Passage West (1951)
Action star John Payne gets the technicolor treatment from director Lewis R. Foster along with a brawling donnybrook against costar Dennis O’Keefe in this tale of the western frontier.
Payne opens the film leading five other men through a desert and rocky terrains. They have all recently escaped prison and are running out of options till they come across a small wagon train of peaceful folk led by their religious leader O’Keefe. The train is quickly overtaken by the threat of violence from Payne and his cohorts. It’s here that Payne will get a look at the leading lady played by Arleen Whelan. She’s a recent widow wearing the customary black prompting the grizzled Payne to comment, ‘There’s a heap of fire under that black dress.”
Payne proves a stern task master on the trail who is less concerned with the lives of the wagons train members than he is with putting as much distance as he can between himself and the prison authorities who are surely on the hunt for the six escapees.
Filling out the plot, the group including the friendly mug of character player Arthur Hunnicutt is sure to encounter obstacles including a sand storm leading to the loss of cattle and quite possibly human life as well. A young pioneering family struggles to keep their child alive with very little sympathy from Payne and company as they continue to use fear as a tool to rule.
Could the gentle leader O’Keefe possibly have a past where he wasn’t such an easy mark for aggressive types? Payne is about to find out the hard way. Livening up the action quotient, the two engage in one heck of an onscreen fist fight. It’s rugged, violent and serves as an awakening for badman Payne. Perhaps the widow Whelan, who I might add has shed her black clothing for a more brighter set of duds can nurse the outlaw Payne’s bumps and bruises. On the flip side, could the love of a good woman sway Payne to the side of righteousness?
If so then he’s going to have to contend with his five fellow convicts who plan on stealing all the life savings and valuables from the settlers on the wagon train.
Director Foster seemed to be on a steady run of adventurous plots during the early fifties. He helmed five features in quick succession featuring Payne as the leading man. El Paso, Captain China, The Eagle and the Hawk, Crosswinds and Passage West. Two of which included O’Keefe as well. It seems that if Payne wasn’t available then Ronald Reagan subbed in for three films during Foster’s steady diet of adventures. While this effort doesn’t have the advantage of Rhonda Fleming, she appears to be his leading lady of choice if free for five of his releases during this era.
Passage West is a story of redemption that is rather enjoyable for a B film that probably served as great fodder during the days of the double bill. Payne I have learned over the past few years makes for an above average leading man in films beyond Kansas City Confidential. I’m slowly catching up with many of his fifties titles though one does have to dig around to find them in many cases.
The one thing that I would have preferred with Passage West is a better cast of familiar faces from the western genre. Aside from Arthur Hunnicutt there isn’t really any names to point out. At least not in my viewing universe. A western of 1951 could have used the likes of say, a Harry Morgan in the band of outlaws that are coming apart as Payne begins leaning towards the side of good and quite possibly has even seen the light.
Give this one a look if you can find it should you too have taken up an interest in the career of fifties action star John Payne.