Along the Great Divide


-You’re new in the territory.

-The law isn’t.

That exchange takes place during the tense standoff that opens Raoul Walsh’s Along the Great Divide (1951). This is a film that examines notions of law and justice and, like any quality western, also looks into the hearts of the characters and their motivations. The framework of the story is a fairly standard pursuit through vast open spaces but the fact that it’s got a relatively small cast allows time for the psychology of each of the main players to be thoroughly probed.

When Len Merrick (Kirk Douglas), a US Marshal, chances upon a mob of angry cattlemen bent on a lynching he’s duty bound to call a halt to proceedings. His dogged determination to see the law run its prescribed course will plunge him into a tangled mess of jealousy, revenge and violence. The man on the end of the rope is Pop Keith (Walter Brennan), a homesteader whose fondness for rustling has landed him in deep trouble. Keith has been accused of the murder of the local cattle baron’s son, and the father is keen to visit justice on the old man personally. With the reluctant help of his two deputies (John Agar and Ray Teal) Merrick takes the prisoner into custody and sets about escorting him back to what passes for civilisation, and a fair trial. However, the relentless pursuit of the lynch mob means that the lawmen, with Keith’s daughter Ann (Virginia Mayo) in tow, need to alter their plans. If their prisoner is to be delivered into the hands of the proper authorities then the only way to do so is by traversing the unforgiving desert in high summer. This punishing trek is further complicated by ambush, treachery and the psychological taunting of the marshal. Keith has stumbled upon a dark secret in Merrick’s past relating to his father, and baits him mercilessly every step of the way. The situation isn’t made any easier when Merrick not only finds himself becoming attracted to the daughter but he also realizes that his doubts regarding Keith’s guilt are growing by the day. By the time the climax rolls round, Merrick will have to face down both his enemies and the demons of his past before he can make peace with his own conscience.


Along the Great Divide is typical Raoul Walsh fare, with hard men braving a hostile environment and battling both the elements and themselves. For the most part, the movie was shot outdoors on location at Lone Pine and the director made the most of what the landscape had to offer. The ambush among those familiar rock formations is skilfully handled, and the desert crossing has a realistically dusty and arduous feel. This was the first western role that Kirk Douglas took on and he seemed to slip very naturally into the genre. He portrays Merrick as a complex yet competent man who tries his best to do the right thing, even though he’s not always sure what that is. Walter Brennan is as reliable as usual as the wily old timer whose amiability and charm are undercut by a streak of malice that he freely indulges at Merrick’s expense. In the role of the tomboyish daughter Virginia Mayo is also highly effective, with her tough and feisty character giving a grittier edge to the romantic angle. As for the support cast, John Agar and Ray Teal are fine as Merrick’s deputies, the former loyal and steadfast while the latter is conniving and slippery.

This movie has made an appearance in R1 as part of the Warner Archive programme, but there’s an excellent pressed disc available in R2 from France. Warner obviously had a strong print to work with for that R2 disc presents the film very appealingly. The image is sharp and highly detailed (with the exception of a few zoom shots which are softer and have heavier grain) with little in the way of damage. Bearing in mind the short running time and the total absence of extras, it seems a bit odd that the movie has been granted a dual layer disc. However, this means that there’s no issue with compression. As with all Warner French releases I’ve seen, the subtitles are optional and can be switched off via the main menu. It’s hard to go wrong with a western directed by Raoul Walsh, and Along the Great Divide is one of his usual polished and well-crafted works. Recommended.


Silver River

What a difference a director makes. One of my gripes with San Antonio was the fact that it was made by a man who didn’t seem to be in touch with the genre. The western is one kind of film where such a lack of association is especially damaging. Despite the fact that it encompasses so many themes and types of story, the western has its own look, rhythm and ethos – that’s what makes it unique, in my eyes anyway. Silver River (1948) is an odd mix of western and slightly soapy melodrama but, at heart, it’s really an old-fashioned morality play. Raoul Walsh was very much at home making oaters and his steady hand on the tiller ensures that this movie holds true to its course.

