Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Raiders of Old California (Republic, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran Raiders of Old California, an intriguing 1957 “B” Western from Republic during the dregs of their existence as a company. Just one year later founder Herbert B. Yates would close the studio (and sell it to CBS, which would call it “Television City” and film the Carol Burnett Show there) and would continue his film developing business, Consolidated Film Laboratories, and keep Republic alive solely as a label under which to sell his old films to TV. The page on Raiders of Old California gives two other production companies as the makers of the film — Albert C. Gannaway Productions and Gavel — and Gannaway (the person) also gets credit for producing and directing the film from a script by Sam Roeca and Thomas G. Hubbard. From the appearance of Faron Young and Marty Robbins, two major stars of country music in 1957, I had expected something considerably lighter, a musical Western in the vein of the ones Republic had made with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers throughout the late 1930’s and the 1940’s. Instead neither Young nor Robbins sang in the film at all, and the movie turned out to be a surprisingly dark tale beginning at the end of the Mexican War of 1846-48. A company of U.S. soldiers led by Captain Angus Clyde McKane (Jim Davis, top-billed, and the same Jim Davis as the one who co-starred with his near-namesake Bette Davis in Winter Meeting, her second-to-last Warner Bros. contract film in 1948 — Bette Davis and Marty Robbins, one degree of separation!) besieges the hacienda of Mexican landowner Miguel Sebastian (Larry Dobkin). They kill all of Sebastian’s men and are about to kill Sebastian as well when a Mexican courier turns up with the news that the war is over. Instead — though we only learn this for sure towards the end of the movie, albeit it’s no particular surprise — McKane forces Sebastian to turn over his huge land grant (one so old it was issued by Philip II in the 16th century when he was king of Spain) in exchange for his life. The film then flashes forward to 1850 and McKane is a land baron, and with his henchmen Damon Pardee (a young but still evil-looking Lee Van Cleef) and Timothy Boyle (Marty Robbins), he regularly terrorizes the locals and installs suitably compliant sheriffs like the current one, an old whiskey-soaked guy played by a virtually unrecognizable Douglas Fowley (if you know him from his leads in above-average “B” movies like Lady in the Death House or his character roles in big movies like Singin’ in the Rain, in which he played the director, you’ll never guess he’s in this role; he’s made up to look like Walter Huston’s character in Treasure of the Sierra Madre) to make sure he can dispossess both white settlers and any leftover Mexicans relying on oral promises Sebastian made to let them stay on their land.

Only U.S. government justice is about to arrive in the persons of marshal Faron Young (Faron Young, surprisingly using his real name as that of his character) and judge Ward Young (Louis Jean Heydt, who judging from his appearance here had aged worse than Fowley had). Judge Young is ready to put McKane and company on trial for stealing Sebastian’s land, but he needs a witness — and it’s Marshal Young’s task to find one. He finds Scott Johnson (Harry Lauter) working a farm on the old Sebastian land grant; Johnson originally was one of the three witnesses who signed the deed granting McKane ownership of Sebastian’s land, and so far he’s gone along with McKane’s cover story that Sebastian gave it away to cover his gambling debts, but right now he’s having an attack of conscience. Of course, like innumerable stupid movie characters both before and since, he tells the villain to his face that he isn’t going to go along anymore instead of shutting his trap until he can reach someone in law enforcement and just telling them the truth. The villains respond by ambushing him, Marshal Young, the judge and Mrs. Johnson (Arleen Whelan) as they’re setting forth to town to record his testimony — and he’s wounded but survives. Meanwhile, however, McKane and his men have murdered the Mexican settler Diego (Edward Colmans) who apparently was the one lead to Sebastian’s current whereabouts, since he was supposed to be dead but the good guys have found out he’s alive but don’t know where. They trace him to a small town where, in need of a doctor for the wounded Johnson, they are told there isn’t a doctor locally but the town priest can help — and, as is revealed in a cunning point-of-view shot showing that Gannaway was considerably better than run-of-the-mill Republic directors like R. G. Springsteen, Lesley Selander or Joseph Kane, the town priest is Sebastian (though the film leaves it unclear whether he’s just posing as a priest or actually took vows in the intervening years since he was done out of his ranch). Eventually the good guys hold their trial, Sebastian and McKane give their conflicting accounts, the jury finds McKane guilty — and just then a cattle stampede McKane has arranged as a diversion from the trial comes to town (though these are some of the sickliest, scrawniest cattle ever seen on screen — Charles even wondered if some of them were pigs crudely made up to look like cattle) arrives and runs McKane over in the street, killing him and ending the threat from his gang (most of whom have been killed in previous shoot-outs anyway).

What’s interesting about Raiders of Old California is that, while it remains unaffected by the overtones and (sometimes) pretensions of the “psychological Western” that began with films like Blood on the Moon (1948), Winchester .73 (1950) and High Noon (1952) — though John Ford had beaten all those filmmakers to the punch with Three Bad Men back in 1926 — it’s considerably more violent and nasty than most of the Republic Saturday-matinee oaters from the company’s glory years. McKane isn’t just an unscrupulous land baron but a psychopath, and even more than previously in Republic’s history the film is little more than violence porn. Instead of the relatively innocent fist fights by which the goodies usually subdued the baddies in Republic’s earlier Westerns, there are a lot of shoot-outs and there’s a high body count among the characters. Indeed, it’s the sort of film where you can pretty much guess the ending just by surmising, based on the usual character conventions, just who’s going to be left alive at the fade-out! It’s fascinating to watch the usual Republic “B” crew trying to keep their Westerns popular by making them bloodier and gorier — though one convention they did keep from their glory years was the almost supernatural power of the hero. Faron Young manages in scene after scene to dispatch bad guys who vastly outnumber him, all the while keeping his white shirt immaculately clean and the Brylcreemed hair perfectly in place, as if he’s going to go from these old-Western gun battles directly onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. It’s a quirky movie, predictable but a lot of fun along the way, though perhaps if they had made it a musical and given Young and Robbins a chance to sing it would have been even more entertaining!