The one thing that westerns may have done better than any other genre at the height of their popularity was to give viewers a cast of actors that left us more than satisfied with the number of faces we saw and recognized. Many of them would become notable character actors in the history of film. From 20th Century Fox and director Hugo Fregonese, The Raid does just that beginning with it’s leading man and one time Oscar winner, Van Heflin.
Based on a true story of the Civil War, Heflin and a group of Johnny Rebs escape from a Union Army prison near the Canadian border and make their way to Montreal. Among Van’s group are a number of western favorites and a legendary tough guy in the making, Lee Marvin. Joining Van and Lee are James best, Claude Akins, William Schallert, John Dierkes and Peter Graves. It’s during the escape that Lee will prove to be a violent liability that Heflin will grudgingly allow to become a part of a major operation to restore some much needed wealth to the Southern cause.
Heflin is going to go across the border into St. Albany Vermont as a southern spy to scout the town and plot to bring about it’s destruction. It seems to a straight forward operation but when he takes a room at a boarding house run by a young widow and her son played by Anne Bancroft and Tommy Rettig. He’ll also verbally spar with Richard Boone who stars here as a Union officer who has lost an arm during the war and is clearly in love with Bancroft and playing her protector while at the same time warily keeping his eye on Heflin’s supposed Canadian businessman.
As Heflin maps out the town and it’s many banks that are marked for targets, Marvin and the rest of the men are drifting in to town awaiting Heflin’s orders to lay siege and burn it to the ground. While Heflin appears to be courting Bancroft who has clearly taken an interest in him, Marvin takes notice and begins to question his commanding officer’s intentions. Heflin begins to worry that Marvin’s thirst for Yankee blood is once again going to become a danger to the success of the mission and when Marvin takes to drink, he is just that.
When one of Heflin’s men is exposed at a key point in the plot, the leading man has to kill his own soldier to maintain the secrecy of the overall mission. What he’s done is to become a hero in the eyes of the town. Notable Bancroft and Boone himself who comes to respect the stranger from Canada. Then there’s the youngster Rettig who comes to worship his Heflin the hero and wouldn’t object to Mom marrying him either.
By this point in the story, Heflin has plenty of weight on his shoulders but will have to decide between his love for Bancroft or his devotion for the seemingly lost Southern cause. One thing we can be sure of is that an action packed finale is going to take place before the fade out in this cinemascope production that was photographed by the magnificent Lucien Ballard who went on to work with Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch.
Already an Oscar winner for the 1941 film, Johnny Eager, at 42 Van Heflin is a fine example of an actor who was approaching the right age to turn to the western during the 1950’s at the height of the genre’s popularity. Van would star in eight westerns during the decade. Notably in Shane and 3:10 to Yuma. Here he’s well cast as a man tormented between his duty and the possibility of starting a new life for himself with a woman who is clearly fond of him and he her.
Richard Boone is cast against type here as a sympathetic character though that’s easy to say looking back at his body of work. Though he had Paladin in his future on Have Gun Will Travel, a good majority of his western movies found him as a villain. Titles like Hombre and Big Jake cast a long shadow in that direction. Just starting out was Anne Bancroft who in 1954 would appear in two films alongside Lee Marvin. The other being the 3-D effort, Gorilla At Large. Both would claim an Oscar once the 1960’s came around.
Also appearing in The Raid alongside the wonderful list of character players are Will Wright as the town banker and Paul Cavanagh as Heflin’s commanding officer who orders the men into Vermont. Also of note is the fact that the well known Claude Akins appears here unbilled despite having more than his fare share of lines alongside Best and Dierkes while Graves has a larger role as Heflin’s trustworthy aide who also opposes the loose cannon that is Lee Marvin.
The raid is available through the made on demand branch of DVD’s put out by 20th Century Fox Archives. While I’m grateful for the release and a friend who lent me his copy I’d really like to see this one restored on blu ray as it looks to be a well made film with plenty of opportunity for Ballard’s artistry to shine. On the plus side is this gorgeous insert in pristine condition I located a while back that has found a home here in the vault at Mike’s Take.