Sunday, March 6, 2011


While making the films with Budd Boetticher for Columbia Pictures that have made his latter-day reputation as a western star, Randolph Scott also made pictures for Warner Bros. For his last Warners picture, the studio hired Boetticher to direct. Neither the producer nor the writers had worked with Scott before, and it's unclear whether the actor had anything like the creative control he enjoyed over his Columbia efforts. The end product still seems like a Randolph Scott movie, if somewhat less like a Boetticher film. The Civil War story lacks the spare clarity of the team's Columbia pictures, but remains grounded in certain story situations typical of later Scott films. Scott and Boetticher may also be responsible for a graver mood that prevails here than in other comparable patriotic Fifties westerns.

Scott plays John Hayes, a Union cavalry officer assigned to securing the Overland Stage route through increasingly hostile territory and assuring that Union troops in the West get paid. The deteriorating situation is made clear to him at a station where the manager insults a maimed veteran (Michael Dante) by putting salt in the young man's slice of pie. Hayes is a man who takes crap from no one and will not let anyone give crap to a brave man who gave up an arm for his country. He forces the station master to eat the pie. The situation sounds absurd but it establishes Hayes's understated power of intimidation.

After dropping Rod, the veteran, off on his farm for a reunion with his hardworking, feisty wife Jeanie (Karen Steele), Hayes discovers that the Overland agent in the next town has quit his job and gone over to the Rebs. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan) was an old friend of Hayes' until he won the woman (Virginia Mayo) both men had courted. As Hayes struggles to reestablish an Overland presence in the town, he finds allies in Rod and Jeanie and a dangerous enemy in Mace (Michael Pate), who becomes Putnam's right hand man in the Confederate effort to stop westbound stage traffic.

Good guys (Karen Steele and Michael Dante, above) and bad guys
(Michael Pate and Andrew Duggan, below) in

Mace emerges as the real villain of the piece, while Putnam proves the sort of ambivalent antagonist you'd see in the Columbia pictures. With Hayes having reappeared, Putnam clearly feels insecure in his marriage and succumbs to alcoholism. But strangely, precisely because Hayes is his enemy, Putnam refuses to turn a wartime conflict into a personal matter. While Mace advises that the easiest way to resolve the situation is to assassinate Hayes, Putnam refuses to consider that option. He thinks he can drive Hayes from the field by pressuring stage drivers or stealing the Overland's horses. It's as if Putnam wants to prove to everyone that he doesn't fear Hayes as a returned romantic rival, but his choice of strategy enables Mace to commit a series of escalating atrocities for which Putnam is, for all intents and purposes, to blame.

Randolph Scott often plays a loner whose arrival in a community, no matter how righteous his purpose, tends to disrupt the local order. That makes him different from John Wayne, whose influence wherever his characters go is almost entirely positive and uplifting. Scott and Boetticher could play the star's subversive potential for laughs, as in Buchanan Rides Alone, or to more tragic effect in Decision at Sundown. His disruptive potential extends to the domestic sphere. Scott's films often include a female character whom we recognize as a suitable mate for the hero, but is burdened with an unfit husband or fiancee. The man may be unscrupulous or he may merely be weak, but Scott's superiority provokes a domestic crisis that is often resolved by the other man's demise, whether Scott ends up with the girl or not. The final Scott-Boetticher collaboration, Comanche Station, gives a twist to this gimmick as the Scott character and others spend the film questioning the character of a man who wouldn't venture out to rescue his captive wife, only to learn at the end that the loving husband just happened to be blind. Westbound anticipates this device by tying one of Hayes's potential mates, the stalwart Jeanie, to Rod the amputee who takes to heart the townsfolks' labeling of him as "half a man." But Hayes proves a subtle mentor to the troubled Rod, offhandedly showing how a man can use a rifle with one hand without any condescending motivational speeches. Westbound is also unusual in offering the Scott character two potential mates, including the more age-appropriate Norma Putnam, creating some suspense over which woman, if any, Hayes will end up with. But the filmmakers don't stack the deck in Scott's favor. Jeanie loves Rod despite his handicap, and Norma, as we eventually discover, loves Putnam despite his faults.

