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