Officially I guess we’d call this a western but it’s not exactly the type we most often associate with John Wayne. If you’re at all familiar with some of his work at Republic Studios, then this one kind of fits in with the likes of The Flame of The Barbary Coast or In Old Oklahoma. Frontier tales to be sure but not the classic image of Duke riding tall in the saddle delivering his own brand of justice to the outlaws within his reach.
Directed by Joseph Kane, Duke surrounds himself with a pair of life long pals and frequent costars, Paul Fix and Ward Bond. The duo take up the opposing side as they attempt to cheat wheat farmers from their lands based on inside information that the railroad construction crews will be headed their way sending property values skyrocketing. The plot starts off in the days of the post civil war with a bit of humor as Duke sweeps his bride away from her wealthy father and brothers. It’s none other than Vera Hruba Ralston. The personal project of Republic Studios tycoon Herbert J. Yates. She’d also be cast opposite Duke in 49’s The Fighting Kentuckian and a succession of “B’s” during the 1950’s till it was rather obvious her career was going nowhere. She married Yates in 1952 and retired from the screen in 1958.
The pair make their way to Dakota by a river boat captained by an overly excited Walter Brennan and make fast enemies with Bond, Fix and a formidable opponent to Duke in Mike Mazurki. Duke and his bride fully intend to buy up the farm land and make a fortune from her own father who is a railway tycoon. Of course when they get there it’s Bond and company who flim flam the farmers into signing off on a shady deal that sees Bond guarantee the homesteaders money for their crops. Of course the fine print says if the crops fail, he gets the land as collateral. Duke and Vera soon see their sympathies switching to the plight of the farmers and find themselves on a collision course with the smooth talking Bond and his henchmen.
There is plenty of John Wayne action as the film’s final reel plays itself out. Duke has to chase down Bond and Mazurki while the wheat fields burn sending black smoke into the clear skies. It’s actually an exhilarating clip of the fields afire that makes me wish this had been a technicolor feature. Duke’s brawl with the giant sized Mazurki serves as a great undercard of the fight that was to come opposite Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man.
The best scenes in the film come from Duke’s on screen chemistry with ……………….. Ward Bond.
Sorry Miss Vera. Duke and Bond verbally spar over the course of the films 90 minutes repeatedly and through it all you can tell that Bond really likes Duke but alas, he’s an outlaw and up to no good. As a matter of fact, I think the two drinking pals are winking at the camera half the time waiting for the director to holler “CUT” so they can get back to John Ford’s boat for another round of beverages. Vera isn’t half as bad as the history books might have us believe but there’s little chemistry with the Duke. “I’ll remember you as a big so and so who I’ll never be able to live without.”
For real on screen chemistry they should have cast Miss Maureen.
The film also presents an opportunity to see Walter Brennan playing his on screen alter ego. Walter Brennan. He’d pretty much perfected his hillbilly hick shtick by this time and hams it up freely to the point that it’s too far over the top. African-American actor Nick Stewart, billed here as Nicodemus plays Walter’s uneducated riverboat sidekick with all the tics and mannerisms that we frown upon today. Frown we may but if I see Mantan Moreland doing his comedy routines, I’m usually in stitches and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Also be sure to keep your eyes peeled down by the river dock and you’ll spot a young Robert Blake.
Far from the most exciting John Wayne feature, it’s still just that, a John Wayne feature and worth a look because of it and ends like it begins, throwing us a curveball of humor. I picked up the recent Kino Lorber blu ray release now availbale in case you too are looking to score yourself a personal copy for your own movie library.