From Hell to Texas


“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Revenge is a motif that is popular in the western, driving and challenging heroes, anti-heroes and villains. The better, or perhaps it would be closer to the mark to say the more thoughtful, westerns of the 1950s mined this theme extensively. The conclusion reached by these films is a virtually universal rejection of the concept of vengeance, an acknowledgment that nothing positive can ever be achieved by sitting down to dine with the Furies. Henry Hathaway’s From Hell to Texas (1958) makes this point very clearly by highlighting not only the corrosive effects of such a self-defeating quest on those who seek revenge, but also by presenting a hunted man who is both innocent of what is alleged and morally appalled by the violent situation in which he becomes mired.

It is all about pursuit and discovery. Tod Lohman (Don Murray) is a hunted man, first glimpsed leading his lame pony to water and some brief respite. He’s running from the sons and riders of Hunter Boyd (R G Armstrong), a local bigwig who has decided that Lohman must pay for the death of one of his sons. That the death was an accident and no fault of Lohman’s is irrelevant for Boyd is of that implacable and inflexible frontier breed, hard men who conquered lands and thrived by having no dealings with frivolities such as self-doubt. So Lohman’s only hope is to run and keep running. When his attempts to avert a deliberately engineered stampede leads to the fatal injury of the second of Boyd’s three sons, it looks as though Lohman has merely driven another nail into that coffin others seem hell bent on fashioning for him. So he’s off again, soon reduced to making his way on foot and feeling his energy sapping all the time. A short stop to rest up sees him making the acquaintance of Amos Bradley (Chill Wills) and his tomboyish daughter Nita (Diane Varsi). This represents a turning point for Lohman. Up to this point, he has been a man alone, one half step ahead of danger and dependent only on his wits. His meeting with Nita offers an ally and a sense of hope too, serving to open the character up in the eyes of the audience as well. Perhaps it isn’t too difficult to tell where the story is going but that’s not what matters. While the ultimate destination proves to be a satisfying one, the real reward is to be found on the road we follow in the company of these characters.

The pursuit I mentioned is present right from the beginning, stark and relentless and powering the narrative. However, there is the matter of discovery which develops in tandem, and which brings another layer of interest, a very welcome one. Lohman is portrayed as something of an innocent in the ways of the world, or at least in the machinations of those inhabiting it. Even as he’s running from Boyd and his would-be revengers, he too is searching for someone. His mother has passed and he sustains himself on a memory, a photo and an old Bible, all of which comprise her sole legacy to her son. His father had left to seek something  – perhaps fortune, maybe freedom, who can say? – while Lohman was still a boy. Now the boy has become a man and is casting around to find this absent father in order to make sense of his past. It is somehow fitting that his flight from the present towards the mysteries of the past actually brings him face to face with his future. Hence the discovery, that the closure attained with regard to what is over and done helps to open a young man’s eyes to how he can deal with the challenges of the here and now, and so move on to a better place.

All told, From Hell to Texas is an extraordinarily positive movie, as a result of the writing of Wendell Mayes and Robert Bruckner, and of course the performance of Don Murray too. The actor brings what I can only term a credible credulity to the role, that hard to define quality of a man grown big in a vast and unforgiving land yet remaining possessed of a simple faith in people. This is a tricky balance to achieve if it is not to ring false. To Murray’s great credit, the open-heartedness of his character is never in doubt, nor are his capabilities as a frontiersman. That he has skill with a gun is clear and it is demonstrated on a number of occasions, but his abhorrence of violence and its consequences is every bit as apparent. The first time that we see him placed in a position where he has been left with no option but to kill a man makes for a powerful if understated scene. The shock and disgust at how he was forced to act, and ultimately at himself for doing so, is conveyed perfectly by Murray. Then in the immediate aftermath among the familiar rocks of Lone Pine as he finds himself unable to take another life, that of the victim’s horse, the effect is crystallized. In fact, running all through this movie is an innate respect for the sanctity of life. It’s there in the heart of Lohman, it’s there in the selflessness of the Bradley family, it’s there in the way a priest tends to the memory of a man who was essentially a stranger to him, and it reaches its zenith in the fiery cathartic climax.

