In 1964 Alan Ladd played the character of Nevada Smith in the The Carpetbaggers starring George Peppard. This film takes the character and gives us a prequel with Steve McQueen in the title role. McQueen was as popular as any movie star on the planet at this time having secured his stardom through a series of films topped by his motorcycle run in The Great Escape. Also in release the same year as this film was The Sand Pebbles which earned McQueen his only Oscar nomination.
From director Henry Hathaway comes this revenge motivated western with a cast of over a dozen familiar faces. Martin Landau, Karl Malden and Arthur Kennedy viciously murder McQueen’s parents and he sets off after them without much knowledge of life outside a farm. The always reliable Brian Keith turns up to teach McQueen how to shoot and warns him what to expect on his journey for blood. From there the film breaks into 3 segments as McQueen hunts down each man and finds himself drawn into a life where he is no better than the men he hunts. From a knife fight to a prison in the swamps to joining an outlaw gang, McQueen goes where the trail leads him in his thirst for vengeance. Along the way he is given opportunities for redemption in the forms of Keith, Raf Vallone and Suzanne Pleshette. Our 3 protagonists all do well in their roles as killers with no conscience that McQueen seeks and there is a great scene where Malden realizes just who McQueen is during a heist.
Rounding out Hathaway’s cast are western regulars Paul Fix, Gene Evans, Strother Martin, Pat Hingle and John Doucette among others. Hathaway himself was no stranger to westerns having directed films such as True Grit and Rawhide not to mention the noir classic Kiss of Death among others. As for McQueen, it’s hard to believe he’s been gone from the movie screen since 1980. Glad to say I saw his last 2 films at the movie theater growing up before his untimely passing.