But because the Scott character has two potential mates, Westbound makes the fates of the two husbands a matter of further suspense. If Hayes deserves to get a girl, then one of the men must be doomed. Boetticher maintains this suspense during a drastic ratcheting up of violence. After Hayes and Rod recover horses stolen by Mace's men, Mace escalates the conflict. Going against Putnam's order, he sets up an ambush to kill Hayes, but Rod ends up walking through the fateful doorway instead. In an unusual approach, Rod is allowed to linger despite a doctor's declaration that his condition is hopeless. This being a movie, you can believe that his condition isn't hopeless, and the longer he lingers, the more you might believe it. Meanwhile, Mace perpetrates his supreme atrocity, wrecking a coach full of women and children and killing them all. Moments after Hayes is hammered with this news, Jeanie informs him that Rod, offscreen, has finally succumbed to his wounds. Now a reckoning between Hayes and Mace, who had humiliated our hero in town earlier in the picture, is unavoidable, but a desperately repentant Putnam becomes a wild card in the scenario. And after the climax of violence comes Hayes's ultimate choice, if the choice is his to make, between a once-lost love and a love yet to be....

See enough Randolph Scott films and the pattern of a "Randolph Scott film" becomes more recognizable. The man and his associates knew, by the 1950s, the sort of stories and situations that worked best for him. Whether Scott and Boetticher gave it a personal touch, or the Warner people tailor-made a story to suit Scott's strengths, Westbound is plainly a Scott vehicle. While the story in simplest terms is something Gary Cooper or any other Hollywood westerner could have performed, I suspect it would have been inferior with any other actor starring. Whether it would have been inferior with some one else directing is another story. While Scott was clearly comfortable with Boetticher by this point, I imagine that the other top Western directors of the decade -- Anthony Mann, Delmer Daves, etc. -- could have done just as well with the actor and the material. I don't have any problem with Boetticher's work here -- the image seems little compromised by the fullscreen "Starz Play" stream available on Netflix, except for the sequence when Mace's horsemen pursue a stagecoach across a too-sweeping expanse of road -- but the film overall plays less to the director's strengths, which I identify with a certain stoic minimalism, than it does to the star's. Boetticher probably should get credit for keeping the film personal as a Scott movie and getting the usual strong performance from the actor. I haven't seen enough of Scott in other hands yet to determine how much of his definitive screen persona is Boetticher's (or Burt Kennedy's) creation, but for now I'm inclined to give the director the benefit of the doubt. As a team, Boetticher and Scott were seven-for-seven. None of their collaborations fail to impress. Individual works by other directors and other stars may have been better films, but Boetticher and Scott were the most successful team in terms of quantity and quality during the greatest decade of Hollywood westerns.


Sam Juliano said...

"Randolph Scott often plays a loner whose arrival in a community, no matter how righteous his purpose, tends to disrupt the local order. That makes him different from John Wayne, whose influence wherever his characters go is almost entirely positive and uplifting..."

Well Samuel, it appears there's a fine-looking Warner Archives DVD of the film available:,default,pd.html

This is the only Boetticher-Scott collaboration I have not yet seen, though the temptation grows after reading your comprehensive piece. Together with the Mann-Stewart teaming, these two defined the western in the 1950's, though I do take note that you feel the film is far more Scott than Boetticher. Anyway there seems to be modest plot similarities to THE NAKED SPUR, and the brisk 72 minute running time and Civil War setting make it most intriguing. I liked the twist ending of COMANCHE STATION and the Cinemascope, and with Burt Kennedy as writer we were in familiar territory.

Anyway, seven for seven (as you note) is quite impressive. As always, an engaging piece, although it may now cost me $20 for reading it. Ha!

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I was aware of the Archive disc but the price for a no-frills package has kept me from all the Archive stuff. Unfortunately, my local library has acquired but a handful of Archive properties and they're not available on Netflix either. StarzPlay isn't an ideal substitute but it didn't look like a travesty, either.

As for definitive Fifties western teams, I'd also put in a word for Delmer Daves and Glenn Ford. While less productive -- their team-ups are Jubal, 3:10 to Yuma and Cowboy, all three are strong films and that's one more western than Ford and Wayne made in the Fifties -- I don't count The Horse Soldiers.