A dead man wrote The Jackals, and it shows. Robert D. Webb's film is the story of a gang of bandits who flee across a stretch of desert to escape a posse after a bank holdup. Barely making it through the parched landscape, they end up in a ghost town, where they encounter a tough young woman who lives alone with her grizzled grandfather. The gunmen guess that the only reason the pair stays on is gold. Everyone else thought the vein had been played out -- hence the ghost town -- but grandpa knows better. The gang wants the gold, but the gang leader grows a conscience. Finally, the gang divides against itself as the repentant leader faces off against his dandyish rival with lives and a fortune at stake.
Perhaps this rings a bell. Imagine a black and white desert and Gregory Peck and Richard Widmark leading the gang across. Imagine Anne Baxter as the tomboy decking Peck with a punch but later falling in love with him. That's William Wellman's Yellow Sky (1948), one of that decade's best westerns. Lamar Trotti adapted a story by gangster specialist W. R. Burnett to grim, gritty effect. Trotti died in 1952, but Twentieth Century-Fox resurrected him when the opportunity arose to remake Yellow Sky. The dead man shared script credit with Harold Medford, whose job it was to translate place names and monetary units into terms fit for the story's new setting, the wastes of South Africa. Medford and Webb did a similar translation of Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street the same year, calling it The Cape Town Affair. I haven't seen that, and now I better not, given how godforsaken The Jackals is. The direction is uninspired. The music almost invariably finds the wrong tone. The actors, with one exception, may as well be an amateur production of Yellow Sky. Jackals replaces Gregory Peck with Robert Gunner, best known (if known at all) as one of the other astronauts in the original Planet of the Apes. It replaces Richard Widmark with Bob Courtney, a British actor with a grand total of 12 screen credits, which is more than Gunner has. It replaces Anne Baxter with Diana Ivarson, best known (if known at all) for appearing in two episodes of the Batman TV show. They stink. Billed above them all is the actor playing our grizzled grandpa, a role played in Yellow Sky by veteran character actor James Barton. This part they needed a star for, and they brought in Vincent Price. He stinks. Whatever his virtues, grizzled is a type Price could not do. He camps it up like he thinks himself the comedy relief. Not one line he speaks rings true. I hope whatever painting he bought with his paycheck was a fake.
Robert D. Webb directed at least one halfway-decent movie in his career, the 1956 Robert Ryan western The Proud Ones. Others more familiar with his work may cite other films worth remembering. The Jackals was his last feature film, not counting a 1968 documentary, and it's clear that he was played out by the time he ended up in South Africa. He brings nothing to this picture; he either copies Wellman's shots or comes up with far less effective shots of his own, and he has no control over Price. His direction is as uninspired as the idea of remaking Yellow Sky in another country. Maybe my high regard for the original handicaps Jackals in my eyes, but I'd like to think that someone who's never seen or heard of the Wellman film would also recognize the Webb for the inert crap it is. It's hard to see any historical interest or curiosity value that would justify anyone else wasting their time with it, however, so take my word on this one.