For the second time in Hollywood’s big year of ’39, John Wayne and Claire Trevor were teamed on screen in an outdoor adventure. The first being John Ford’s Stagecoach. This time out it’s from director William A. Seiter.
John Wayne or The Duke if you prefer looks to be in training to play Davey Crockett at The Alamo. He’s wearing the buckskin and coon skin cap that Crockett was famous for. Like The Alamo, Duke is playing a real life character named James Smith in this release from RKO studios. Smith was a Pennsylvanian frontiersman and the film takes place ten years before the Revolutionary War.
As the film opens Duke and some fellow frontiersman are freed in an exchange between the English and French on the Canadian border. He quickly winds up on the wrong side of the English officer played by George Sanders. Making their way back to their Pennsylvania homes Duke is reunited with Claire Trevor who plays a feisty mountain girl who can’t wait to become an honest woman. Look out Duke!
There’s little time for romance as cutthroat liar and Indian trader Brian Donlevy is supplying rum and weapons to the local tribes stirring up trouble. Donlevy is under the protection of the British and overseer Sanders. This is sure to lead to violent confrontations throughout the films eighty minute running time.
The lead actors enlisted here are well suited to the roles each has been assigned. Wayne was finally becoming the leading man he was destined for and while this film isn’t one of his more widely remembered from this period it’s a huge step up in scope and budget from the Mesquiteer films he released for Republic following the success of Stagecoach.
The surprise for me on revisiting this film after many years was the energy displayed by Claire Trevor. She’s full of enthusiasm and is essentially a “Tom Boy” who would like nothing better than to catch her man on one hand while on the other charge into battle right alongside of him. The script makes good use of it’s comedy breaks by having her character as the focus of it’s jokes . Bits where they finally allow her to come on a raid disguised as Indians. Excitedly she’s ready to go till discovering the men are shirtless.
Then we have two first class villains. Brian Donlevy is so nasty and cowardly in this film I just wanted to reach into my TV screen and wring his neck. Donlevy excelled at these roles during the latter part of the thirties and while he did find other roles in the forties I am not so sure he every really escaped this typecasting.
Next up we have delicious George Sanders who has the film’s best line during some courtroom theatrics put upon him by the counsel for the defense. “This is decidedly irregular and smelly.” It’s a line that only Sanders can master in his pompous arrogant way. Although the film casts him as a villain, his role as the British officer at odds with Wayne and company is one of rules and honor giving him a degree of humanity serving the actor well.
While the film is somewhat of a letdown during the rousing finale that never shows up(disappointing) it does offer a nice score from credited Anthony Collins and you’ll see a young Chill Wills here alongside Duke. Wills would go on to supply the voice of Francis the Talking Mule and join Wayne for his 1960 big budget The Alamo. According to film history the less said about Wills campaigning for the supporting Oscar on that film the better.