The Jayhawkers


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.

30 thoughts on “The Jayhawkers

  1. This does seem like an odd choice by Panama and Frank when they were primarily known for comedies, though Panana was directing THE BAITED TRAP at around the same time, right? I do remember really liking the score by Jerome Moross but not much else admittedly. Was 1959 really the end of the era of the traditional Holkywoos studio Western do you think?

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    • The Trap was from 1959, yes.
      I don’t know that the year could be said to mark the end of the studio western, but it was a high point in many respects and perhaps could be regarded as the beginning of the end. Th number of productions began to decline but I think 1962 and Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country would be a better cut off point, although as with all of these matters there are still exceptions to be found in that transitional period that ensued.

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  2. I recall seeing this one for the first time back in 1968. We had just got our first color television and this was one of the first films we watched. I caught it again a few year back as well. Henry Silva’s role stuck in my mind as a nicely done bit. Did Silva ever take a bad step in any of his westerns? A first rate black hat in my humble opinion.
    Thanks for the reminder Colin. I have a copy laying around here somewhere so on the re-watch list it goes.

    Gord

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    • Silva didn’t necessarily get very big roles in westerns in relation to screen time but the parts were typically noteworthy and significant in plot terms. He is very memorable in The Tall T and plays a vital role in The Bravados. But really, it’s true to say he made few if any missteps.

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    • I’d forgotten that, it’s so long since I watched any of that show. Of course I find that once I become with familiar with the work of many composers I seem to detect cues repeated and recycled more often, and this me speaking as someone who isn’t as “tuned into” music as many others might be.

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  3. Weekend viewing
    First will be the 1943 Robert Taylor, George Murphy, Thomas Mitchell Lloyd Nolan and Robert Walker war film, BATAAN

    Second is the 1950 Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed NO WAY OUT. This stars Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Linda Darnell and Stephen McNally.

    Third up shall be, THE SUN’S BURIAL from 1960. This one is a crime film from Japan. A first time watch.

    Have a good weekend everyone.
    Gordon

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  4. I pretty much agree with every word Colin has written about THE JAYHAWKERS, especially the miscasting of Parker and Frank being an odd choice to direct a Western. The fact about four screenwriters were involved does not bode well. One of the four, A I Bezzerides had some outstanding credits including his best,Aldrich’s sublime KISS ME DEADLY. Bezzerides hated Spillane’s novel and Spillane hated Aldrich’s movie – but to be fair Bezzerides set out to write an “anti Spillane” movie. I guess most of us agree Ralph Meeker is the ultimate screen Mike Hammer. If Meeker had only made three movies ,also including THE NAKED SPUR and RUN OF THE ARROW he would still be fondly remembered.
    In a 1963 piece by Paul Mayersberg Aldrich cited his admiration for PATHS OF GLORY and his dislike for CHINA GATE ” a grotesque film” and Mayersberg interestingly comments a Fuller hero could only be an Aldrich anti hero. Sorry about the digress, but I’m on a real Aldrich kick at the moment or more to the point a binge watch.
    Chandler is good throughout THE JAYHAWKERS and a better film from the same period is Hall Bartlett’s DRANGO , sadly not available on DVD or Blu Ray yet. Yes,1959 was a banner year for the Western.

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    • No need to apologize, any mention of Aldrich, or of Fuller for that matter, is always welcome here. And I found the point interesting too – I would have though Aldrich and Fuller were making for broadly similar destinations in their filmmaking, but were following rather different paths and taking different forms of transportation to get there.

      I have never seen Drango, but I would like to and hope to have the opportunity to do so at some point. To be honest, I can’t help but get annoyed at the direction some of the “boutique” labels in the UK appear to have opted for of late – trashy exploitation material might bring in some cash in the short term but it feels like such a waste of time and resources when there are so many genuinely worthwhile films languishing in neglect.