Diane Varsi worked well with Murray and their scenes together have a frankness and simplicity that is touching. Her star soared quickly after she made her debut in Peyton Place but the pressures of stardom saw her step back from the movies quite soon. She would return later but, sadly, her career wouldn’t be the same again. On screen, R G Armstrong often had an air about him of a man who would not be turned, and he brings that ruthless determination to bear on the part of Hunter Boyd. Sure he is a man in the wrong but his idiosyncratic concept of justice and the fact he also embarks on a journey leading to personal revelation (a journey that while different is just as important as that undertaken by Murray) makes him much more than a one-dimensional cutout villain. Chill Wills is, well, Chill Wills, but that really isn’t a bad thing. Jay C Flippen pops up for a time, looking crafty and faintly untrustworthy. Dennis Hopper, fresh off Giant and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a bit mannered as the last of Boyd’s sons and plays a pivotal role in how matters are eventually resolved. It has been said he had a less than harmonious relationship on set with Hathaway, which seems very possible given their markedly different approaches to filmmaking, although they would work together again on The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit. John Larch, Rodolfo Acosta and Harry Carey Jr all make appearances as henchmen, however, their screen time is limited.

From Hell to Texas ought to be relatively easy to access these days. The old German Koch Media DVD I purchased over a decade ago appears to be long out of print but there are a range of other options available in other European markets as well as in the US. The image, on my copy at least, is softer than I’d like but I have to say Hathaway used the ‘Scope lens very effectively, and Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score sounds wonderful. To my mind, this is a fine western all round, albeit not one that is talked about much. Do check it out if you are not familiar with it.

41 thoughts on “From Hell to Texas

  1. “The conclusion reached by these films is a virtually universal rejection of the concept of vengeance, an acknowledgment that nothing positive can ever be achieved by sitting down to dine with the Furies.”

    It cannot be said enough. Your clarity of understanding about this and the passionate engagement with which you write about it is one of the things that makes all your writing about Westerns worthwhile.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and perceptions of this beautifully realized and very moving Western. I wish that more people did know it. I believe that aficionados do. It’s one of those I’m glad to say I saw on first release and treasured then as I do now.

    Since you didn’t say much about Hathaway’s superb sense of composition and masterful staging, as well as his gift for patiently building dramatic momentum in the course of a film, I’ll just chime in on those things. He was one of the best directors of Westerns–and of most genres in which he worked–and for me this is one of his very best. That also does owe to such a mature, exceptional script by Mayes and Buckner as this one is.

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    • It’s a genuine delight to hear from you on this site again, Blake.

      I did neglect to mention Hathaway’s compositions, staging , framing and use of the wide screen here, and I’m therefore pleased you bright it up. The momentum too, helped by that script, is controlled and maintained well and builds very naturally and a a comfortable place towards the very satisfying ending.

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  2. I have either a Spanish or Italian issue of this film (need to put my hands on it to verify!) but whichever it is the film looks great. Some very nice location shooting beautifully captured.
    I find this a very pleasant western that has a positive feel about it overall. Don Murray was a good choice for the lead role as he gets just the right ‘feel’ for the role of Tod. I always find Dennis Hopper’s acting style rather grating personally but I guess it provides a good contrast to Murray’s more laid back, natural style.

    The film seems rather overlooked by westerns fans, especially considering it was helmed by Henry Hathaway, a director who certainly knew his way around a western.
    I certainly recommend “FROM HELL TO TEXAS”.

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    • I think the film was not the easiest to see for a long time and it therefore became somewhat neglected. That said, I reckon Hathaway still doesn’t get as much credit as his long and varied body of work deserves.

      I understand why you mean about Hopper’s style of performance. He was very much of the Method school and, as has been commented on before, some of the practitioners in and around this time turned in extraordinarily affected work that can jar, although a number of them did gradually tone down the worst excesses in time.

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  3. Yes Colin, your very fine wordsmithing has even prompted a comment from Blake Lucas and it is so very true what he says about your writing, especially the way you approach Westerns – be it revenge, redemption such core elements of the genre. I think we are all glad to see Blake’s return after such a long time hopefully we will hear from him more often in future.
    FROM HELL TO TEXAS was in the UK titled MANHUNT and was released the same week as SIERRA BARON another Fox CinemaScope Western, a bonanza week for us “Western Kids”
    I find it very hard to believe FROM HELL TO TEXAS as not had a Blu Ray release especially with the films visual beauty. I would even go as far as to say that the film deserves a Criterion release, it’s that good.

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    • John, just to deal with the most important stuff first – Happy Birthday and have a wonderful day.

      I’d be very keen on a Blu-ray of From Hell to Texas too, ‘Scope films tend to benefit a lot from Hi-Def presentations. Being a Fox title though, that seems unlikely at the moment, sadly.