Silver River is a tale of one man’s rise, fall and ultimate redemption. It opens towards the end of the Civil War, when Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) deliberately disobeys an order, for the best of reasons, and is subsequently court martialled and cashiered. This has the effect of hardening his resolve to succeed at all costs in civilian life, and look out solely for number one. The first half of the movie charts his seemingly unstoppable rise both socially and financially, as he acquires capital, transport, a gambling house, interests in the mining business, and another man’s wife in rapid succession. As we follow each step of McComb’s progress, the script throws in one reference to the classical world after another (ranging from Julius Caesar to King David) to draw parallels with the character’s actions. McComb’s ruthless pursuit of power and glory drives him right to the brink of moral bankruptcy, but results in the financial bankruptcy that is necessary if he is to avoid slipping into the abyss. The aptly named Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell) is on hand all the while to act as the voice of conscience. The drunken lawyer first assists McComb in his meteoric rise and then presides over his downfall, knowing that he must destroy his friend in order to save him.

Silver River is one of those movies that was almost perfectly cast. Flynn, nearing forty and with a few rough years behind him, is fine as the man still young enough for grandiose dreams but tinged with the kind of realism that comes from having lost a few rounds. His own personal troubles and the knowledge of what he was doing to himself at this point must surely have coloured his performance. Some of the scenes in the latter half of the film, where he is confronted with the ugliness of his actions and the prospect of abandonment, really ring true and one can read the resignation and despair in his eyes. Ann Sheridan is wholly believable playing the tough as nails frontier woman who first rails against Flynn before finally succumbing. Sheridan was one of those actresses who brought a lot of honesty to her playing and I thought she was especially convincing in the early scenes where she eschewed all of the usual Hollywood glamour to portray a woman who was the equal of any of the men around her. I always enjoy seeing Thomas Mitchell in anything and, although some may have a problem with his admittedly hammy style, find he brings an enormous amount of pathos and humanity to every part. His role in Silver River is a pivotal one and it’s entirely to his credit that it would be hard to imagine anyone else playing it. As I said earlier, Raoul Walsh holds everything together expertly and succeeds in preventing the melodrama from becoming too suffocating. The outdoor scenes and the action are everything you would expect from a director of Walsh’s calibre, and the more dramatic indoor confrontations are well shot with plenty of emphasis on the actors’ faces – something of a characteristic with this director.

Silver River was a surprise omission from Warners Errol Flynn western package, but it is freely available on DVD from them in France. The image quality looked pretty good to my eyes, save for a little softness in the first ten minutes or so. Thereafter the picture remains clean, sharp and quite consistent. The disc has removable French subs and is completely barebones but, on the positive side, it’s not all that expensive. I think this is a bit of an undervalued film that deserves to be rediscovered, so I’d recommend it. I’ll be looking at Montana next.

They Died with Their Boots On

“What do you Yankees think you are? The only real Americans in this merry old parish are on the other side of that hill with feathers in their hair”

If most old movie fans were asked to name their favorite Errol Flynn picture I think that a significant majority would probably plump for The Adventures of Robin Hood. I couldn’t really fault that choice as it comes in near the top with me too, but it’s still not my favorite. That honor would have to be reserved for They Died with Their Boots On (1941). I don’t know if it’s Flynn’s best film but it is up there and must surely be seen as one of the high points of his career. The character of George Armstrong Custer is one that Tasmania’s most famous son must have seemed ideally suited to playing. When the film was made Custer’s reputation as one of America’s greatest military heroes was only beginning to be reassessed, so there’s no axe-grinding revisionism to be found. Judged as a faithful biopic or character study, the movie is open to all sorts of criticism; but that’s not really what They Died with Their Boots On is all about, and it would be doing it a great disservice to treat it too harshly on those grounds. No, this is a Boys’ Own adventure of romance and daring, of guts and glory – and taken as such, it works perfectly.

There have been numerous portrayals of Custer on screen, dating back to Francis Ford in 1912, but I doubt if any have imbued the man with the glamour that Flynn brought to the part. The film traces his life and career from his entry into West Point up to his final moments at the Little Big Horn. Custer’s arrival at the US military academy, in all his gold-braided glory with a pack of hunting dogs in tow, is largely played for laughs, although it does set up a simmering rivalry with fellow cadet Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy) that’s crucial to the plot’s development. In fact, this is a film of two distinct parts; the first hour or so is mostly lighthearted knockabout stuff with only the occasional foray into more serious matters, while the second half takes on a decidedly darker and moodier tone. Therefore, we get to see Cadet Custer as a kind of fun-loving prankster who liked to ride his luck and chance his arm with authority, which, by all accounts, wasn’t too far from the truth. When the Civil War intervenes and necessitates his early graduation, Custer finds himself torn between pursuing his interest in the love of his life, Libby (Olivia De Havilland), and his enthusiasm to get into the thick of the action. Naturally, the pursuit of glory and honor wins out, and this leads to a nice little scene in Washington with General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet). Interestingly, Custer did have a fortuitous meeting with the Union commander on arrival at the Adjutant General’s office which led to his first active posting – albeit without the business with the creamed onions. The war, which ironically brought enormous fame to Custer, is given only minimal attention but it does show his rapid rise through the ranks. While all this is presented in a highly entertaining fashion, you still get the sense that we’re only marking time until we get to the real meaty stuff – the move west and the Indian Wars.

