Saturday, July 30, 2011

YELLOWSTONE KELLY - 1959, starring Clint Walker

This often overlooked and somewhat underrated film is actually a solid, very entertaining Western that, if you've never seen it or haven't seen it lately, is definitely worth checking out. It was released on DVD last year and has played a few times on cable, on the Western Channel.
Clint Walker plays the title role of Luther "Yellowstone" Kelly—a real-life trapper, explorer, Indian fighter, and Army scout. He is most noted for his time spent in and around the Yellowstone River Valley, where he was the first white man to venture and from which his nickname originated. Kelly also soldiered in the Civil War, fought as a Captain of Volunteers in the Philippines, and later in life led two expeditions to Alaska. In short, his life and exploits offered much to draw upon as the basis for an action movie … As far as I can tell, however, few—if any—of his actual adventures were used for the storyline of this film.
Nevertheless, as noted at the outset, this is still a darn good Western. For starters, it has Clint Walker whose screen presence is little short of awesome. Montgomery Clift once said of John Wayne, after starring with the Duke in Red River, "Whenever he comes on screen … I just disappear." The same could be said of Walker. The massive shoulders, the catlike grace of his movements, the deep, slow drawl … you can't not watch him when he's in a scene. It's hard to understand why Walker's movie career never climbed higher than it did. From 1955 to 1963, as TV's Cheyenne Bodie, he was one of the most popular stars of the era. So much so that Warner Brothers hastened to cash in by putting him in films like Yellowstone Kelly, Fort Dobbs, and Gold of Seven Saints shot during the hiatus periods. At that point in time if you'd been inclined to bet on which of the two "Clints" appearing weekly on TV (Walker or some gangly kid named Eastwood who had a co-starring role in another oater called Rawhide) would go on to become a mega movie star, I'd venture your money would have been placed on Walker. Such was not to be, though. While Walker did appear in a number of good films (The Dirty Dozen, None But The Brave, Night of the Grizzly, to name a few, and also a couple of other short-lived TV series) his star never again shined as bright as it did during the Cheyenne years. As for the other Clint, that Eastwood fella, well you're probably well aware how that turned out to be a different story.
Anyway, getting back to Yellowstone Kelly … The storyline of the film is basically a cavalry vs. Indians tale set in the months right after Custer's massacre at the Little Big Horn. Kelly, having been trapping and co-existing with the Sioux in the Yellowstone Valley for several years, turns down a revenge-seeking major's request to scout for him on a campaign in pursuit of the Sioux. His refusal segues into a nicely staged brawl with several troopers before he departs to resume his trapping and seclusion away from whatever conflict he can see is brewing. In the process he is reluctantly saddled with a young tenderfoot named Anse who wants to travel into the wilderness with him. It soon becomes evident that the peaceful life Kelly had been leading will not continue … He is  tested by Anse's inept ways, his relationship with Gall, the Sioux chief whose life he once saved is strained by the advance of the cavalry and also by a beautiful captive Arapaho girl whose life-threatening wound Gall forces Kelly to treat, much as he did the chief's own wounds years earlier. Kelly saves the girl and this only leads to further complications. Kelly, Anse, Gall, and Gall's nephew Sayapi—who initially captured the girl and intends to still claim her as soon as she is well—all fall in love with the captive. As the four men's feelings and jealousies build toward an explosion, the cavalry arrives and a series of bloody battles takes center stage. When all is said and done and many have died, the cavalry is turned back and allowed to retreat without being completely wiped out and Kelly and the captive girl (her name is Wahleeah) are allowed to ride off together because she demonstrates bravely in the midst of battle that it is only his love that she returns.
The production values of the film are excellent, especially the color photography of the lush setting, and the directorship of Gordon Douglas is that of a solid veteran. A Western screenplay by Burt Kennedy is always a plus and you knew there will be some memorable dialogue. The cast is made up almost exclusively of Warner Brother's TV contract actors such as John Russell, Ray Danton, Gary Vinson, Rhodes Reason, Andra Martin, and teen heartthrob Edd "Kookie" Byrnes (from 77 Sunset Strip) in the role of Anse. He actually does a pretty decent job, as do the others. Veterans Claude Akins and Warren Oates (in a very early role) round out the players.
It is strongly rumored that the film was at one point scheduled to be another teaming of director John Ford with John Wayne in the starring role. They reportedly opted instead to make The Horse Soldiers. With that in mind, it's sort of hard to watch Yellowstone now without a few "what-ifs" drifting through one's mind … wondering what Ford's touches might have been and how the Duke would have handled the role. The physical statures of Wayne and Walker are certainly similar enough, and the terse dialogue given the Kelly character Wayne could have done in his sleep. Plus there are other aspects of the film I found relatable to Wayne … The river crossing where the cavalry is in flight from the unexpectedly large Sioux force is shot with a large, bare-limbed fallen tree trunk in the foreground that looks almost identical to the scene in The Searchers where the squad of Texas Rangers under Duke and Ward Bond also stand off an Indian attack; and when Anse prepares to take Wahleeah back to her people against the wishes of Kelly, he tells her: "He's wrong … I just hope I'm right."—straight from Red River, when Matt decides to take over Dunson's herd. These and a few other things struck me. Just observations, not fault-finding; hell, maybe only a movie nut like me would even notice.
At any rate, Yellowstone Kelly is a highly entertaining, well-crafted movie. Certainly worth your time and even worth going to a little trouble to seek out. It may be Clint Walker at his best, which only serves to make one wish he'd done a hell of a lot more.

Persevere — WD

1 comment:

mybillcrider said...

Saw this in the theater all those years ago. My theory is that studios didn't know what to do with Walker. Westerns were sort of dying out about that time, and he wasn't at his best in contemporary drama or comedy.