It has been said by many a wise man that a country's history is best traced through how the country's fables and legends of the past are presented through it's popular entertainments (actually I may have just made that up, just now). Running with that credo, I will be exploring America's history through previously rare westerns that are available to view on Netflix Instant Watch (mostly B-movies from the 40's through the early 60's). I expect to fail horribly in my quest, but this is mostly irrelevant, as it is the journey that is important, not the destination. A bit of an eastern approach to the western genre, if you will.
For the record, I am only considering westerns that have never been released on DVD, so no High Noon or The Searchers or An American Tail - Fievel Goes West or anything like that. Also, some of these films are available as part of a studio's "burn on demand" DVD-R program, but I don't include those in the "released on DVD" category, if for no better reason than that I make the rules around here. I will also mention the transfer (these things are hit and miss in this department) and the film's home video availability, if any (keep in mind that I'm always referring to U.S. home video).
P.S. This will probably bore the pants off of most of you, but consider the boredom a welcome respite from the nonstop excitement around here. As far as I'm concerned, as long as the pants come off I'm a happy guy.
Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (1957)
Sort of “The Man From Laramie meets We’re No Angels”, this has Randolph Scott, James Garner, and Gordon Jones as Cavalry men who are forced to go undercover as Quakers to find the man responsible for the death of Scott’s brother. This brings them to the town of Medicine Bend, which is run by corrupt businessmen who, in effect, control the town through underhanded business related chicanery (I guess power is money and vice versa). On paper, this may sound like a goofball western farce, which is normally a recipe for unfunny hokum, but I found the script to be sly and satirical, with the overt comedic moments nicely interwoven (especially Randolph’s many quips). The three heroes maneuver through this mini-society, switching identities between men of law, men of religion, and kind vigilantes seeking justice, while characters around them (including Angie Dickinson in an early role) define the trio by their outward appearance.
The B & W transfer is very good, and the movie was never released on home video. This one doesn’t seem to have much of a reputation, but Tom Bob says check it out.
Alias Billy the Kid (1946)
Sunset Carson goes undercover, attempting to infiltrate a gang of bandits headed by Peggy Stewart. She’s less a villain than a badass female Robin Hood of sorts, and ends up teaming up with tall mumbler Sunset, completely overshadowing him with tough quips and Johnny Guitar-esque danger postures. See it for Peggy if you see it at all. Don’t see it for Billy the Kid, since he’s nowhere to be found.
Pretty decent video transfer, but it’s got a scratchy soundtrack that sounds like it was ripped from an LP that was being viciously humped by a wayward cat at the time. Perhaps I’m exaggerating. Previously only available on VHS.
Other rare Sunset Carson westerns on Instant Watch:
Code of the Prairie (1944, only released on VHS, also with Peggy Stewart)
Call of the Rockies (1944, only released on VHS)
Sheriff of Cimarron (1945, only released on VHS)
Oregon Trail (1945, also with Peggy, never released on home video)
Rough Riders of Cheyenne (1945, Peggy too, only released on VHS)
Rio Grande Raiders (1946, never released on home video)
El Paso Kid (1946, only released on VHS)
Red River Renegades (1946, + Peg, never released on home video)
Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958)
A group of Cavalry men and some cowboys are separately attacked by Apaches, and they end up teaming, trying to make it out of Indian territory with their scalps intact. It turns out that the Apaches are trying to steal their cache of rifles, hoping to upgrade their weaponry to make killing white men easier, I guess. Clint Eastwood’s first major role in a western, he does manage to show off some of that patented charisma that could be seen in full force in just a few years with A Fistful of Dollars. However, the movie seems to mostly consist of a lot of poorly acted yelling between the two groups amongst a cheap western valley set, sort of coming across as a “hey, we’re surrounded by asshole Indians, what do we do?” high school play with Clint awkwardly inserted. Speaking of which, Eastwood declared that the movie was “the worst western ever made”. Close, but not quite. Apparently he hasn’t seen Paint Your Wagon (oh wait…).
A VHS quality transfer that, appropriately, was only previously released on VHS, and brutality panned and scanned from 2.35:1. Occasionally a movie P&S from 2.35:1 down to 1.33:1 will remain watchable, but this is not one of those occasions. Also, the movie sucks, which doesn't help matters, but, then again, we're only getting half the picture, so maybe the missing half is a work of genius. Probably not.
In tribute to Clint, here a clip of Sledge Hammer! where they parody Magnum Force. A bit of a stretch maybe, but I work in my Sledge Hammer! clips wherever I can.