Southwest Passage


Southwest Passage (1954) is very much a product of its time. The end of the studio system and the growing competition from television saw Hollywood scrambling around to find some means of countering these threats. Promising greater spectacle and shooting movies in impressively wide ratios would eventually prove to be the most effective means of luring audiences back into the cinemas, but other approaches were tried out too. The 3-D process has always felt like a gimmick at heart to this viewer, and far too often saw filmmakers succumbing to the temptation to throw items at the camera to enhance the effect and elicit jumps from the bespectacled watchers. Southwest Passage has some of that self-consciousness on display, but goes a step further and presents a story with an unusual premise, namely the use of camels to forge a  new trail across the desert on the way to California and the west coast. This too gives the impression of writers casting round for as many hooks as possible to hang a fairly straightforward story on.

One thing this movie does not lack is pace and it gets off to a genuine flyer with a fired up and well armed posse hot on the heels of a trio of fugitive bank robbers. As horses and riders pound their away across the screen and across the wilderness, one of the pursuers pauses to take aim and loose off a speculative long-range shot. He finds the mark and one of the distant figures tumbles from the saddle. This unexpected casualty means a doctor is going to have to be located and, in brief, it provides the means by which the leader Clint McDonald (John Ireland) happens to bribe an alcoholic vet to hand over his identity and thus allow him to hide out as a member of an expedition heading west. It means he has to temporarily split up with his lover Lilly (Joanne Dru), but must needs and all that. The expedition this outlaw couple chance upon is no ordinary one; it’s being led by Edward Beale (Rod Cameron), a visionary type who has a theory that the hard desert crossing can be expedited by using camels rather than relying solely on mules and horses. As the party makes its way across the parched landscape the ever-present danger posed by the heat and lack of water is compounded by the tensions that bubble up within the group. This is partly down the need for McDonald to keep his true identity secret for as long as possible and also the fact Lilly is increasingly drawn to the selflessness and decency of Beale. To further complicate matters, a mean-spirited muleskinner (John Dehner) seems hell bent on stirring up trouble, while the Apache bands roaming the hills and rocks are just waiting for an opportunity to strike decisively.

The script by Harry Essex and Geoffrey Homes seems to be doggedly determined to dress up an essentially simple yarn of people rediscovering the path back to the straight and narrow via the hardships they endure in the course of a challenging trek. There’s a worthwhile parable in here about the way adversity can bring out the best in people, how even apparently lost souls can redeem themselves. In itself, that is enough to carry a picture and the cast is strong enough to make an audience care how or if this can be achieved. The added distraction of the camel expedition – and I’m firmly of the opinion that it is a distraction and nothing more – is wholly redundant and I have a hunch the writers realized this too as its impact on the development of the movie is slight in reality. Director Ray Nazarro was a journeyman, a competent professional who made (from what I have seen of his work anyway) entertaining but largely unremarkable pictures. Everything looks fine and he keeps it all humming along smoothly with a frequent smattering of action set pieces. These scenes are staged and shot well but, perhaps due to the faceless anonymity of the Apache warriors and their undefined motives, they do not deliver the level of tension I would have hoped for.

While he may not have had top billing, John Ireland’s character is by far the most interesting one on show. It is hinted early on that he isn’t merely a one-dimensional villain and the arc followed by this resourceful fugitive bears that out. By the end of the movie, you are rooting for him and want him to earn his salvation. Joanne Dru, his real life spouse at the time, not only looks good but she also makes for a feisty leading lady. She shoots at least as well as any of the men and doesn’t appear to have shied away from the more physically challenging aspects of the role. The way she plays that part and the gradual softening that occurs as the story progresses is key in coaxing Ireland back from the temptation of lawlessness and easy money.

