The Proud Ones


The minute you people smelled money, this town got an attack of larceny. I don’t blame it on Barrett; I blame it you. You’re supposed to be respectable. You talk about law and order; you’d sell out for a copper penny – any one of you. You’re robbin’ and stealin’ the same as he is, with your fifty dollar boots and your twelve dollar hotel rooms. If I was on this council, I couldn’t look in the mirror without vomiting!

Occasionally, there are films which I fully intend to feature but somehow they seem to slip through the net at the last moment. I’m not entirely sure why that happens as they’re rarely poor or unmemorable. For one reason or another they don’t get written up and I find my attention has moved on to something else. A good example of this is The Proud Ones (1956), although the fact this movie has cropped up in discussions and comments here a few times lately means it’s never been too far from my mind. As 50s westerns go The Proud Ones remains a pretty solid effort, using a fairly common town tamer storyline to look at a handful of people bound together by events from their pasts that can’t be shaken off, and also slipping in a few sly digs at the way progress and prosperity have a way of shepherding in the beginnings of moral decay.

Cass Silver (Robert Ryan) is one of those lawmen who moved from one hot spot to another, his latest port of call being the peaceful town of Flat Rock. However, Flat Rock is about to undergo something of a transformation as the arrival of the first cattle drive promises an upturn in economic fortunes, as well as the potential for increased lawlessness. Westerns tend to focus on the trouble stirred up by visiting cowboys eager to blow off some steam and cut loose after a long period in the saddle. In this case though the source of the problem isn’t the cowboys champing at the bit for whiskey and women; all the trouble that arises stems from the town itself, or its newest arrival anyway. “Honest” John Barrett (Robert Middleton) has just moved in and taken over the running of the saloon and the gambling tables. The thing is Barrett is a sharp operator, not averse to using hired guns and crooked dealers, and he has a bit of history with Silver. Both men locked horns in the past and the result was that Silver apparently ended up being run out of town. A further layer of pressure comes in the form of Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter), another new arrival whose father was gunned down by Silver years before. While the marshal has to deal with the needling of Barrett and the alternating hostility and confusion of Thad, he’s faced with an altogether more serious danger. A man in such a position needs the full use of all his faculties at the best of times, but Silver comes to the sobering realization that he may be in danger of losing his sight just as matters are coming to a head.


I’ll have to admit that I’m not very familiar with a lot of director Robert D Webb’s work – apart from the neglected White Feather and the less satisfactory Seven Cities of Gold – but what I have seen indicates that he had a good eye for wide scope compositions. The wide screen tends to work best with films that are heavily dependent on the use of landscape – movies featuring a significant amount of location shooting. Arguably, films which contain a lot of interior shots, as is the case with this production, require greater care if they’re photographed in scope. An overeager or lesser director might  succumb to the temptation to pack out the frame with too many characters and movement, throwing the composition out of kilter and muddling the focus. It’s to Webb’s credit, no doubt aided by having Lucien Ballard as cameraman, that he resisted those temptations and went for clarity instead. Many scenes take place in Silver’s office/jail, and the wide frame is expertly used to highlight the character interaction of the principals whilst also drawing attention to the little gestures and reactions of the peripheral figures. Lionel Newman is the credited composer and the melancholy whistling theme is an understated and ideal accompaniment for the action on the screen.