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  5. Again I agree with both points that you make in both paragraphs,especially with your very well put comment regarding Aldrich and Fuller.
    Furthermore, as you say, it’s depressing that so many fine movies lay in the vaults while so much trash seems to get released.
    I thought Powerhouse’s “Adventures Of” collection goes beyond barrel scraping.

    For a Liberal Aldrich’s films are peppered with often graphic violence-his superb Western ULZANA’S RAID is one of the most
    violent Westerns ever, almost unwatchable at times. Even far less graphic,’though none less disturbing is when Mike Hammer
    crushes Percy Helton’s hand in a drawer displaying a sadistic smile while doing, during KISS ME DEADLY. Poor Percy is left whimpering as Hammer exits the room. For some reason Aldrich managed to evade the attention of the HUAC goons unlike Losey with whom Aldrich worked as an assistant on several films including the harrowing M. I should imagine M is the one film that got the HUAC crew on Losey’s case. Interestingly Losey had intended to make APACHE which again, I think Paul Mayersberg thought was the most “Losey Like” of Aldrich’s movies.

    The fact that we can digress onto Aldrich or Fuller is one of many reasons that makes RTHC such a pleasure.

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      • I have the Explosive Media German Blu Ray of
        ULZANA’S RAID and it’s a very good transfer and appears
        to be uncut.
        Explosive have been very quiet on the “traditional” Western front
        but for May they have announced on Blu Ray SEVEN WAYS FROM
        SUNDOWN a superior Audie Murphy Western.
        Any Murphy Western in high def is an event in my book.

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    • When I read Colin’s review of “THE JAYHAWKERS” I was also minded of “DRANGO” in that the latter film seemed of limited budget yet was the better film of the two. Chandler showed his acting range between these two movie roles, I thought. The year after “THE JAYHAWKERS” Chandler expanded that acting range for 1960’s “THE PLUNDERERS” which I really liked. Tragic that he died so young – he could have developed into a solid character actor later perhaps.

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      • Yes, Chandler was at his peak when he passed away. He was still doing fine work in leading roles (Merrill’s Marauders offered him a terrific part) and he certainly had the range and depth to have enjoyed an extended career. A tragedy, with question.

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  6. Interesting that you mention No Name on the Bullet because I watched that very movie tonight. I expected it to be very good (you recommended it and you know your westerns) but it was better than just very good. A truly excellent western.

    And Audie Murphy. The guy could really act.

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    • Murphy became quite accomplished on screen quite fast and continued to improve. By the time this film was made he was doing excellent work. He’s impressive opposite Michael Redgrave in The Quiet American for Mankiewicz, a film I want to get back to before too long, and also in The Unforgiven for Huston.

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      • I want to see The Quiet American, and at the same time I don’t want to see it. I love Graham Greene’s novel so much and from what I’ve heard the movie departs from the novel in ways that lead me to think the movie will annoy me.

        That’s the problem with reading a great novel before seeing the movie adaptation.

        But I have heard that Murphy was excellent and having enjoyed his performance in No Name on the Bullet I could be tempted to take the risk.

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        • The political slant which the novel takes is essentially flipped, and that’s something which Greene famously griped about.
          Personally, having the read the novel (long ago now) and having seen the film a few times, I can’t say it troubled me. Regardless of what Greene may have felt, it’s the conflict both between and, perhaps even more crucially, within the central characters that drives the story, and none of that is lost in the adaptation. Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t generally object to filmmakers changing things in the transition from the page to the screen as long as the finished work functions in its own right and produces a satisfying experience for the viewer.

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  7. My father took us all to see the Jayhawkers when we were kids. I guess he didn’t know there was some pretty intense and controversial scenes for those days – such as people being hung. Nobody would even blink an eye at that these days, but those images are still embedded in me.
    I’m guessing it has been shown on TV a time or two? but I’ve never seen it since. Chandler was a huge at that time.