With the action shifting to Dakota, the whole feel of the film changes and raises it up to a different level. There’s still time for the odd lighter moment but it’s quickly apparent that this new war is no gentleman’s affair. Custer almost immediately clashes with his old foe Sharp who’s running a saloon and trading rifles with friendly Indians from within the fort. The first order of business is to end the drinking and whip the drunken recruits into some sort of fighting force. This is achieved via a wonderful sequence whereby Custer adopts the old Irish drinking song Garryowen and uses it as a means of instilling a sense of pride and unity into his ragtag 7th Cavalry. There’s also the first view of the red men, and in particular their chief Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn). One notable aspect of this movie is the respect afforded to the Sioux; at no point are they portrayed as anything less than a disciplined fighting force with legitimate grievances. The real villains of the piece are the corrupt officials and their businessmen backers from the east. The point is made very clear that the Sioux are left with no choice but to rise against the whites when treaties are broken and their shrinking homeland is further encroached upon. When Custer leads out his last fateful expedition he does so in the hope of earning more personal glory of course, but it’s also obvious that his political masters and their moneyed allies have left him with no other option. So, he leads his 7th to the Little Big Horn – to hell…or to glory, depending on one’s point of view.

Flynn gave one of his better performances in They Died with Their Boots On, particularly in the second half. You can see the character gradually mature as the story moves along, his youthful optimism giving way first to disillusionment and then, finally, to a perversely jaunty death wish. If you wanted to stretch a point, it’s possible to see parallels in the course of Flynn’s own life. There’s also much more maturity in the relationship between the characters of Flynn an Olivia De Havilland; this would be their last film together and that fact adds considerable poignancy to their farewell scene, which is pitch perfect in its playing. However, even though the film marked the end of one partnership, it would signal the beginning of another – this was the first movie that Flynn made with director Raoul Walsh. If the star’s relationship with Michael Curtiz was a less than happy one, his collaboration with Walsh was much more congenial. These were two men who were much closer in temperament and Flynn seems to have felt a lot more comfortable in the company of the buccaneering old director. Walsh was one of those directors who was always in his element shooting outdoors on location. I’ve already made the point that when the film switches to the west it moves up a gear, and I think that’s due, in part, to Walsh’s affinity with the outdoors. The last half hour or so has a dreamy, poetic quality that’s the equal of some of John Ford’s best work – and that’s no mean feat. It should also be pointed out that the movie benefits enormously from one of Max Steiner’s finest and most memorable scores, which is built around the rousing yet vaguely melancholy Garryowen.

Warner’s R1 DVD (I believe the R2 is the same transfer) of They Died with Their Boots On is quite fabulous, clean and sharp with barely a damage mark in sight. It has a good selection of extras though it lacks a commentary, which I feel this movie deserves. OK, maybe this isn’t the best western you’ll ever see but it’s right up there among my all time favorites – one of those films that unfailingly pushes all the right buttons on every viewing. Next up, San Antonio.

Dark Command

William Clarke Quantrill was one of those controversial figures who gained fame or noteriety, depending on where one’s sympathies lay, as a result of his activities during the Civil War. The nature of those activities has ensured that his character and associates have continued to appear on screen on a fairly regular basis, right up to Ang Lee’s much maligned Ride with the Devil. Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (1940) takes Quantrill, changes his name to Cantrell, and adds a written caveat at the beginning to explain that certain liberties have been taken with the truth. As such it’s not a biopic of the man in the traditional sense; it merely uses the character and a few events from his life to tell a standard western story. Taken on this level it works very well, but then I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film by Walsh that didn’t work on some level.