I’m a big fan of Robert Ryan, a subtle actor of great depth and range who seemed equally at home in both westerns and film noir. A quick look through his credits for the 40s and 50s makes for impressive reading, with hardly a bad performance on view despite the variable quality of some of the projects he was involved in. The Proud Ones offered Ryan the opportunity to play a man whose outward toughness masks the uncertainties and regrets he really feels. His character’s back story is filled in gradually as we go along and, together with the failing eyesight angle, helps to build audience sympathy. Ryan also managed a good rapport, in contrasting ways, with both Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Middleton. While I’m not sure the relationship between Ryan and Hunter quite works, I wouldn’t lay the blame at the door of the actors. I reckon Hunter was and is criminally underrated and tends to get dismissed as a pretty boy who brought little of substance to his roles. Frankly, I don’t go along with that and find him more than satisfactory in most films – I’d go so far as to say he was excellent in Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James for example –  succeeding in getting across the sense of confusion of his character here. Middleton was a versatile character actor, but always made an especially effective heavy. He brings a nice sense of smugness to his role that provides the necessary counterweight to Ryan’s edginess. There’s also a hint, never fully explored, that both Middleton and Ryan were former rivals for the affections of Virginia Mayo. Whilst Mayo gets a more fully developed character to work with here than was often the case, she seems to put a little too much into her performance. This is understandable for an actress who was frequently handed thankless parts, but it does jar a bit. The supporting cast is long and noteworthy with Walter Brennan (slightly wasted as Ryan’s laconic sidekick) and Arthur O’Connell as the distracted deputy heading it up. I mentioned the swipe the script takes at the greed and moral decline accompanying the financial boom, and the opening quote refers to that. Edward Platt and Whit Bissell catch the eye as representatives of the respectable citizenry easily corrupted by the promise of riches.


Fox released The Proud Ones on DVD in the US some years ago but it remains a very strong transfer. The disc offers the film in its correct anamorphic scope ratio on one side while the reverse has a (redundant) pan and scan version. Color and detail are well rendered and the print used is very clean and practically undamaged. Extra features are limited to a handful of trailers. I don’t think Robert Ryan ever made a poor western and The Proud Ones, even though it may not be among his best known pictures, is a fairly strong effort. One could say it’s a generic 50s western and while it’s hard to argue with that assessment it shouldn’t be taken as a criticism either. I feel Mayo overcooks it a little and the central dynamic between Ryan and Hunter could have been improved by the writers. Still, despite these few quibbles, the movie does work when taken as a whole. I’d call it a solid, above average example of the genre.

P.S. – This is just one of those infrequent updates I’ll be adding to the site over the summer – full, normal service shall be resumed some time in September.

36 thoughts on “The Proud Ones

  1. Just a little info about Robert D. Webb. Before he launched his own career as a director, he was an assistant director to Henry King–I once saw him as part of a panel discussing the work of King during a King retrospective and with King present (THE GUNFIGHTER was shown). I’m guessing he soaked up a lot that was valuable from King. I guess I’ve seen more of his movies but I think including THE PROUD ONES you’ve cited his three best ones here, WHITE FEATHER being the very best while I guess I like SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD (which would have been a good King project) more than you do.

    I can’t think of anything to add to your review since I basically agree with your assessment of the movie and pretty much all you say about it, though Virginia Mayo is always good with me and I think she’s fine in it. Is Jeffrey Hunter criminally underrated? He was given second lead to John Wayne in THE SEARCHERS as Martin Pawley this same year and so played one of the most important roles in any Western ever and I’ve never known anyone who thought he lacked anything that movie needed. That’s just one example. Ford cast him two other times. I agree about his Frank James and also believe he was as strong for Ray in the lead of the underrated KING OF KINGS.

    In any event, I doubt there’s anyone here who does not especially value Robert Ryan, one of the American cinema’s best actors and crucial for this whole period of movies. He was really special and irreplaceable.


    • Yes, I think that sounds reasonable. What I have seen of Webb’s work suggests that he had a good teacher, and King would fit the bill. It’s a few years since I last saw Seven Cities of Gold; I thought it was a fair enough picture just didn’t quite hit the spot for me. I would like to see it again and find out if I feel any different.

      On Hunter, I always thought he was pretty good – and don’t believe I’ve seen much criticism of his playing in The Searchers – but I have seen quite a few comments which were dismissive, or at least not particularly appreciative, of his body of work as a whole.


