Directed by Roy Rowland
Produced by Richard Goldstone
Story and Screenplay by Irving Ravetch
Cinematography: Charles Schoenbaum
Art Direction: Preston Ames and Cedric Gibbons
Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis
Music: Andre Previn
Sound: Standish J. Lambert and Douglas Shearer (supervisor)
Film Editor: Robert J. Kern
Cast: Joel McCrea (Will Owen), Arlene Dahl (Jen Gort), Barry Sullivan (Jesse Wallace), Claude Jarman, Jr. (Roy Gort), James Whitmore (Clint Priest), Ramon Novarro (Don Antonio Chaves), Jeff Corey (Keeley), Ted De Corsia (Bye), Martin Garralaga (Father Damasco)
In Westerns, the Civil War sometimes plays in the background and sometimes in the foreground—Westerns may play during the War or in its aftermath, as characters deal with loss and tragedy and journey west to start over. In either frame, that defining national event is a good basis for rich internal drama as well as external action. In a sprawling, vital country that has remained riddled with real if often suppressed conflict, the open conflict of that War provides a good dramatic inflection to many Westerns, and its interplay with stories in Southwest settings gives an individual coloration to narratives like that of The Outriders, which covers a lot of ground from Union prison camp to redemption and renewal in the open spaces of the West, even though the story is fairly intimate and specific and involves a relative few characters. The War is on when the film begins and over when it ends, and as relationships and conflicts are resolved, a note of reconciliation plays beneath the surface, giving to what has been a taut story and challenging vision of America of that time a positive and deeply moral tone at the fadeout.
The action of the movie is set in motion by the escape of three Confederate prisoners, Will Owen (Joel McCrea), Jesse Wallace (Barry Sullivan), and Clint Priest (James Whitmore). Almost recaptured, they are saved by Keeley (Jeff Corey, in a an effectively understated portrait of evil), a Quantrill associate who leads his own band of murderous raiders. Because of Will’s experience in and knowledge of the Southwest, the three men are enlisted to escort a wagon train carrying Union gold from Santa Fe to St. Louis—the train is led by Don Antonio Chaves (Ramon Novarro) and includes a Union widow, Jen Gort (Arlene Dahl), her late husband’s troubled younger brother Roy (Claude Jarman, Jr.), and an ill priest (Martin Garralaga). The three men are not alike (it’s evident from the beginning that Will is inherently decent and moral, while Jesse is self-serving and willfully violent and Clint will kind of wait to be shown what’s right) and Keeley’s intended ambush on the train weighs on Will even as it’s understood the gold is supposed to go to the South, as Will understands those on the train will all be killed. One feels Will struggling over this throughout, and crucially at the halfway point (a memorable nocturnal scene begins here) it’s revealed that he and Jen have quietly fallen in love. The next day, they encounter what seems like an impassable rising river, and Will believes this saves them from going on, but Jesse resourcefully devises a plan to cross the rushing river on rafts bound by ropes on either side (but a wagon is lost and Roy loses his life). Finally, though, news comes that the War is over, and it’s only then that Will learns Keeley had conspired with Jesse to steal the gold for themselves and not to turn it over to the South. Firmly on the side of Don Antonio and the others now, Will fights against his old comrade Jesse as well as Keeley and the others. He has finally come to where he has wanted to be, a hard-won ending for a hero who has been uncertain and conflicted like so many strong protagonists in Westerns of these years.
The Outriders, made by high-toned MGM, is a handsome Technicolor production, beautifully photographed by Charles Schoenbaum with extensive Utah exteriors, and is strongly cast for all roles, boasts costumes by the brilliant Walter Plunkett and a wonderful score by a young Andre Previn (he was only 20, folks!). But its considerable virtues reside even more deeply because, those production values aside, it’s one more 1950 Western that knew where the genre was going—to a number of interrelated aspects that would carry it into a decade of incomparable artistic grace. These aspects are principally the spiritual evolution of the hero (often matched, as here, to the moral fall of the villain) who comes to a better place of commanding his life without giving it over to destruction of others, and along with this, very often, finds an idealized and yet fully believable romance with a strong heroine of equal substance; the joining of that personal story to a vibrant narrative marked by physical events and external conflict; and the expressiveness of landscape and setting which commands attention to all these things.
