Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Barricade (Warner Bros., 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a really quirky movie, a 1950 Warner Bros. Western called Barricade, which was actually a transformation of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf into a land-based Western story. Interviewed by Michael Druxman for the 1978 book Make It Again, Sam, writer William Sackheim recalled being called into the office of Warners’ “B” producer Saul Elkins and being told that his next project would be to adapt The Sea Wolf — Jack London’s grim tale of a crew at sea trapped under the absolute rule of mad captain “Wolf” Larsen — as a Western. They ran Warners’ previous (more or less) come scritto version of The Sea Wolf — the 1940 version with Michael Curtiz directing and Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield starring — “then announced that the project would be called Barricade,” Sackheim recalled. “To this day, I have no idea what that title meant.” The chief problem facing Sackheim (who, oddly, is the only credited writer; the credits don’t mention either The Sea Wolf or London’s name) was the obvious one — to explain why the men under the control of his villain, mine owner and operator “Boss” Kruger (Raymond Massey, oddly using his “Lincoln” voice for a role at the other end of the moral scale), didn’t just leave — which he solved partly by establishing that the mine was located in the middle of what was otherwise desert country and it would therefore be fatal to anyone who tried to escape, and partly by some very convincing writing of the men as suffering from what would now be called the Stockholm syndrome, locked in a love-hate relationship with their tyrannical boss and all too eager to wreak their wrath not on him, but against anyone who tried to free them. The gimmick is that Kruger has recruited his workforce exclusively among outlaws, who can’t complain to the authorities (even if they could get to the authorities) because they’d be arrested themselves. There’s one obvious plot hole; though it’s not clear exactly what Kruger’s mine is producing (the word “ore” gets dropped in the dialogue, so it’s clear it’s metal rather than coal), the mine is so damned isolated there’s no indication of how Kruger ships out whatever it is they’re mining so he can sell it and make money off it.

The (relatively) innocent protagonists are fugitives Bob Peters (Dane Clark, in a surprisingly effective performance even though he hated making the movie — “I’d just come off suspension at the time and the studio assigned me this as punishment,” he told Druxman) and Judith Burns (Ruth Roman), who get caught up in Kruger’s evil empire and, when they steal a covered wagon and try to flee, don’t get far because Kruger has spiked their drinking water with salt. Peters is assigned to be the mine’s explosives expert — he tries to lie his way out of the job by claiming he’s never worked in a mine before, but Kruger sees through that — and at one point he blows up part of the mine in an attempt to kill Kruger, then makes his abortive escape — only to find, when he returns, that Kruger is very much alive and, of course, out for revenge. There are also some fascinating subsidiary characters (thinly disguised equivalents to people in London’s original tale), including a former judge (Morgan Farley) who became an alcoholic and lost everything (and is essentially lynched by the miners when he sobers up and tries to organize them against Kruger) and a philosophical little man, “Tippy” (George Stern), who first tries to talk Peters out of going with Kruger and then helps Kruger forestall any threats to his power. Even London’s gimmick of having Wolf Larsen have a brother, Death Larsen, who’s the only man of whom he’s afraid gets transmuted into this film; in Sackheim’s script, Kruger got the mine in the first place by cheating his brother out of it, then killing him, but his nephew Clay Kruger is out there somewhere threatening to organize a mob of his own and take back the mine by force if he can’t win it back legally — which he’s trying to do by infiltrating his attorney, Aubrey Milburn (Robert Douglas), into Kruger’s workforce to see if he can spot something actionable in Kruger’s operation.

In the end Clay does try to take back the mine, and there’s an exciting shootout in which Clay and all his men are killed, as are virtually all of Kruger’s, though Kruger himself lives long enough for Bob Peters, our nominal hero (though played by Clark with an undertone of hostility that makes it difficult for us to root for him unreservedly but also makes him a more complex character), to shoot him down as the mine burns up (the equivalent of Larsen’s ship sinking at the end of the original Sea Wolf). Like Larsen, Kruger is also an intellectual; his private office is filled with books and adorned with a painting of Richard III, his rather odd role model, standing on top of a mound of corpses (an image whoever made the painting obviously ripped off from the sequence in the 1929 Warners’ all-star film The Show of Shows in which John Barrymore delivers one of Richard III’s speeches while standing on top of a mound of corpses), and as cruel as he is to Milburn it’s obvious that he, like his Londonesque counterpart, likes having a man with brains around so he can sound off philosophically (he comes off sounding rather like an Ayn Rand hero — not surprising since two years earlier Massey had had a key supporting role in the film of The Fountainhead). Barricade is directed by Peter Godfrey — quite the best film of this usually mediocre hack I’ve seen; obviously an action film turned him on a lot more than the melodramas and romcoms Warners was usually giving him — and it features spectacular Technicolor cinematography of the West’s wide-open vistas and an effective contrast between the gorgeous countryside and the claustrophobic environment of Kruger’s mining camp; it’s a surprisingly good film for a “B” Western (even one from a major studio and with the added expense of Technicolor), and the Sea Wolf origins of the story and Sackheim’s clever adaptation of a nautical story into a Western gives this film far more depth and richness than most of the cheap Westerns of the time.