If Dru was instrumental in facilitating or encouraging Ireland’s redemption, then Rod Cameron’s role could be said to have provided the motivation for rescuing her to begin with. Still, his is something of a thankless part, noble and steadfast and honest, but maybe he is too upright. Where Ireland’s conflicted robber and Dru’s disenchanted moll have nuance and shading, there’s none of that available to Cameron. He may be the lead and he may be the hero, and he plays both well and as written, but he winds up sidelined for all that. The real villain of the piece is played by the ever reliable John Dehner; sly, sleazy and spiteful, he wields a mean bullwhip and I only wish his role had been bigger still.

Southwest Passage is the type of movie which the producer seemed to throw everything bar the kitchen sink at, as though it was felt the core idea wasn’t strong enough. Personally, I take the opposite view and reckon that all the unnecessary embellishments detract from rather than enhance the finished product. All told, it is an entertaining way to pass an hour and a quarter but I do regret what I suspect was the lack of faith in the basic ingredients.

59 thoughts on “Southwest Passage

    • I think Cameron was being marketed or represented as the lead though. He’s the principal heroic figure but it’s not an especially interesting role as written. He gets be authoritative and daring but all that nobility fails to draw the viewer and serves to make him more remote.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Another title I’ve not seen (though I thought I had but it was a title mix up). There are some films that can survive an overly fussy producer who decides to gussie up a movie (Selznick for example) but this doesn’t sound like it. What a shame that the material couldn’t just speak for itself. I am always happy to see John Ireland in a decent role!

    Like

    • Yes, there is too much thrown into the mix here, not to mention some potentially interesting ideas flirted with and then promptly ignored, for it to turn out well. I mean, it’s OK overall and it does entertain but I think more focus on the central theme, without all the added flummery, would have led to a much better movie. Both Ireland and Dru have good roles and work well together, which is a major plus.

      Like

  2. As you mention “very much a product of it’s time…..”
    but there was plenty of mileage yet for programmer Westerns
    in 3D or flat.
    In the UK the films title was CAMELS WEST.
    What I like about the film is its fast pacing plus the fact that
    it was mostly shot entirely outdoors.
    The writers Essex and Homes (Dan Mainwaring) also had
    some very impressive Noir credits on their individual rosters.

    Like

    • Yes, the location shooting is beneficial, even smaller westerns feel somewhere bigger when they are shot outdoors. I agree with you too on the pacing – the script, in spite of its strong pedigree, does have its problems but the fact everything moves along so quickly helps to paper over some of the deficiencies.

      Like

  3. Dehner had couple of appearances on Andy Griffith Show as con man and medicine man charming everyone but the Sherriff. Also some over the top Nazi officers in Hogans Heroes. He also engaged in some scams on the Rockford Files. I’m always reminding my wife who he is.

    Like

  4. It seems I have to come to the defense of this little B Western. With prolific Ray Nazarro at the helm (who is responsible for so many good little B Westerns), Southwest Passage obviously didn’t reinvent the wheel.

    But I think the movie has a lot going for it, most of all Ireland and Dru. This is probably my favorite Ireland role who gives a nicely nuanced performance of a man on his path to redemption. Joanne Dru has rarely ever looked better. She photographed well in color, and I like her character in this movie. Admittedly Cameron is a bit one-note, but I really liked the camel angle. It sets the movie apart from others of its kind.

    Like

    • I don’t disagree with much of what you say here, Margot, and I definitely wouldn’t seek to dissuade anyone from seeing the movie. However, I am still not sold on the camel angle, mainly because I feel the writers themselves weren’t really sold on the concept themselves.

      Like

  5. In 1855 the US Army bought camels and unsuccessfuly tried to use them on patrols. Some were released and there are unconfirmed legends of wild camel herds in the Old West

    Like

  6. I like Margot’s summation that the film “doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel”. It’s what critics might call a ‘routine’ western but is none the worse for that in my book. Because the film was shot entirely outdoors it looks great. The print that was shown on TV here last year showed it off to good advantage and that may be the print that shows up on YT.
    Any film that features Cameron, Ireland, Dru and Dehner together would draw me in. I fully agree it is Ireland’s character in particular that holds interest but I always enjoy seeing Cameron too.
    When I watched it on TV it was my second viewing and I enjoyed it quite a bit more this time, possibly down to how good the film looked. That can make a huge difference, as we all know.