Dark Command opens in Lawrence, Kansas on the eve of the Civil War, with Bob Seton (John Wayne) arriving in town in the company of perennial sidekick ‘Gabby’ Hayes. Seton is an uncomplicated Texan who’s in the process of working his way across the country. In making the acquaintance of banker’s daughter Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), he also meets local schoolteacher Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon). Both men clearly have romantic designs on Miss McCloud, and their rivalry later extends to the political arena when they run for the newly instituted position of town marshal. It is Seton’s victory in this election that proves the catalyst for Cantrell’s abandonment of civic duty in favour of a much more lucrative career as a guerilla raider. Actually this brings about a change in the two lead characters; Seton becoming tougher and more assured once the weight of responsibility falls on his shoulders, and Cantrell revealing his venal nature in his quest to attain “greatness”. This personal animosity is played out while, all around, the town divides itself along pro-Union and pro-Confederacy lines. The wider national conflict is referred to only through dialogue and one of those, now cliched, burning map shots.

As I said before the film isn’t a straight biopic and never claims to be giving all the historical facts. Having said that Quantrill did work as a teacher in Lawrence in the years preceding the Civil War, although I’m not aware of his running for marshal or other elected office. It has been said of Raoul Walsh that his idea of humour was burning down a whorehouse; in Dark Command he goes one step further by burning down a whole town, although not for comedic value. The sacking of Lawrence by Quantrill is a known historical event and the film duly acknowledges this. However, this set piece, which forms the climax of the story, doesn’t dwell on the gory excesses of Quantrill’s men. Instead it uses it as a means of neatly wrapping up the personal battle between Seton and Cantrell. One could pick out all kinds inaccuracies relating to timelines, weaponry, the ultimate fate of Quantrill and so on, but I’ve never felt that this serves much of a purpose. Movies are a means of telling stories, and if this requires the makers to play a little fast and loose with the facts, well, so be it.

John Wayne made Dark Command one year after Stagecoach, the film which offered him a way out of the cycle of B westerns he’d been doing since the failure of Walsh’s The Big Trail. It’s a little ironic that the man who first introduced Wayne to the cinema-going public should again feature at the rebirth of his career. The Duke is still not the finished product here, although he’s not far away; audiences wouldn’t really see his fully formed western character until Tall in the Saddle, a few years later. There’s a bit too much mugging in the first half of the picture, although the easy, confident Wayne we’re all familiar with starts to emerge as the story moves along. Walter Pidgoen was an actor I’ve never really warmed to, but he was capable of turning in good performances as men carrying around a lot of internal baggage – How Green Was My Valley would be a good example of this. His Cantrell is never all that convincing as an out-and-out villain but maybe that’s just the way the part was written. Where he’s at his best are those private moments when he gives vent to all the pent up frustration that comes from thwarted ambition. Claire Trevor, who received top billing here, was a fine actress and does well as the conflicted woman at the centre of events. In Stagecoach she showed good chemistry with Wayne and that spark continues to be evident in this film. Romantic interludes were never Wayne’s strong suit but the tough Miss Trevor manages to draw out her co-star quite successfully.

I’ve already alluded to the fact that Raoul Walsh’s sense of humour tended towards the broad, and that’s certainly the case in the scenes with ‘Gabby’ Hayes. In much the same way as with Walsh’s contemporary and fellow Irish-American John Ford, audiences either get this kind of humour or they don’t. Superficially, one could see similarities in the styles of these two directors, but Ford remains the better known filmmaker. That’s not to say that Walsh should be regarded as a lesser figure, mind; he was every inch the professional and turned out some of the finest films of classic era Hollywood. It should also be mentioned that Dark Command contains some top class second unit work from the great Yakima Canutt. There’s a spectacular wagon jump from atop a cliff, and another outing for his patented under-a-moving-wagon escape ala Indiana Jones. Today’s climate of clumsy editing and overused CGI makes this viewer yearn for the era when there was genuine creativity and artistry in the second unit.

The movie is available on DVD in both R1 and R2. I have the old R1 from Artisan and the picture quality is quite good. Like all those Republic pictures released by Artisan there hasn’t been any restoration done, so there are instances of speckling and the odd cigarette burn. However, the print remains in pretty good shape and is always watchable. The R2 comes from Universal UK, and while I don’t have it to compare I would be wary of its quality considering its source. Dark Command is a fine western with an epic feel that comes partly from the bigger budget that Republic granted it. I’d recommend it to the general western fan and anyone with an interest in the Civil War era, or the development of the Duke’s career.