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Friday, June 6, 2014

Colorado Territory (Warner Bros, 1949)

He's in Colorado territory alright

In the late 1940s noir was all the rage. Raoul Walsh had directed Pursued for Warners in 1947, an outstanding noir Western with Robert Mitchum (you can imagine Walsh saying to Jack Warner, “You want noir? I can do noir”) and in ’49 it was Joel McCrea’s turn.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a real McCrea fan. In fact I think he was one of the greatest Western stars. I love his work. But he was always the gentle, quietly-spoken type of hero. When nobly establishing Manifest-Destiny transcontinental links (Wells Fargo, Union Pacific) or representing great Western figures (Buffalo Bill, The Virginian, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson) McCrea was always thoughtful, softly-spoken, quiet and, well, decent. So he is surprising (and surprisingly good) as a badman organizing a heist, even the good badman of Western legend. Maybe the picture needed Mitchum menace, a bit more steel. But McCrea was just dandy. In fact Walsh first thought of John Wayne for the part. Not sure how that would have gone. But he did a great job managing McCrea. In Colorado Territory Joel was excellent as always and a joy to watch. He plays a crook tired of it all, rather reserved, who wants to get out of the game after “one last job” (which you sense will indeed be his last). He displayed far more thoughtful sensitivity than Wayne would have showed.
And Walsh was so good at Western action scenes.

Raoul had directed and starred in early silent Westerns (four in 1914 alone). He had been second unit director on two Pancho Villa flicks (1912, 1914) and played Villa as a young man. He was assistant director and editor on DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (in which he played John Wilkes Booth) but from 1917 till his first big talkie Western, The Big Trail in 1930, there was a hiatus. He was to have been the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona in 1928 but a jackrabbit through the windshield cost him an eye and the part.
In 1940 he directed John Wayne (again) in the excellent Dark Command, already noirish, and in ‘41 he directed Errol Flynn in the rip-roaring Custer epic They Died With their Boots On, in my opinion his (and Flynn's) best Western. In later oaters he directed Coop, Mitch, McCrea, Flynn several times, Douglas, Hudson, Ladd and Gable, a veritable Gotha of Western actors (even if the last three named were not exactly tip-top in cowboy roles). If some of his 28 Westerns were ho-hum in certain ways, they all, including Colorado Territory, had excellent action sequences.

The story tells of jail escapee Wes McQueen (McCrea), tough guy, who rejoins a gang of ne’er-do-wells (John Archer, James Mitchell). Archer was to become a TV Western stalwart, appearing especially in Maverick and Bonanza episodes, but also in many other shows. He also had small parts, usually as the heavy, in movies such as High Lonesome, Santa Fe and The Big Trees. He was born Ralph Bowman, so went from being a Bowman to an Archer. Mitchell was an ex-vaudeville performer and ballet dancer and had small parts in nine Westerns, this being his fifth. It must be said, though, that these bad guys did lack charisma a bit.
McCrea’s McQueen, as is conventional, dallies between two dames, the rather prim and proper one who would probably be the better match and the wild, dangerous one with sex appeal. Beautiful Dorothy Malone (who did two Westerns with McCrea that year, the other being South of St Louis) plays the ‘good’ one (she turns out to be far from good) and Virginia Mayo is (surprisingly) effective as the wild one, Colorado, despite her fake, heavy ‘Mexican’ make-up. As is also conventional, women with place names are louche. Think of Claire Trevor’s Dallas in Stagecoach, Joanne Dru's Denver in Wagonmaster, Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine, Joan Crawford's Vienna in Johnny Guitar and many others. Colorado is passionate and pretty handy with a Colt.
The plot is actually a straight remake of Walsh’s gangster picture High Sierra (1941) with Bogart and the outstanding Ida Lupino, but no one seemed to mind. Jack Palance and Shelley Winters did the story yet again in 1955, I Died a Thousand Times.

There are some quite wonderful Gallup NM and Sedona AZ locations (you can sense the orangeness through the black & white) as well as a good bit on the Durango/Silverton railroad through the Royal Gorge (a truly great ride whch I recommend to all Western fans). Sid Hickox was behind the lens and a superb job he did. This was his third of five Westerns for Walsh.
The film is quite brutal. The implacable marshal who pursues the badmen (Morris Ankrum) hangs the two robbers he captures from a railroad car, even though he has promised to go easy on them if they spill the beans, and then sneers that the corpses are a pretty sight, and he quite frankly murders the fugitive at the end. Ankrum (an ex-attorney and economics professor) played every kind of Western part from Indian chief to crooked banker, from a Hopalong Cassidy epic in 1936 to Guns of Diablo, a 1956 B-Western. He is very good in Colorado Territory.

We also get good old Henry Hull, not overacting for once, as the ‘good’ girl’s father, whom Joel helps out, and Basil Ruysdael (General O. O. Howard in Broken Arrow) in his first Western, as the evil criminal Rickard. I also spotted Monte Blue (uncredited) and Bob Mitchum’s son James plays a child.
The David Buttolph score is disappointingly stodgy. He had done a great job on the music of The Return of Frank James for Fritz Lang in 1940 but didn’t pull it off here.

McCrea admired Walsh. "I'd do stuff for him that I wouldn't have done for any other director. He was a gutsy little bastard. And funny."

There’s a sort of Bonnie and Clyde ending, if more 1940s off-camera than actual graphic bullet-ridden bodies.

Colorado Territory is a superior cowboy film, a key part of the Walsh and McCrea oeuvre and a must-see for any serious Westernista.



  1. When I met John Archer, he couldn't remember a darn thing about Bela Lugosi. But Joel McCrea -- couldn't stop talking about him!

    1. That's telling!
      Of course Lugosi wasn't in a single Western (as far as I am aware) so that figures...

  2. I'm with you on this one--it's an excellent western and one of the best movies Virginia Mayo was in. (She's not bad in Fort Dobbs, either.) I'm trying to figure out why, as a general matter, the westerns of Joel McCrea from the late 1940s and early 1950s (Ramrod, Colorado Territory, Stars in My Crown, The Outriders) seem better than Randolph Scott's from the same period. They seem comparable figures and are inseparably linked together because of Ride the High Country. But it does seem to me that until he made Seven Men From Now and the Ranown cycle, Scott's westerns from this period, although watchable, are not as memorable as MCrea's. Any thoughts?

    1. Yes, I must do a Virginia Mayo Western career retrospective one day. She was in some important examples of the genre, opposite McCrea (x2)/Douglas/Ladd/Ryan/Scott among others and despite bearing the name of a condiment was often good.
      As to McCrea, I am working slowly up to a complete assessment of his Western career but I still have quite a few to watch; he was in 34 as well as all those Wichita Town episodes on TV. He is a particular favorite of mine and so far No 1 is the delightful little Four Faces West of 1948 (a very great year for the oater). I get your McCrea/Scott comparison, though McCrea was always a slightly softer character, more sensitive and stoic than Scott's look of having suffered and overcome by grit. Certainly the Boetticher movies were the making of Scott. McCrea of course had as Western directors Hawks, Wyler, DeMille, Wellman, De Toth, Walsh and Tourneur (x3) and that's a pretty impressive list.

  3. By the way, there's a great Italian poster for this movie, showing Virginia Mayo as Colorado Carson apparently holding off the posse--a version of the last scene in the film. It's one of my very favorite western posters ever.

    1. See http://jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.fr/2014/06/a-little-ps-to-colorado-territory.html