This surprisingly gritty, mature movie for its time, came out one year after director Richard Brooks’ break-out film, BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. Like most of his work after that point, it was ambitious beyond providing mere entertainment. In this case, it was a statement against racial attitudes and treatment of the American Indian, centered primarily around the buffalo slaughter by whites that took place from the 1850s through the 1880s and played a huge role in the final conquest of the red man. Unfortunately, the end result is that neither the film’s message nor its entertainment value score particularly high.
All the ingredients are here: Great cast; great scenery; good musical score; interesting central story line; and several highly effective scenes. The trouble is, it plays out too disjointed, too slow, and way too long.
The two lead characters are played by Stewart Granger as Sandy McKenzie, a savvy frontiersman and former renowned buffalo hunter who has grown sick of the slaughter and killing in general; and Robert Taylor as Charlie Gilson, a former soldier/now gunslick who thinks killing is “perfectly natural” and is looking to make a big money score in the belief that the buffalo (thought by most to have been hunted to near extinction) are coming back and represent the opportunity for quick wealth from their hides. The two men form a tenuous partnership to go after the buffs, McKenzie agreeing reluctantly because his cattle herd has been wiped out and he badly needs the money. Tension quickly begins to build between the men, however. Gilson is a foul-tempered, thoroughly unlikable, borderline psychotic individual who not only has no regard for buff slaughter or killing in general, but also has a simmering hatred for Indians; McKenzie, though competent and plenty tough, is peace-loving and easy-going and was partially raised by Indians. One of the big problems (for me, at least) was how much verbal and physical abuse (to others in their buff-hunting crew – including forced attention on a captive Indian maid) McKenzie allows Gilson to get away with before he finally stands up to him.
Speaking of the buff-hunting crew that accompanies McKenzie and Gilson, one of them is a peg-legged skinner called Woodfoot who is played in a rather unlikely turn by veteran Lloyd Nolan. Unlikely or not, Nolan seems to take his cues from the likes of Walter Brennan and Gabby Hayes, dutifully chewing up every shred of scenery where he appears and ends up darn near stealing the whole show. Taylor turns in a good performance, too, as the evil Gilson.
In fact, all of the performances and the production values straight across the board are solid. The scenes of actual buffalo dropping from heavy-caliber rifle shots (filmed when Custer National Forest rangers were “thinning” the existing herd there at that time and then cut into sequences of the actors taking staged shots) are disturbing and impactful in their own right and drive home much of the movie’s “message” almost better than the written script. Ultimately, it is the pacing and the disjointedness between some of the key scenes that drags everything down.
Still, it is a movie worth watching, if for no other reason that it is a seldom-discussed Western and for the powerful twist ending that is apt to stick with you long after the sluggishness of much of what has gone before.
Not sure if it is available on DVD, but it plays periodically on cable’s TCM. You might want to keep an eye out for it and give it a look next time it’s on.