Glenn Ford's first 'serious' Western
By 1948 we were into ‘psychological Western’ country. Post-war Westerns showed us angst and anger, intense relationships and sometimes even descents into madness. Audiences (and indeed, writers and actors) had often seen too much of conflict and stress in the early 1940s to be satisfied any more with bland pap or false, superficial cinematic tales.
Glenn Ford and William Holden were great pals. They had starred together, practically as boys, in Ford’s very first – and Holden’s second - Western, Texas in 1941, and were both early Columbia contract players. They both became excellent Western stars, Ford developing into the ordinary guy with guts who quietly does what he has to do and Holden into the cynical or world-weary tough-guy parts. The Man from Colorado, their first Western after the War, was really the first where they were clearly mature, seasoned players doing a serious job. Ford’s first three, Texas; Go West, Young Lady and The Desperadoes were all good but, frankly, pretty light fare.
In this slightly unusual psychodrama, Ford is the Union Colonel who becomes a federal judge and Holden the Captain who becomes his US Marshal. We soon perceive, however, that the relationship should have been the other way round as Holden shows the decency and authority required for command while Ford gives a fine performance of a man descending into megalomania. To complicate the issue, the two are rivals for the hand of the fair Caroline (Ellen Drew), who marries Glenn but should have taken Bill.
Released in 1948 and with a screenplay by Robert D Andrews and Ben Maddow based on a story by Borden Chase, this dark movie (in color yet it seems often to be almost in black & white) is tightly directed by Henry Levin (better known for sword-and-cloak dramas) and well photographed by William Snyder. The George Duning music is a bit ho-hum and the score could have been from any gangster or other movie but all round this is a well-written, tautly directed film with outstanding acting.
It starts on the very last day of the Civil War as Ford gives the order to wipe out a straggling Confederate war party in Colorado despite its captain running up the white flag. Decent Holden is shocked but says nothing for the moment out of loyalty. Ford’s villainy worsens in civilian life as he confides his madness to his journal but will not admit it to anyone else. Glenn Ford’s friend Edgar Buchanan (who appeared in three of Ford's first four Westerns) as the crusty, kindly old doc makes excuses but the paranoia and blood-lust of Ford grow as he becomes a hanging judge and leads posses to run down criminals or those he only suspects might be criminals. Ford’s madness is always measured against the rock-like common sense of Holden.
There is a social and moral theme of grasping businessmen using the letter of the law to dispossess veteran miners who, desperate, turn to lawlessness as 'social bandits' and become prey for the mad judge. There are sub-plots but the story never becomes too complicated and the tale rattles along at a fair pace.
Ford (apart from his silly hair) is extremely good as the commander descending into insanity and Holden, handsome and noble, is splendid as the former friend who stands up to him. Drew is moving and strong as the wife even if such parts didn’t allow for much in those days. James Millican as Jericho Howard, the ex-soldier social bandit who is very handy with a log chain, is pretty good and Ray Collins and Jerome Courtland provide satisfactory interpretations of the exploitative capitalist and Jericho’s tragic younger brother respectively.
Fascinatingly, just once, when he shouts (rare for Ford), he sounds Canadian. As he left Canada at the age of 8 and went to school and grew up in California, that’s quite surprising. Maybe it was from his parents.
It all ends with a climactic fire and showdown. Jericho has to die unfortunately because according to the puritan mores of 1940s Hollywood a bandit could not be seen to get away with it, even if driven to his crimes by injustice, but otherwise people get their just desserts and Holden gets the girl. Oops, I’ve given it away. But you knew what the outcome would be, didn’t you? It’s still quite an exciting drama, well worth a watch. Not perhaps one of the greatest cowboy films of the immediate post-War period (it is certainly no Fort Apache or Red River, both released in the same year), it is nevertheless a serious ‘small’ Western that has undeniable qualities. Compare it to, say, Yellow Sky, another dark, psychological Western of 1948. 1948 was actually a good year for the genre.
And Glenn Ford and Bill Holden are outstanding.