    Like

  7. Another Rod Cameron film I know nothing about. Rod was my father’s fav actor. Cameron was from here in Calgary and holds the record for most film leading roles for a Calgary born actor. Another one for the want list!.

    . Nice work again Colin.

    I recall as a kid in grade school watching an episode of DEATH VALLEY DAYS that dealt with camels. It was about camels scarring the hell out of folks at night in the desert.

    Gord

    Like

    • There are imperfections, which I’ve gone into already, but it’s not a bad way to pass an hour and a quarter or so all told, so check it out some time. And it’s not difficult to see in reasonable quality.

      Like

  8. Colin, please excuse me for going ‘off-piste’ for a moment. I find that I think so much about ‘semi-A’ westerns (and ‘noirs’) that it can be easy to push aside the big films that I have known for many years.
    I realised recently that I had picked up a really nice DVD of “THE SEARCHERS” on a visit to NYC in 2006 yet had never watched it, which means it is probably at least 16 years since I last saw it. Last night my wife and I settled down to watch this powerful, dark and disturbing masterpiece. I think it may have been a first watch for her but we agreed on how superb the film is.
    Now, I have read a number of times that “THE SEARCHERS” is the best western ever made. That is an incredibly tall statement to make about any film, coming down as it does ultimately to personal taste, yet although the statement is arguable I just might not be able to disagree. Ford and Wayne at the very top of their formidable form!

    Like

    • To be honest, it’s been some years since I last watched The Searchers myself, though not quite a long a gap as your own last viewing. I have no problem with it being named as the best ever made western as it is a powerful piece of work with tremendous depth. I suppose that is one of the characteristics of truly great works, depth or layering. I’ve seen The Searchers multiple times over the years and I know that each viewing revealed something new or at least something which impressed me further or moved me in a different way. I find Vertigo is another movie which provokes such a response.

      Like

  9. Colin, I enjoyed your good write-up of SOUTHWEST PASSAGE(filmed 1953, released 1954) and I see where you are coming from, but I think that I like this small budget Western more than you do, which is okay. I liked your good description of the beginning of this movie, “One thing this movie does not lack is pace and it gets off to a genuine flyer with a fired up and well armed posse hot on the heels of a trio of fugitive bank robbers. As horses and riders pound their away across the screen and across the wilderness, one of the pursuers pauses to take aim and loose off a speculative long-range shot. He finds the mark and one of the distant figures tumbles from the saddle.” That is a crackerjack description of the start-up of this action-packed, well-paced, beautifully photographed, and well acted Western.

    I’ll gladly join Margot, Jerry, and John K in defending this, as Margot so aptly described it, “little B Western.” SOUTHWEST PASSAGE is probably better than it as a right to be and I think that puts it at a cut above many programmers of its time. I like the storyline, because it is not your usual one and that is because of the true story of camel use in the southwest USA. I agree that Edward Beale’s(Rod Cameron) camel experiment could have been of more use, but the movie is only 75 minutes long and a lot is packed into those 75 minutes. Also, where else are you going to see Rod Cameron riding camel back. The real Edward Fitzpatrick Beale was quite an individual with a very interesting story, which is well worth reading more about. We have the Beale Wagon Road, Beale Spring, Beale’s Crossing, and Beale’s Cut(which is photographed in several Western Movies, especially in writer/director John Ford’s 3 JUMPS AHEAD, 1923, starring Tom Mix). Yes, Gordon, I remember viewing the DEATH VALLEY DAYS episode “Camel Train” from 1957, which continues the Ed Beale story.

