“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.