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    • Nope! I’m 76 kid!
      It’s all downhill and shady after 75 🙂

      BTW I enjoyed that Rex Allen on TPTV never seen one before! Typical Witney that the comic relief , the cute dog and Allen all end up getting shot (needless to say they all survive-) it all goes to show the violence Witney was able to filter into his B Westerns. June Vincent very impressive as the “heavy”

      Don’t miss TPTV’s THE GENTLE GUNMAN a crackerjack thriller with Noir elements-sensational opening scenes in the London Underground (at the fictional “Camden Road” station, the station is a mainline station not part of the London Underground network. Note too TV personality Gilbert Harding plays the very colonial upper class Brit-in real life Harding saw the British Empire as a force of evil..irony indeed. Harding was such a huge TV star he got away with it despite huge protests from Right Wingers. These days Harding’s comments are pretty commonplace, he really put himself out on a limb in the 50’s;agree with him or not it was a brave thing to say.

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  4. Colin
    Finally found my copy and gave it a go the other day. A much better film than I had remembered. Nice work from the whole cast as you pointed out. I like work from writer Robert Buckner such as,.ROGUES’ REGIMENT, THE MAN BEHIND THE GUN, DEPORTED, SWORD IN THE DESERT, DODGE CITY etc.

    I gave a friend of mine a buzz who knows Mister Murray. He answered back that Don said he worked hard to add that “pacifist” leaning to his character, which makes him a rather strange combo of Quaker and ace marksman throughout the film! He was proud of having done all the shooting scenes himself. For someone who’d never been on a horse before BUS STOP, he got pretty comfortable in the saddle and used the western as a kind of “safe zone” when his career went sideways in the 60s (all the way up to the TV show THE OUTCASTS in ’68-’69).

    Gordon

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    • All very interesting, Gord. Don Murray did fit western roles very comfortably and I have enjoyed the characterizations he brought to his roles, or perhaps I should say the aspects he brought out in them.

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    • A welcome bit of insight. I’vejsut acquired the Blu-ray of Deported, which I did with some reluctance as my wife disliked Chandler and the film. I thought it a fascinating exploration on the first go-round, with strong performances, but a dull third act. Sword in The Desert is an underachiever. In that one, Chandler stands out. I thought it well worth seeing more than once.

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      • I actually felt Deported picked up a bit in the latter stages and helped to compensate for some slackness elsewhere. It’s not a bad movie, interesting more than compelling but not one of Siodmak’s better works.
        I still have not managed to see Sword in the Desert .

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        • Knowing that “SWORD IN THE DESERT” was banned here in the UK on release I was keen to see what it was all about. I can understand the sensitivity at the time the film was made but just judging it purely as a movie, I thought it a pretty well-made film with Chandler standing out.
          Every time I see Jeff Chandler (which is rarely disappointing), I can’t get the image of a date he had with Esther Williams out of my head.

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          • I must try to feature some more of Chandler’s films as I’m rarely disappointed either. I’ve had a couple of titles in mind but something else always seems to pop up and they get shunted down the list.

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        • I ran the Blu-ray last evening, and my wife was right. The opening sequence, running about six minutes establishing Chandler’s arrival in Italy was excellent, from that point on, some of the personal things remained of interest, but wherever and whenever Richard Rober’s character appears, the nose dive followed with hollow contrivance. Too bad, it had a real chance, and Chandler was excellent. Marta Toren was lovely but dull, Marina Berti attractive and fun.

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          • Another thought: I felt guilty about not embracing Deported, ran it once more, and while my objections are still somewhat in play, I was honestly moved by the outcome. Well worth anyone’s time.

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            • I agree, and even though I have some reservations about the film overall, I would hate to discourage anyone from seeing it and making up their own minds.
              So far, I have not seen any movies by Siodmak which I flat out disliked, and most of them I actually rate very highly. This is an imperfect movie for sure, but it does have its moments and some of those are very good indeed.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Speaking of Chandler Sidonis did announce a Blu Ray of Hall Bartlett’s DRANGO a sombre Noir Western strikingly shot in black & white by James Wong Howe. Not for all tastes,for sure but for me DRANGO is one of Chandler’s top Westerns. Sidonis seem to have stopped using “forced” subtitles on their discs.
    Another rarely seen film CONGO CROSSING is due from Explosive Media later this year. CONGO CROSSING headlines Virginia Mayo,George Nader and Peter Lorre and will be presented in appealing 2.0 widescreen. I hope another Joseph Pevney Universal film turns up,ISTANBUL made in color & CinemaScope with Errol Flynn.

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  6. This sounds great, thanks Colin. I didn’t realise this was where that feud between Hopper and Hathaway started. I am always slightly appalled when in later years the recipients of the bullying say it was character building. Nothing worse than when the person with all the power abuses it knowingly. Hopper didn’t really make a mainstream Hollywood movie until Hathawsy let him appear in KATIE ELDER. I like the sound of a naive Murray in this, a good companion to his role in BUS STOP perhaps?

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