    I agree that this is Joanne Dru and John Ireland’s movie. I think they were both very good in their roles. In my opinion Joanne Dru could portray the bad girl/good girl role as good, or better than most. Margot, I agree that, “Joanne Dru has rarely ever looked better. She photographed well in color, and I like her character in this movie.” Well said, and if you liked the way she was photographed in SOUTHWEST PASSAGE, have a look at SEPTEMBER STORM(filmed 1959, released 1960) another 3-D movie. I think in that movie she was more beautiful at age 37 than at 24 in RED RIVER(filmed 1946, released 1948). Of course, that is just my opinion and I’m a long-time fan of Joanne Dru, such a talented and believable actress. John Ireland is an actor that I have always liked, especially his performances in Westerns. His rugged looks and the sound of his voice fit Westerns to a T.

    Chrisk made a good point about an “enticing cast.” That is what first caught my attention to SOUTHWEST PASSAGE. This movie eluded me for decades, because it wasn’t aired in my neck of the woods. I finally caught it on the ENCORE WESTERNS channel in 2013 and I was very much entertained and more. Besides the main performers Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Rod Cameron, and John Dehner you have the always good character actors Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Darryl Hickman, Stuart Randall, Mark Hanna, Douglas Fowley, Morris Ankrum, Hank Patterson, Kenneth MacDonald, and Stanley Andrews. No matter how small the role, they made the movie, or tv show better.

    I think the unheralded director Ray Nazarro is worthy of respect beyond being just a prolific jobber. I think he was more than an efficient director of small budget Westerns. I think he was a craftsman with a good eye for the American West. He should be given credit for his excellent use in SOUTHWEST PASSAGE of the wonderful Kanab, Utah locations, which he knew how to use very well. His friend Director Budd Boetticher called him a “ten day picture guy.” Yes, he shot quickly, but these movies were very well made, lean and spare, with well paced action scenes, and also with a serious view of the west. I think all of Ray Nazarro’s Western Movies are well worth worth viewing.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. All exceedingly well said, Walter, and I think we can all agree, and I certainly include Colin in this, that “PASSAGE WEST” is a western well worth seeing.

    Like

  11. Colin and Jerry, thank you for the kind words. Another Ray Nazarro directed and Edward Small produced Western, that’s a fun entertainment is CRIPPLE CREEK(filmed 1951, released 1952). This one was aired a lot, in my neck of the woods, when I was a youngster. I first viewed it on the good old WREC Channel 3 Memphis EARLY MOVIE in 1966. It stars George Montgomery, Karin Booth, Jerome Courtland, William Bishop, Richard Egan, Don Porter, John Dehner, and Roy Roberts. It is a fast paced movie with twists and turns in the storyline that made it enjoyable, for me.

    CRIPPLE CREEK is no THE SEARCHERS(filmed 1955, released 1956), which is my favorite Western Movie, hands down. In my opinion, it is the best Western Movie ever made. This has been my opinion ever since I first viewed it on the WREC Channel 3 Memphis LATE MOVIE on Friday night July 2, 1971. I was blown away by that first viewing and that is why I remember the exact date, because the movie was so memorable too me, personally. After that viewing, I wanted to know more about who made a movie like this. Who directed, wrote, produced, and photographed it. So, this began my study of the movies.

    I’m going to quote our friend Toby Roan regarding THE SEARCHERS, “The Searchers isn’t my FAVORITE Western, but I think it’s the BEST. Actually, I think it’s the best FILM ever made. https://fiftieswesterns.wordpress.com/2021/12/14/ladies-and-gentlemen-the-fifty/
    I won’t disagree with that statement.

    Like

      • Colin, CRIPPLE CREEK is one of four George Montgomery Western Movies that Ray Nazarro directed, Edward Small produced, and Richard Schayer wrote. The others are: INDIAN UPRISING(filmed 1951, released 1952), GUN BELT(filmed 1952, released 1953), THE LONE GUN(filmed 1953, released 1954). I think that all are well worth viewing. They’re good enjoyable programmers.

        Like

        • I like “CRIPPLE CREEK” quite a bit too, Walter and Colin. Perhaps even better though is George’s “THE TEXAS RANGERS” from the year before. Both are edward Small productions for Columbia and are quality productions with another fine cast – William Bishop, John Dehner, John Litel, Douglas Kennedy, Jock Mahoney.
          I think I have just reminded myself that these 2 westerns are due a re-watch!

