly. The image is sharp and highly detailed (with the exception of a few zoom shots which are softer and have heavier grain) with little in the way of damage. Bearing in mind the short running time and the total absence of extras, it seems a bit odd that the movie has been granted a dual layer disc. However, this means that there’s no issue with compression. As with all Warner French releases I’ve seen, the subtitles are optional and can be switched off via the main menu. It’s hard to go wrong with a western directed by Raoul Walsh, and Along the Great Divide is one of his usual polished and well-crafted works. Recommended.