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    • Yes, I can imagine those lynchings would stick in the mind if seen at an impressionable age.
      I don’t know how often the film has popped up on TV. I had the idea it was kind of rare, I know I’d never seen it before it got a DVD release anyway.

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  8. Coming up here this week is a film I am ashamed to say I have never seen. NEVER ON SUNDAY from Jules Dassin and starring his wife, Melina Mercouri. The song of course is burned into my mind from a young age as seemed to be on the radio for years.

    Gord

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    • A hugely enjoyable film. Another fine movie, but a much more serious and melodramatic one, played out in a similar Piraeus setting is The Red Lanterns (Τα Kόκκινα Φανάρια), with a prominent role for Giorgos Fountas who was also in Dassin’s film.
      A very evocative score too:

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  9. Colin, a good write-up of THE JAYHAWKERS(filmed 1958-59, released 1959). The year 1959 was a banner waving year for Western Movies and as far as I’m concerned, a great year for movies overall. When you put up THE JAYHAWKERS next to the Western Movies named above, it pales. Although, I personally still have a soft spot for it.

    I first viewed THE JAYHAWKERS as a young-youngster on tv’s the NBC SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES in 1964 and the rerun in 1965. The movie seemed to stick in my mind’s eye, because I was a Fess Parker fan by way of the DANIEL BOONE(1964-70) tv series. In 1965 I got to see and meet Fess Parker at the Arkansas Livestock Exposition and Rodeo. Believe you me, it was a thrill for me when Parker rode around the rodeo arena on horseback. He would bend down and touch the top of the kid’s hands and say a word or two to each of us. We had gathered around the bottom of the seating stands for this. Those were the days.

    I didn’t view THE JAYHAWKERS again until I saw it on the WREG Channel 3 LATE MOVIE in 1975. By that time I had read and studied a lot about the “Bleeding Kansas” of the Pre-Civil War time period. The Historical inaccuracies of the movie were really disconcerting for me, by then. The moviemakers even put the red leggings on the wrong ones. It was the Kansas “Red Legs” not Missouri. The Kansas “Red Legs” were originally referred to as a specific paramilitary outfit that organized in Kansas at the beginning of the Civil War. The “Red Legs” were Free State Abolitionists(for ending slavery). In this movie the abolition of slavery is never mentioned. Luke Darcy(Jeff Chandler) and his raiders have more in common with the Historical William Walker, who organized several private military expeditions into Mexico and Central America with the intention of occupying these nations and establishing slave-holding nations, an enterprise then known as “filibustering”.

    I don’t think movies have to be History lessons and they are clearly not. They are entertainments for the most part and should at least be that. I think THE JAYHAWKERS is an entertaining movie, even with all its inaccuracies and implausibilities. Why? Because of the performance of Jeff Chandler.

    THE JAYHAWKERS played a lot on cable tv during the 1980’s during the USA cable tv explosion of that decade. Ted Turner’s SuperStation WTBS Channel 17, Atlanta showed it many times and later it was aired on TNT(Turner Network Television) during the early and mid 1990’s. After 1996 it seemed to drop off the edge of tv viewing in the USA, until it was shown on ENCORE WESTERNS in 2014-15. Since then it shows up on GRIT TV and INSPIRATION TV.

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    • It’s perhaps a little unfair to invite comparison with those other movies mentioned, a movie really ought to be looked at on its own merits after all. However, it’s hard not to be struck by the number of superior genre pieces existing around it. That said, I can see how a young fan of Parker’s TV show at the time would be taken with this, and I very much enjoyed reading about getting to meet him.

      As for the history, I am not well informed about the events occurring in that place at that time but, even so, I could still see that a good deal was being glossed over so I’m not surprised there are inaccuracies. Mind you, I’m not really troubled by this as I think a deeper analysis of the situation would not have added to the movie and, if anything, would just bog it down in detail, and details which would not enhance the storytelling or entertainment value at that.

      And I agree that Chandler is easily the best thing about it all, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

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