          Like

      • We have a regular showing of westerns here on TCM UK, Walter. Even currently get Charles Starrett, Johnny Mack Brown and Bill Elliott. The latter’s “HELLFIRE” (1949) is on again next week, showing the beautiful restored Trucolor print.
        The main networks rarely show such fare these days though BBC4 recently showed a Wayne double bill.

        Like

      • Hi Walter, Cripple Creek is on TV tomorrow (Fri 4/02) on Great Movies Action Freeview Channel 42 at 1.50pm UK time. Westerns are always shown on this channel plus 5 Action Channel 33 Freeview UK most days. Hope you can see it. Bruce

        Like

  12. Jerry and Bruce, thank you for the information about what tv channels, in the UK, that you view Western Movies and tv shows on. I was curious about this. Many times, in the past, Western Movies have been shown on tv in the UK that were not being shown in the USA. One example is HONDO(1953) with John Wayne. It was being shown in the UK in 1976-78, but hadn’t been aired in the USA on local tv since 1970. As far as I know CRIPPLE CREEK and HELLFIRE(filmed 1948, released 1949) aren’t being aired here in the USA, but I could be wrong and if I am, someone please correct me. HELLFIRE was being aired on Paramount TV(France) recently. Turner Classic Movies(TCM) is currently showing Tim Holt Westerns on Saturday mornings.

    Like

    • Hi Walter, HONDO followed by RIO LOBO is on 5 Action tomorrow (also Comanche Station) and TALL IN THE SADDLE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON ,THE COMANCHEROS plus NORTH TO ALASKA on great movies Action, You should move to UK (the health service is free too !) cheers Bruce

      Like

      • Bruce, The Western Movies you listed are really good viewing, although RIO LOBO(filmed 1970, released 1971) is probably the lesser of the seven mentioned. Since the advent of beta, vhs, laser, dvd, and blu-ray all these Westerns are readily available and have been aired on cable-tv since the 1980’s. It’s those small budget programmers like HELLFIRE and CRIPPLE CREEK that don’t get much playtime, if any. There are probably some inferior dvd’s, floating around out there, but I don’t want to spend money on them. I hope TCM continues to give airtime to the Tim Holt Westerns, Although, you can find them on dvd at Warner Archives.

        Thank you for the invite to move to the UK, but I’ll stay here in the hinterlands of the old Middle Border country of the Overlapping Lands of the Arkansas/Missouri Ozarks near Buffalo River.

        Best,
        Walter

        Like

        • Walter, I can quite understand your feeling for the place you call home. A visit to the UK would be nice though – A chinwag over a pint of ale each would be very appealing!

          BTW, Walter, have you come across a terrific Ozark bluegrass band called Frank Ray and Cedar Hill? Top notch band and nice folks too.

          Like

          • Jerry, no I haven’t come across Frank Ray And Cedar Hill, although I have heard of them. Ray and his band are more of a Midwest Bluegrass band than a Southern Bluegrass band. The town of Cedar Hill, Missouri is near St. Louis. Although, Frank Ray grew up in Hartshorn Texas County, Missouri, which is about 140-150 miles from where I grew up, depending on what road you take. We drive through Texas County when we go to St. Louis.

            I enjoy Bluegrass and I saw and heard Lester Flatt and his Nashville Grass band perform in Nashville, Tennessee at the Grand Ole Opry in 1977. Flatt died two years later. I liked Bill Monroe And The Bluegrass Boys, and Lester Flat, Earl Scruggs And The Foggy Mountain Boys. More recently I enjoy the Nashville Bluegrass Band with vocalist/yodeler Pat Enright(one of the voices of the Soggy Mountain Boys in O BROTHER , WHERE ART THOU?(filmed 1999, released 2000). O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? what a soundtrack that is. Alison Krauss And Union Station. Also, the renegade Historian of rural Americana, Ry Cooder.

            Yes, a visit would be a fine thing.

