Thunderhoof

“There’s a story they tell that whoever catches him gets what’s coming to him, his judgment right here on earth.”

I think that one of the great delights of the cinema is its ability to be surprising, to reveal gems we the viewers had previously been unaware of.  I can’t see myself ever tiring of the movies for it seems that when I’m not revisiting old favorites to bask in the comforting warmth of their presence I’m reassessing those which I’d thought less successful to see what positives I may have missed. Then there are the discoveries, those new viewing experiences that remind me of the vein of riches yet to be mined. Thunderhoof (1948) is an example of the latter, although it may sound more than a little odd to think of a production that is over 70 years old as a new discovery. Still, from my perspective, that is exactly what it is, a title I only came to after some recent discussion about the work of director Phil Karlson brought it to my attention. A number of people whose judgement I trust sang its praises and, having now had the chance to see it for myself, I can only echo those sentiments.

Thunderhoof is a film that never misses an opportunity to wrong-foot the viewer, tempting you to think one thing before deftly showing you how neatly your own expectations have allowed you to be deceived. That is how it opens, with Scotty Mason (Preston Foster), a man engaged in a tight race between his own encroaching middle-age and his desire to start a horse ranch, one which will permit him to offer his much younger wife Margarita (Mary Stuart) the type of life he wants for her. That opening has Margarita watching over a remote and deserted camp in the wilderness, rifle poised to fire in the face of any threat. Out of the desolate night comes a rider with what looks like the figure of a lifeless man slung across his saddle, and up goes the rifle to challenge him. There is no danger here though, it is only Scotty coming back and bringing with him The Kid (William Bishop), the nameless young man he rescued and raised. For a moment we’re encouraged to think The Kid is dead, but he’s merely dead drunk.

This film is at heart a study of proprietorship, both on a personal level and in a wider context. Scotty has ridden out in the night to find and restore The Kid to the triangular family unit formed by these characters. There is that old old proverb from the East claiming that to save a life means taking on responsibility for it thereafter and that is certainly the philosophy Scotty appears to adhere to; whether The Kid likes it or not, his mentor and former guardian intends to see to it that he’s taken care of. For his part, The Kid is consumed with the restlessness of youth, the need to break out and break away, although he too would not be averse to laying claim to Margarita’s affections. Powering all of this is Scotty’s ambition to own and later to breed a line sired by the fabled mustang Thunderhoof. When the chance to rope this wild beast arises, both men, who were at that very moment in the process of trying to kill each other, put their differences to one side temporarily. Thunderhoof’s capture comes at the cost of a broken leg for Scotty, a major impediment to survival in such a hostile environment. Scotty wants the horse and he also wants his wife, The Kid is set on Margarita alone, and she seems unsure of what she hungers for bar some nebulous and ill-defined notion of fulfillment. However, the only way for these disparate characters to have a shot at attaining their desires is by keeping the others alive and kicking.

Thunderhoof was written by Hal Smith, whose credits include the lesser known film noir Night Editor as well as The River’s Edge, The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind. That script is a marvelously tight affair with its focus firmly on the interactions and rivalries of the three characters. It takes a fairly simple scenario and spins as much suspense and doubt from it as possible. The small cast and spartan setting allow the themes of desire, trust and betrayal to be thoroughly examined, and the conclusions reached, as the three travelers discover their true natures, are remarkably satisfying. Karlson’s direction is smooth and refuses to shy away from the tougher aspects of the story and the less savory sides of its characters. A good part of it is shot at night, meaning cinematographer Henry Freulich gets to show off some superbly evocative shadow painting as Scotty, The Kid and Margarita play out their subtly shaded roles.

Preston Foster had a long career playing all kinds of characters. I enjoyed the ambivalence he brought to his role in Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential and he also did good work for De Toth in Ramrod. As Scotty Mason he had the chance to take on a fully rounded individual, one of those fascinating characters who spend their time chasing dreams while they are simultaneously doing their level best to outrun the relentless clutches of time. Superficially, it is a big, booming performance, earthy and rambunctious and indomitable. Yet in his quieter moments, there is doubt and a niggling fear of life or his own failings – the cold desperation we see writ large upon his shadow drenched features as he lies drifting in and out of fever, while The Kid and Margarita sing and laugh in the next room, is beautifully realized.

Mary Stuart is someone I know I’ve seen in a few movies but who hadn’t made much of an impression on me. Her greatest success came on television in a long-running role in daytime soap opera. I cannot comment on that aspect of her career but I do know that she was excellent in the part of former saloon singer Margarita. She juggled the loyalty she felt toward Scotty with the temptation to run off with The Kid and achieved the perfect balance in the process. Of course such a role is a plum one but it is to her credit that she carried it off so convincingly. Her climactic stumbling through the nighttime desert, abandoned, desperate and bereft till the figure of the man she truly loves rides into view to offer both physical and spiritual salvation is poetically shot and movingly played. William Bishop’s life was cut tragically short but he made a number of fine movies in the time he had. The role of The Kid presented him with what I think is the best, or most nuanced, part I’ve seen him play. I’m now keen to catch up with Lorna Doone, another movie he made with Phil Karlson. This piece would of course be incomplete without some mention of the title character. Dice was a horse that also appeared in Duel in the Sun and he was used well in this movie, first as the prize to be won and then later as savior. The scenes of his capture and of his breaking are excitingly filmed and I am of the opinion that the image of horses being broken tends to act as a metaphor for the taming of the West itself – something wild, beautiful and untamed that must be carefully and patiently brought under control, that is gradually transformed from a source of peril into a symbol of support and a means of ensuring survival.

Thunderhoof was a Columbia picture and was released on DVD some years ago by Sony as part of the now defunct Choice Collection MOD program. It looks solid throughout, sharp, clean and attractive. Part of me wishes I’d been aware of this movie years ago, but I’m pleased to have been guided towards “discovering” it recently. I am also grateful to be in the position now where I can recommend this rather wonderful little film to others.