  2. Great review as always Colin. I’m glad that you mentioned Lionel Newman’s simple whistling theme. A perfect example of whistling in a home-grown American western style before it became associated primarily with Italian westerns.
    I’ve always felt that “The Proud Ones”, along with “Gunfight At The O.K. Corral” and “Warlock” were used as reference points to provide a sort of unofficial back-story to the characters in Michael Winner’s cynical “Lawman” a few years later. With Robert Ryan’s character in “Lawman” depicted as a gone-to-seed version of Cass Silver in “The Proud Ones”.
    I’ve seen “The Proud Ones” countless times over the years and it’s one of my quintessential 1950s westerns. One that I can watch over and over again and never get tired of.

    P.S. One cardinal sin that must never be committed in a film review is to criticize the goddess-like Ms Mayo. She can do no wrong. End of story. You will, I’m sure, be relieved to know Colin that I consider your comments above within acceptable limits! 🙂 🙂


    • Dafydd, I feel Newman’s score adds a lot to the movie, and it gives it a real western atmosphere.

      I never thought about Ryan’s role in the way you mentioned, but it is an interesting way of thinking about it. Many of the hero lawmen in classic westerns got to ride off to what was suggested to be something better. Clearly though, some had to “go to seed” as you say.

      Reading back, I may have been a little harsh on Mayo. I like it when I see her name in the credits but she got saddled with some pretty poor roles – I remember actually feeling sorry for her due to the unrewarding part she played in Backfire for example.


  3. Webb knocked around for years as an AD but if you’ve never seen his BENEATH THE TWELVE MILE REEF you haven’t lived! Conversely, I haven;t seen this one but the cast sounds great and glad to hear there is a good DVD to be had – thanks Colin.


    • Sergio, I have seen Beneath the 12-Mile Reef and I agree it’s a terrifically entertaining film – I’ll have to confess it completely slipped my mind when I was writing this though.


      • Well, it’s not a filmography that lends itself to auteurist interpretation, let’s face it! Hard to believe that film came out nearly sixty years ago – luckily for us Robert Wagner is still hale and hearty (or at lest was on NCIS last I saw) …


      • I forgot about it too before. I also like that one. He is a capable director, it seems, if not what I would call great. It helps that he made the kind of movies I like. It seems like Delmer Daves must have intended to direct WHITE FEATHER at one time as he is still credited as a screenwriter on it, but Webb’s realization is not at all disappointing.


        • White Feather is a very good film, helped no doubt by Daves’ input on the script. I’d love to know how Daves himself would have handled it, but I agree that Webb produced a highly satisfactory film at any rate.


  4. Colin,I feel your review of THE PROUD ONES is very fair and balanced; a good solid Fifties Western.I might have known that Blake would put in a good word for Robert Webb; a busy
    Fifties Fox contract director. I guess his best known film is LOVE ME TENDER.

    The film that he made for Alan Ladds Jaguar Productions, released by Warners; GUNS OF THE
    TIMBERLAND is high on my wants list.
    Loved SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD as a kid, never seen it since….ditto ON THE THRESHOLD OF
    SPACE. Hopefully these films will debut on DVD someday.
    Great to hear folks coming to Virgina Mayo’s aid; you are in tall timber there buddy; I too
    am a great fan! I have to admit some of the films that she made in the latter part of the
    Fifties were unworthy of her talent. FORT DOBBS was one of her better later roles, after that it
    was A.C.Lyles Westerns……..and worse!
    Colin, I take it that you are still on your holidays and hope by this stage that you are feeling
    pretty chilled out. To go off topic you made a comment on Vienna’s blog that you had obtained
    a copy of Losey’s THE INTIMATE STRANGER (Finger Of Guilt). I probably got the wrong impression, because I cannot find an “official” release of this film anywhere. There are abridged
    “off air” copies of the USA version floating around; but I sure would like to track down the full
    length version…….95 minutes I believe. Hopefully Network in the UK will release this film at some
    point as they seem to have rights to the Anglo Amalgamated film library.
    If there is some obscure DVD version of this film out there I would be very pleased if you could
    let me know……many thanks.


  5. Hi Colin,
    as I recall, the theme from “The Proud Ones” was a massive “hit”, here, when the film was first released and this added considerable interest in the film itself, at the time.

