Let’s start by looking at a list. Ride Lonesome, Rio Bravo, Last Train from Gun Hill, Day of the Outlaw, Face of a Fugitive, The Wonderful Country, The Hanging Tree, Warlock, No Name on the Bullet, These Thousand Hills. What do all these movies have in common? Well two things actually – they are all great westerns and they are all from 1959. The quality of those ten films is beyond doubt and while it’s arguably unfair and perhaps even pointless to make comparisons, it’s difficult not to do so when one realizes that The Jayhawkers also came out in 1959. Now it is not a bad film but it is a distinctly mediocre one, and that mediocrity is all the more apparent when one pauses and looks at that list above. Considering the heights the genre had scaled at that stage this feels like a minor effort indeed.
The Jayhawkers is set in Kansas in the period leading up to the Civil War. It concerns itself with machinations, manipulation and low-level empire building, these being the elements which frame in it in a wider context. On a more intimate level, and from my perspective a more engaging one, the film looks at issues of trust, betrayal and responsibility. Cam Bleeker (Fess Parker) has just broken out of jail, and is first seen wounded and exhausted, dragging his broken and bloody body back to the homestead he once shared with his wife. He has escaped because he’s heard his wife has died and, logically, wants to learn the truth. What he finds though is Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey), a widowed Frenchwoman, and her two children living on what was his land. For a time, as he recovers from his wounds, it looks as though this is going to develop into a tale of a man reconnecting with the world and discovering something worthwhile via a surrogate family. That’s not to be, however, not for Bleeker and not for the audience either. In short, he is recaptured and offered a deal by the Governor to infiltrate the Jayhawkers, a gang of raiders led by one Luke Darcy (Jeff Chandler). What is the motivation? Well, it appears that Darcy was responsible for the debasement and death of Bleeker’s wife after his imprisonment, so we’re talking a classic revenge scenario. Yet it doesn’t quite develop in the way one might imagine; the revenge aspect is brushed aside in a perfunctory manner and the story evolves instead into an examination of the perils of rampant demagoguery as well as raising questions about the extent of personal loyalty.
With writing credits for director Melvin Frank as well as Frank Fenton, A I Bezzerides and Joseph Petracca, the political chicanery which underpins the story is frankly glossed over, the whole business of false flag tactics and the risks arising out of the cult of personality influence the development of the story but never overtake it. The focus throughout remains on the relationship which grows up between Bleeker and Darcy, and how that affects not only the fortunes of the two men but also those of Jeanne Dubois and her children. This is the area where I feel the movie falters, especially the writing of the character of Bleeker. Right from the beginning there is a feeling that he failed his wife, his imprisonment and consequent lack of support being a factor that led to her becoming involved with Darcy and all that followed on from that. Be that as it may, his determination then to make up for this would suggest a redemptive path, but it turns out to be one he treads for only a brief time. Instead, he finds himself first shamed by Darcy’s direct admission of his own culpability before being won over by the drive and ambition of his supposed enemy. Basically, the man set up as the hero at the center of the tale comes across as incredibly fickle and easily swayed. This is problematic enough, but what is worse is his inability to provide protection for those he professes to care about. He leaves Jeanne Dubois to fend for herself for much of the running time and, crucially, is absent when she is assaulted and abused by Darcy’s principal enforcer (Henry Silva). On top of that, he is indirectly responsible for serious injuries sustained by Jeanne’s little girl in the course of a botched raid.
If the writing of the character of Bleeker is less than satisfactory, the performance of Fess Parker is what I’d term adequate. He’s fairly one-note throughout, giving little sense of the conflict and complexity the role requires. What saves the picture is Jeff Chandler as the man who would be king of Kansas. It is a typically intense and authoritative piece of work from Chandler, blending messianic zeal, ruthlessness and flashes of down-to-earth humanity to create a far more interesting figure than the nominal hero. He is supposed to be a character one is never quite sure of and I think that aspect is communicated quite successfully. Nicole Maurey is fine too as the woman trying to build a new life and offer some kind of security to her children. In supporting roles, Henry Silva is as sly and menacing as one could hope for while Leo Gordon’s sidekick is jittery, anxious, and ultimately doomed.
Olive Films released The Jayhawkers on both Blu-ray and DVD some years ago and it looks pretty good for the most part although there are scratches and some print damage. It is an odd film though, the themes it contains are weighty yet the handling of them isn’t all that successful nor is it as assured as it ought to be, and I’m not altogether convinced Melvin Frank and Norman Panama were the right team to have behind a story like this. The entire movie creates an impression of wanting to be big and grand, partially fueled by a terrific Jerome Moross score that recalls his work on The Big Country, but it contrives to look and feel much more restricted. All told, it entertains and passes the time, benefiting from a strong and energetic turn from Jeff Chandler. Still, bearing in mind the other genre offerings produced that year it is somewhat disappointing.