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Border River (1954)

Universal-International Studios proved to be a western fan’s best friend during the 1950’s and a film like Border River is a fine example of just what the company was putting into movie houses at the height of the western’s popularity. In this case a well established leading man and an equally well known beauty as his leading lady backed with plenty of action and gunplay.

From director George Sherman, it’s Joel McCrea, who by this time had settled into the western genre for the duration of his career other than one overseas film he appeared in titled Rough Shoot released in 1953 just prior to this oater. He’s joined by Yvonne De Carlo in this saga of Johnny Rebs along the southern border attempting to secure guns from a slippery Mexican General played by Pedro Armendariz to keep the South alive in what is quickly becoming a lost cause.

Across the border to Mexico in 1865 is a territory known as The Free Zone. It’s where outlaws and deserters can seek shelter from U.S. authorities or the Union Army. It’s here that the film opens when Joel is attempting to outrun Union Soldiers. He’ll take a bullet in what could be termed a minor “flesh wound” and crawl to the opposing shore landing at the feet of Miss De Carlo in a pink dress.

I’m drawing your attention to the dress because over the course of this 81 minute western, De Carlo, changes costumes each and every time she makes an entrance. We’ll see this Canadian born beauty wearing mostly dresses in pink, black, red, yellow, green, white, purple, blue and back to pink at the fade out. Costume designer Rosemary Odell must have been kept on set to keep up with Yvonne’s color schemes.

Joel has a fortune in gold bars to trade for rifles with Armendariz if he can just stay alive long enough to make the deal. He’s in a town full of cutthroats who are well aware of his true identity. Then there is the General who wants the gold and would be more than willing to steal it if only he knew where McCrea had it hidden. Finally we have the General’s chief second and all around snake, Alfonso Bedoya. Don’t know him? Look him up and check on his most famous role/statement.

Not surprisingly life is cheap south of the border as would be seen in more prominent films to come in the late 60’s like The Wild Bunch and many of the spaghetti westerns that liked to set there plots within “the revolution” south of the border. Compounding Joel’s tense relationship with the General is the fact that the military leader considers Miss De Carlo his personal property. The fact that she keeps nursing McCrea’s cuts and bruises doesn’t sit well with him. Neither does the twinkle in McCrea’s eye when he sees Joel eyeing up the latest dress she might be sporting at any given time in the film.

Joel is awaiting some of his southern patriots to join him before making a deal with Armendariz and the German Baron, Ivan Triesault. Speaking of that German Baron, whether historically accurate or not, movies can indeed teach you a thing or two about history. If it weren’t for watching films like Juarez, Villa Rides and The Wild Bunch as a kid I’d probably have no idea that Germany was involved in an attempt to influence the military in Mexico at the turn of the century.

Mistrust is a constant in this technicolor effort. Between Armendariz and the less than lovable Bedoya, McCrea, has to remain on guard. And what of De Carlo? Is she falling for our leading man or is she spying on him for the General. Once she learns of the gold’s whereabouts we’ll be heading for a shootout and a rock’em sock’em fist fight highlighted by a quicksand bog. And just who is De Carlo going to throw that life saving rope to?

No I’m not about to name names but let’s be honest, I shouldn’t have to.

A first time viewing for me, this is a passable Joel McCrea western that became available on DVD thanks to the McCrea TCM Vault collection. It was his second pairing with Yvonne De Carlo. They had recently co-starred on 1952’s The San Francisco Story distributed at the time by Warner Brothers. While McCrea would stay in the saddle much like Randolph Scott for the balance of his acting career, De Carlo, would continue to appear in a number of genres. From outdoor adventures and westerns to DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and of course Lily Munster, Yvonne, would remain busy into the 1990’s.

Border River’s director, George Sherman, was a long time veteran of the western. He cut his teeth on the genre in the 1930’s helming many of The Three Mesquiteers films starring John Wayne. As the years passed he’d occasionally stray to action pictures like The Bandit of Sherwood Forest with a young Cornel Wilde or Against All Flags with Errol Flynn but inevitably be back in the saddle. Prior to Border River he had worked with Yvonne on Black Bart and River Lady. Both released in 1948 followed by Calamity Jane and Sam Bass in ’49. In 1951 they worked together one last time on Tomahawk with Van Heflin. Going full circle, Sherman, would be given the job of directing one of the Duke’s best remembered films from his later years, Big Jake, in 1971.

Enjoyable as this is if I could have changed one thing with Border River it would have been to include a Leo Gordon, a Lee Van Cleef or maybe a Jack Elam as one of the heavies looking to bushwhack McCrea and steal the gold bullion before he hands it over to Armendariz or loses it to the nosy Bedoya. Easy to say now I know as we look back at film history and just who we deem to be the memorable character actors of the era.

Nice to see this one turn up giving me hope that more of these U.I. westerns make their way to home video despite the fact that the medium is supposedly a dying one.

13 Comments »

  1. Interesting to see that b&w still of Pedro Armendariz…I only know him from ‘From Russia with Love’, so it’s odd seeing him in that black outfit. And yes, Glen, I can see the resemblance to William Holden…and how about that guy in the first lobby card looking like a young Lee Marvin!

  2. It’s years since I watched this so I’m due a revisit. I remember liking it, even if it’s probably reasonable to say everybody involved made stronger films. I think though that it’s hard to go too far wrong when you have a western with Sherman, McCrea and De Carlo.

  3. A stellar choice again Mike and a very fine write up.
    McCrea made six Westerns for Universal in the 50’s and oddly enough the best one SADDLE TRAMP is the only one not to make it to DVD or Blu Ray.
    Many of these Universal programmer Westerns turn up in Europe and BORDER RIVER is available on Blu Ray from ESC Editions,France.
    The transfer is fine but it’s not a huge leap over the DVD version.
    Europe continues to be a great source for Universal Westerns with APACHE DRUMS due shortly on Blu Ray in France.
    APACHE DRUMS directed by SADDLE TRAMP’s Hugo Fregonese was producer Val Lewton’s sole venture into Westerns and very fine it is too.
    Another very fine somewhat later Universal Western DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER is due in June on Blu from Universal,Germany;I’ve been waiting for
    a high def version of that one for ages.
    Two of the six McCrea Universals were directed by George Sherman and I must admit I much prefer the other one THE LONE HAND.

    • I have a cable copy of Saddle Tramp on hand but as you say, nothing official. Same with the Val Lewton production. I’d like to get a nice copy of the Widmark/Seigel film so hopefully turns up here on blu as well. Hopefully there’s a featurette on that to delve into the Siegel story and why his name was removed from the finished film. Studio editing I should think.

  4. The version that I heard was that Widmark got fed up with Robert Totten and brought in Siegel to finish the film,Siegel refused to have his name on the credits because
    Totten had directed far more footage than himself. I think Siegel only worked on the picture for about 10 days,but when all is said and done it’s still a very good Western.
    I’m trying to get high def versions of most Universal Westerns from say WHEN THE DALTONS RODE to ULZANA’S RAID-what has been so encouraging is the various
    programmer Westerns that have turned up on Blu Ray in Europe,mainly Germany.I’m talking here about fare like STAR IN THE DUST,A DAY OF FURY,RAW EDGE,
    and THE MAN FROM BITTER RIDGE all excellent.
    I recently from Germany got Blu Ray editions of two Dean Martin Westerns ROUGH NIGHT IN JERICHO and SHOWDOWN both stand up very well,I thought.

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