    For me, Virginia Mayo was always a welcome addition to any film, however, (I am about to commit heresy here ), on this occasion, I was disappointed by her performance for precisely the reason you have mentioned.

    I also agree with your assessment of the relationship between the characters played by Robert Ryan and Jeffrey Hunter, – certainly underdeveloped.

    Unfortunately, for me, “The Proud Ones” delivered a little less than it promised.


    • Hello Rod. That’s interesting to hear about the popularity of the theme music on release – it is a nice atmospheric little piece.

      I think the two points I mentioned, and which you noted yourself, were the only weaknesses in the film. Overall, I feel it works though and is probably 90% successful.


  6. Welcome back! I have been looking forward to your return and what a pleasant surprise to read your very good review of The Proud Ones. The Proud One is definitely one of the quintessential westerns of the 50s. Best regards.


    • Thanks Chris. It’s still only a temporary return as I won’t be posting regularly for a while. I do plan to add a few updates to keep things ticking over in the interim though.


  7. Thanks for highlighting The Proud Ones . I like the dynamic between Ryan and Hunter as it develops – Ryan constantly having to prove himself to the younger man.
    A good part for Robert Middleton and a surprising change for Walter Brennan in a relatively small role.
    Virginia Mayo does what she can with a part which any number of actresses could have played. Virginia had proved in the 40s she was capable of meatier parts but it never happened for her.
    The Proud Ones has a lot of strong story strands and it works very well.


    • Thanks Vienna. That central relationship between Ryan and Hunter is the heart of the film and any problems there are more noticeable for me. I felt there was a bit too much to and fro between the men, becoming almost repetitious at points. It does more or less come together in the end but I think the writing could have stood some tightening. Also, I liked Brennan’s turn but he did seem a little wasted at times.


  8. Excellent review, “The Proud Ones” is well up there in my list of top Westerns. All the cast were on form, Robert Middleton always gave a 1st class performance in his roles whether evil or sympathetic ( Otero in “The Law and Jake Wade”) and Rodolfo Acosta and Ken Clark as the 2 hired guns were great. Virginia Mayo – starring or supporting – superb beautiful woman


    • Thanks Bruce. Yes, there are plenty of good performances on view here. I really like Robert Middleton too and The Law and Jake Wade, which I featured some time back here, is a good example of his playing a more sympathetic character.


  9. Glad you found time during your holidays to post this excellent piece, Colin! Been meaning to chip in my 2 cents worth for a while now. I’ve only caught the last half of this one on Encore Westerns several years ago, and am ashamed to say that I’ve yet to pick it up on DVD. You post has reminded me that I need to do so, pronto. I remember liking the “sheriff going blind” aspect of the story, and it does give Ryan an added bit of sympathy. I agree with you that Ryan was almost uniformly exceptional in everything he appeared in, an actor unafraid to play unsympathetic hard men – and even when he plays good guys, they are far from uncomplicated characters. Jeffrey Hunter is a much stronger actor than often given credit for. I think his work in THE SEARCHERS is very good, and often overlooked next to the towering Wayne. The supporting cast in THE PROUD ONES is a real plus…Bissell, O’Connell AND Walter Brennan all in the same film!


    • Thanks Jeff. This isn’t the best known film, despite its availability on DVD, but it’s worth seeking out. Ryan is an actor I can happily watch at any time, regardless of whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad one.


  10. Again, nicely said, Colin. I liked this one a lot. The more films and tv I see with Robert Middleton the more impressed I am. Even with small roles he always made the most of them. I have a review up on IMDB.


    • Yes, Middleton was a fine character actor and able to exhibit a fair bit of range – he could be nice or nasty just as easily.
      I saw in your IMDb write up that you ran through a brief list of some of Ballard’s credits and it makes for really impressive reading, doesn’t it?


  11. The man was a talented cinematographer. Check out the episodes Ballard did for Sam Peckinpah’s Western series, THE WESTERNER. The one that really shines is the Tom Gries helmed episode, “The Line Camp” 1960 It has Brian Keith, Robert Culp and Slim Pickens. I have the entire series up on IMDB.


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