This is one of those cheaply made, poorly acted B-movie entries that somehow, in spite of its shortcomings, has enough quirky, interesting touches to still make it rather appealing. And then, if/when you check into its back story (as I, being something of a film buff, tend to do) you find a number of additionally interesting facts that also add to it.
The story premise is pretty simple, if somewhat unbelievable. It takes place late in the Civil War. Five captured Union soldiers, scoundrels and murderers all, are pardoned in agreement to take on a mission for the Confederacy: Ride through Indian country to intercept a secret enemy gold shipment and the traitor who is allegedly diverting it into Union hands. The five agree to take on the job and are promptly sent to a remote stagecoach swing station where the gold shipment is expected to be passing through. Inasmuch as no Confederate soldiers can be spared to accompany them, they are (illogically) expected to honor their deal and return with both the gold and the traitor. Almost before they're out of sight, of course, they begin making plans on how they'll split the gold and ride off on their own pursuits.
The five men are: Govern Sturges (played by John Lund, a leading man of some renown from the 1940s [opposite the likes of stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, Grace Kelly] but here looking sort of old and weary); Hale Clinton (played by Mike Conners of Mannix fame, billed here early in his career as “Touch” Conners); J.C. Haggard (played by popular character actor Paul Birch); and the Candy brothers, Billy and John (played, respectively, by Jonathan Haze and R. Wright Campbell [more on him a bit later]).
The men quickly begin squabbling amongst themselves as they ride through rugged country. But the threat of Indians keeps them dependent on each other. Haggard has some familiarity with the land and also with Indians. So does Sturges, who gradually comes to the fore as unofficial leader of the group. Clinton is an oily deal-maker, seeking to make a secret alliance with one of the others so that, when the time comes, he can wangle out a bigger share of the gold. The Candy brothers are an odd fit to everything, with Billy showing signs of being deranged and dangerous and his older brother John barely able to contain him.
After some Indian skirmishes, they reach the swing station where they take captive the two people who run it—a pretty young woman, Shalee Jethro (Dorothy Malone) and her drunken Uncle Mike (James Stone). While they're waiting for the stage to show up, the men quickly begin angling for a chance at Shalee. She does a pretty good job of fending them off on her own, but Sturges also steps forward as her protector. Romantic feelings develop between them and its revealed that Sturges is really a Confederate officer working undercover to make the five-man mission a success.
When the stagecoach arrives, the small contingent of Union soldiers guarding it are ambushed and killed and the traitor from inside the coach is captured. When no gold is found, however, he is forced to admit that it is on its way to California and was never on the stagecoach.
Everything breaks down at that point and a shootout erupts with the “five guns” taking sides against one another. Sturges takes refuge inside the house with Shalee and her uncle and also the captive traitor and, one by one, he prevails over the others. At the conclusion, the bodies are buried and Sturges rides off with his prisoner to rejoin the war effort, but promises Shalee he will be returning to her.
Throughout this film there are some interesting dialogue exchanges, terse and almost noirish at times. The psychotic side of Billy Candy is always simmering just below the surface and adds a tense undercurrent to any scene he is in. And Lund, whom (as stated earlier) I found rather dull and tired-looking at first, actually builds to display a low key, steadfast strength that ends up carrying much of the movie's credibility. Malone—sandwiching this between a meaty role in the highly popular BATTLE CRY only a year earlier and then an Academy Award-winning performance (best supporting actress) a year later for WRITTEN ON THE WIND, brings a solid, feisty touch to her role, but is given only a limited amount to do.
This was Roger Corman's directorial debut and was an early release for American Releasing Corporation which would soon turn into American-International and for whom Corman would go on to direct and produce many, many films, mostly low budget entries in horror/thriller/exploitation genres. Much has been written about Corman's schlock output over the years, and a certain amount of it is deserved. Nevertheless the man was responsible for a ton of output and a good share of it was fairly decent entertainment. Moreover, he was responsible for recognizing and launching the careers of many people in various capacities (acting, writing, directing, cinematography) who would go on to huge, award-winning success.
The cinematographer on FIVE GUNS WEST, for example, was Floyd Crosby, who Corman used often, and also did Award-winning work in such films as TABU, HIGH NOON, and THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY.
The screenplay for FIVE GUNS was by R. Wright Campbell (who also starred as John Candy). Campbell would go on to write for numerous television shows and would receive an Academy Award nomination for the James Cagney film MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES. He would eventually give up acting and writing for the screen and turn to novels. As Robert Campbell he wrote the La-La Land mystery series featuring PI Whistler and the Jake Hatch railroad detective books. For The Junkyard Dog he won an Edgar and an Anthony award.
Back stories and so forth aside, FIVE GUNS WEST is a reasonably entertaining way to spend 78 minutes. Nothing extraordinary or ground-breaking. Just a simple little Western tale with some quirky, interesting touches ... Sometimes that's all you can ask for.