What draws me so much to this personally is that I love graceful shifts of tone and the way more quiet, nuanced moments can find a place in narratives of robust action. So, like many who have seen it, I find what we may call the campfire dance a sequence of special beauty that especially lifts this mostly unheralded gem. Done on a soundstage (very beautifully too), it begins with Will breaking out the liquor to calm tensions among the men, but the dance that begins with men as partners comes to a point where they are all too aware of the one woman presently out of view. On her own, and sure of herself, Jen breaks her ladylike reclusiveness to come out and dances with all the men, one by one, wearing out her shoes in the process and only prompting Will to intervene after Jesse in his turn becomes too aggressive with her (and in an inspired aesthetic touch, the green bandana with which Jesse pulls her to him then becomes the green shoes she gives to Will to put on her feet). Will and Jen begin to dance among the others (accompanied by a lovely, gentle waltz theme Previn uses only at this one point), then away in an overhead shot, and then they are alone in a brief dialogue which begins with his soft, tender, and wonderful line “You never showed yourself like this before.”
Over ten minutes are given to that sequence—not counting a coda between Will and Jesse which further builds the antagonism of their relationship—and at least that much more time is given to the elaborate river crossing, an impressively staged and filmed sequence with little evidence of fakery. This whole stretch of the movie would be enough to make it stand out—and that’s true even though these events of a dance and a river crossing have a ritual quality in Westerns and are very familiar (what is arguably the greatest Western of this same year, Wagon Master, directed by John Ford, has both) but it’s a welcome familiarity because there is such an eternal resonance of life in both these things. Even apart from that though, the trajectory is a satisfying one from beginning to end. The subtly realized romance is mostly visualized rather than verbally articulated, and that’s characteristic of the genre, while by contrast, Will and Jesse—though their conflict does become physical—mostly do confront each other in words, and to powerful effect; it’s not only that broken male relationships work so well in Westerns, but it’s always interesting to see a character who seems poised and smooth (Jesse) reveal the depths of venality, cruelty, and unwanted sexual aggressiveness that are the darker side of masculinity.
The character of Will is the relatively quiet center that draws one to follow this drama. Again and again, Joel McCrea is filmed looking on and watching (other characters do this too but it has the most weight when it is him); his presence is grave and thoughtful, and McCrea expresses a full range of emotions but without ever being showy about it. If there is a gold standard for a certain kind of movie acting, favoring believability and an effective simplicity over theatrics, McCrea exemplifies it. Confidence and attractiveness never become machismo or narcissism for him—and he knows how to be nuanced while being completely unmannered.
As often observed, Joel McCrea and his friend Randolph Scott both made a choice to concentrate on Westerns in 1946, just when the genre began to fully flower, and were there through its peak in the 1950s, then finally starred together in the magisterial epiphany of Ride the High Country (1962) which effectively ended their careers on a sublime note (though McCrea came back for a few vagrant credits later). That is as it was but it might be added their careers have different arcs that one can observe if one breaks the years 1946-1960 into three periods, Scott forging a relationship with director Budd Boetticher in the later years 1956-1960 that took him to the heights of the Ranown cycle, while McCrea by contrast has more of his best films in the first period 1946-1950, when he made fewer films than Scott and was more selective (in the middle period of 1951-1955 they are perhaps equal, and that was a period McCrea finished with two 1955 Westerns reuniting him with Jacques Tourneur, arguably his ideal director). In those 1946-1950 years McCrea was blessed with a number of superior scripts and with gifted directors including not just Tourneur (the very special Stars in My Crown which followed the present film in the same year), but also Raoul Walsh, Andre de Toth and Hugo Fregonese.
In The Outriders, Roy Rowland—directing his only movie with McCrea—holds his own with those artists. A contract director for MGM throughout this period (though loaned out at times), he moved easily among genres—there are musicals and melodramas, including some late film noir, along with Americana, other Westerns, and engagingly, a frontier comedy Many Rivers to Cross (1955) which bridges several genres. No one has ever claimed some consistent theme or any stylistic obsessions with him that I am aware of, and yet he did so well with so many of these movies. One quality I like him for is that he is patient with the material, and doesn’t rush if there is something worth lingering on. Prosaic though his approach may seem to be much of the time, this patience affords him the opportunity to find the magic of a sequence, like the campfire dance, if it’s there to be found, even to imbue it with some real poetry, while also giving a sustained vividness to the equally elaborate river crossing. In addition to working well with McCrea, he also did well with the other actors here. The very beautiful Arlene Dahl has perhaps never been better, fleshing out her character beyond the script, while Barry Sullivan makes a compelling, individualized villain. Given a number of fine films, Rowland may deserve more attention; in any event, in my experience he gives The Outriders what is arguably the best direction of his career.
Blake Lucas is a writer and film critic living in Los Angeles.