Last time I found myself singing the praises of a movie that represents some of the best that westerns in the 1950s had to offer. Now I’m looking at another western, also from the 50s, but not at all in the same class. Lone Star (1952) is one of those pseudo-historical pieces that frequently end up skating on thin ice due to their vaguely pompous air. The problem with this one could be summed up in one word – politics. When a film sets out to glorify a political position, any political position, it almost always does so at the expense of pace and drama. Lone Star isn’t an especially long movie – about an hour and a half – but it just plods along.
The plot revolves around the question of whether Texas was to allow itself to be absorbed into the US or go it alone as an independent republic. Now this was a fairly complex issue, and one worthy of some research. However, by placing this at the centre of a western that badly wants to be an action picture a rare feat is accomplished: the facts are merely skimmed over, the characters are stripped of personality, the narrative drive is killed stone dead, and the viewer becomes apathetic. Dev Burke (Clark Gable) is a Texas cattleman with a patriotic background – it’s mentioned that he fought against Santa Anna – and the trust of prominent men. With the annexation of Texas hanging in the balance, Burke is handed the task of heading south to try to head off the challenge of those clamoring for a republic. The chief mover and shaker in the anti-annexation camp is Thomas Craden (Broderick Crawford), and he needs to be silenced if Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston are to achieve their goal. En route to Texas, Burke comes to the aid of Craden who’s running hard from a Comanche war party.
There’s an exciting and well filmed sequence where the two men hold off the Comanche through brutal hand-to-hand combat. If only there were more of this then we’d be looking at a superior movie. But no, no sooner has the fight ended than we’re back to the turgid business of arguing the pros and cons of statehood. Burke hasn’t revealed his identity to Craden and thus finds himself welcomed into his inner circle. Everything would seem to be going according to plan for Burke, were it not for the fact that he meets Martha Ronda (Ava Gardner). She is Craden’s woman and a rabid opponent of annexation. Inevitably, both Burke and Martha are attracted to each other but the path of true love can never be smooth. It’s not unreasonable to expect some kind of triangle to emerge, and it does indeed happen. But the sticking point is not a question of conflicting emotional loyalties – no, it all comes down to appeasing one’s political allegiances! In the end, everything is resolved in a slam bang finish involving a well staged siege and assault. However, the final scene is a real cack-handed affair that runs contrary to all that’s gone before.
Vincent Sherman was a genuine journeyman director, a man capable of turning out a pretty good movie when the material was right. Unfortunately, Borden Chase’s script is a real dog and I’d be hard pushed to imagine anyone managing to rise above it. Still, there are a few good action scenes and the outdoor stuff looks quite good. The cast do what they can – and there’s no shortage of strong support from Lionel Barrymore, Moroni Olsen, William Conrad, Ed Begley and Beulah Bondi – but they’re ultimately hamstrung by the quality of material they have to work with. Gable plays the kind of honourable rogue that was his trademark and Gardner looks exceptionally good. The problem is the frankly ridiculous romance they are required to blunder through – the whole will-they-won’t-they thing stretches credibility to breaking point given the framework in which it’s set. Crawford’s not bad either, and he’s not an actor I’ve ever been especially fond of, but is also let down by the writing.
I’m pretty sure that the only DVD of Lone Star is the Warner/Impulso release in Spain. The image on the disc isn’t bad, but there are scratches and speckles throughout and I suspect it’s undergone some contrast boosting. There are no extras whatsoever and the Spanish subs are removable on the English track, regardless of what the menu appears to claim. To be honest, this is not a good film and it’s not representative of 1950s westerns. What it does have going for it is the star power of Gable and Gardner and a handful of action set pieces. In all good faith, I couldn’t recommend this to any but the most diehard Gable or Gardner completists.