A movie is a journey, one undertaken by characters and observed by viewers, and the degree to which it can be considered a success depends on how much those characters have learnt about themselves and the world they occupy by the time they reach their destination. I think this holds true for most films, whatever the genre, but it plays an even more significant role in the western. The western, despite its frequent reliance on action, is very much a character driven genre. The great westerns achieve that quality through the development of their characters, emphasizing growth, renewal and redemption along the way. When I view a film like Phil Karlson’s They Rode West (1954) I am left thinking it is only partially successful, which of course is not to say that it fails to entertain or that it has no points of interest in plotting or approach. Ultimately though, the film feels more like an exercise in vindication as opposed to redemption, which is never as rewarding a payoff.
As is the case in any good drama, They Rode West presents multiple layers of conflict. From the beginning it is clear that Captain Blake (Phil Carey) has a strong dislike and distrust of the medical profession. The outpost has had the misfortune to be lumbered with a succession of incompetents, the last of whom has just killed Blake’s friend through drunken negligence. So, when the new replacement, Lieutenant Seward (Robert Francis), turns out to be a green recruit with neither military nor frontier experience, Blake is perhaps understandably antagonistic. This is the main source of conflict that runs through the movie and it is supplemented by a kind of stuttering rivalry over the affections of the Colonel’s niece Laurie (Donna Reed). Alongside that, there is further friction generated by Seward’s compassion and empathy for the plight of the Kiowa of the nearby reservation, feelings which are complicated by his obvious attraction to a white captive (May Wynn). Caught between the hawkish and inflexible Blake and the increasingly frustrated Kiowa, Seward soon finds the call of his conscience has led to him being labeled a traitor (a wood hawk) by the troopers.
They Rode West is a handsome production with Charles Lawton’s cinematography making the best of the Iverson Ranch locations. I can’t find anything to confirm my suspicions, but the shooting style employed by Karlson gives the impression that the movie was shot for 3D presentation. He indulges in a fair few heavily canted angles, which may simply be a stylistic choice, but there are a number of scenes (predominantly action/battle sequences) where those telltale shots of people and objects leaning and falling onto the lens are on display.
Frank Nugent’s screenplay, from a story by Leo Katcher (The Hard Man, Party Girl, Between Midnight and Dawn) has Seward and Blake forever at daggers drawn, principally though not exclusively over their contrasting attitudes towards the Kiowa. This is well enough done and feeds into the more nuanced view of the Indian that an be found throughout westerns of the era, particularly those of Delmer Daves and George Sherman, and elements of this crop up in Karlson’s own later (and superior) Gunman’s Walk. Still, the handling, or maybe I should say the way the characterizations unfold, is not all that satisfactory. As I alluded to at the top of the piece, there is little of the redemptive spirit that enriches so many 1950s westerns. One could, I suppose, argue that Seward’s actions eventually lead to the restoration of trust between the warring sides and that the faith he manages to draw from the both sets of combatants has a redemptive effect on them. However, I feel that is reaching somewhat, that the truth is the tale winds its way to a vindication of the approach championed by Seward from the get go. While that is fine in itself, it means his character has undergone little change; he sees his ideals comes to be accepted and the criticism leveled at him firmly rebutted yet he remains essentially the man we first saw, albeit a little more worldly-wise.
Phil Carey seems like he should have had a bigger career. I guess his credits show he did fine in general, but the fact is, in spite of working for directors such as John Ford and Raoul Walsh, he never rose above second lead in anything other than programmers. Roles like that of Captain Blake can’t have helped, he starts out as abrasive and short-tempered (justifiably so under the circumstances) and basically stays that way till the end credits roll. As I said, there is no renewal or rebirth to be seen here and it’s an ambivalent part too, neither fish nor fowl. Robert Francis gets the noble part and he plays it well, with freshness and decency and he also conveys the doubts and guilt which assail him quite effectively. However, his was a short and tragic life and he would die in a plane crash just a year later at the age of 25 having made only four films. May Wynn (who worked opposite Robert Francis in The Caine Mutiny) has what I feel is the most interesting part in the movie. The role is not an especially taxing one but it is pivotal and, crucially, it offers an unexpected perspective on the life of a captive. She is not portrayed as someone who is seeking escape, but instead as a woman who has reconciled herself to life with the Kiowa and who has no intention of leaving. Donna Reed had just won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity but this film wasn’t going to capitalize on that. Although she has some fun showing a bit of coquetry from time to time, it’s all standard love interest stuff and never particularly memorable.
They Rode West has appeared on DVD in France and Spain and it can generally be tracked down for online viewing too. All in all, it is an enjoyable western, a solid cavalry yarn whose heart is in the right place. It’s attractively put together, has pace and includes some exciting action scenes. Had the scripting allowed some real growth in the characters to take place, I wouldn’t feel the need to offer caveats. So, whilst it won’t make anyone’s list of great westerns, it is still a good one.