            Best,
            Walter

            Like

  13. In another life actually I was very into American Singer/Songwriters,a favorite was Eric Andersen still going strong at 80 years young. I understand there is a tribute album in the works. Phil Ochs told an amusing tale-he,Andersen and Dylan
    were at a venue in New York and Marlon Brando was sitting at the bar and Dylan approached him and said “hi, I’m Bob Dylan” to which Brando replied “of course you are Dear Boy” Ochs said that was one rare occasion when he saw the usual “Dylan Cool” crumble.
    Anyway,back to Andersen the album that started my singer songwriter phase was “More Hits From Tin Can Alley” I had the UK Fontana release but later decided to get the USA import on the legendary Vanguard label. The Vanguard release had far superior covers (unlike the flimsy Fontana versions) and included a nifty booklet and stickers.
    When I ventured into One Stop Records in London’s Soho to pick up my pre order there was a young gentleman sitting at the counter who mentioned “that album has the World’s greatest guitarist on it” to which I replied Amos Garrett. There was one track I think called “Honey” where Garrett produces the most amazing riff once heard never forgotten.
    Amos Garrett is the sort of guitar slinger who never is included on these worthless “Beat of all time” lists but he is “the Guitar Players Guitar Player” Gord,have you ever heard his amazing work on the legendary Great Speckled Bird” album.
    I was also saddened to hear another guitar genius had passed away, Tony Rice who died on Christmas Day 2020. I don’t know how much Amos was worth financially but Tony Rice certainly hit hard times in later life,even to the point where he had to crowd fund his medical treatment. In Bluegrass circles Tony Rice is a giant among the giants. Embittered old coot that I am I get annoyed about the fortunes made by some of the artists of today especially Adele who is common, foul mouthed and uneducated having already made a fortune above £170 million……there’s no accounting for taste folks

    Like

    • John
      Amos played half a dozen gigs at the KING EDWARD HOTEL here in Calgary while I worked there. That would have been between the late 80s and early 90s. The KING EDWARD was the number one venue for the Blues. A real nice fellow who liked the area so much he moved out here.
      Ellen McIlwaine was another masterful guitar player who used to the pack the venue. A shame she passed here in town a few months ago. Check here work out.

      Like

  14. Gord,
    I don’t know if my above rant implied that Amos had passed when he is still very much with us. The Great Speckled Bird is one of my top 5 albums of all time produced by a 19 year old Todd Rundgren. Ian Tyson said the cops in Nashville wanted to kill Todd. The drumming of N D Smart is.also a highlight of the album ‘though there was friction between Tyson and Smart who Ian classed as a “Redneck Jerk”
    Sometimes masterpieces can be forged from the most unlikely of circumstances.
    Apologies to Colin for going way off topic.

    Like

    • John
      A further sad note, Sam Lay, a powerful and virtuosic drummer who played and recorded with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield and backed Bob Dylan died on Jan. 29. He was another regular artist who played the KING EDWARD. Another real nice guy.

      Gord

      Like

  15. In answer to Gordon’s question, no I hadn’t heard of either of them regrettably but I have now learnt a whole lot courtesy John K.!!

    Like

  16. Talking Pictures UK have a pretty rare Western this Sunday
    Feb 13 Fred Sears OVERLAND PACIFIC (1954) starring
    Jock Mahoney,Peggie Castle and William Bishop.
    I don’t know what the print quality will be like especially as it was
    shot in the fast fading Color Corp Of America process.
    The films made in that process that still exist in color are in pretty bad shape
    Many of them have faded so badly black & white versions only exist:
    THE YELLOW TOMAHAWK,SABRE JET,CAPTAIN KIDD & THE SLAVE GIRL.
    A color master neg still exists for THE YELLOW TOMAHAWK but as no market
    exists today for second string Western stars we will never see the film in
    all it’s color glory.
    I don’t hold up much hope for OVERLAND PACIFIC looking anyway decent
    but it’s certainly a rare showing,I did catch the film in the 60’s at a fleapit
    cinema and as I recall the print was in good shape.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.