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Friday, July 24, 2015

Quantrill’s Raiders (AA, 1958)

Quantrill rides again

William Clarke Quantrill, sometimes written as Quantrell (1837 – 1865) often appeared in Hollywood Westerns. Studios liked the subject of a vicious guerrilla leader attacking Lawrence, Kansas, and there was often a Confederate, er, confederate in the story who participated but was disgusted at the violence and looting and turns against the warlord. Think of Audie Murphy as Jesse James in Kansas Raiders, Alan Ladd in Red Mountain or Randolph Scott in The Stranger Wore a Gun. Yep, it was a tried and tested plotline. And Allied Artists got the slightly less stellar Steve Cochran to do the same in Quantrill’s Raiders in 1958.
Lurid potboiler but well, you can't help watching
And various Hollywood heavies were drafted to play Quantrill. Even in the silent days Otto Lederer and Harry Hall were playing him in 1914 and 1921 respectively, and after World War II there was a veritable flurry of talkie Quantrillistas: Ray Corrigan in Renegade Girl in 1946, Brian Donlevy in Kansas Raiders in 1950, John Ireland in Red Mountain in ’51, James Millican in The Stranger Wore a Gun in 1953, Bruce Bennett in a 1954 episode of Stories of the Century on TV,  Broderick Crawford in another TV show in 1959, Forrest Tucker in a 1967 Hondo episode, and plenty of more recent ones too. Donlevy, Ireland, Millican, Crawford, Tucker, these were high class Western heavies, ideally cast as the ruthless marauder. And none better than Leo Gordon the Great, the Quantrill in 1958.

Leo was a classic. Tough as old boots, 6’2” tall, gravelly voice, San Quentin ex-con, he was the ideal tough guy in oater after oater. He doesn’t get much to say in Quantrill’s Raiders, just grunt and shoot people, but he does it with aplomb. Leo Gordon did aplomb.
The ideal movie Quantrill: Leo Gordon
Sadly, Steve Cochran as the goody opposite him wasn’t quite so impressive. Husky and hirsute bad guy (usually), many ladies sighed for him. He was Mae West’s leading stud in her 1949 revival of Diamond Lil on Broadway. He was often a gangster, convict or thug. He only did six Western movies, all small-scale affairs. He was pretty awful in Sam Peckinpah’s first outing, The Deadly Companions. But in the late 50s he wanted to reinvent himself as a hero, so the role in Quantrill’s Raiders was ideal for him. Here he could be a pro-Union horse trader in Kansas romancing the dames, while in fact being an undercover Confederate officer bringing secret orders to Quantrill. Quantrill is to attack the US Army arsenal at Lawrence, but no looting, of course - Steve wags an admonitory finger at Leo. Then, when he learns that there are no weapons in the arsenal, he orders the guerrilla leader to cancel the mission, but of course Quantrill won’t; his blood is up and he ties Steve up and rides on the town. Heroic Steve must escape, warn the Lawrencians and save the day.

Complete balderdash, of course, all of it. But then movies about Quantrill usually were. He often dies in the Lawrence raid, and Leo is duly shot down by Steve in this one too (spoiler alert – oh, too late). In fact, of course, later in the war he and his men (about 400 at the height) quarreled and at the end he was leading a mere dozen in raids in western Kentucky. Finally, Quantrill was caught in a Union ambush, a full month after Lee’s surrender, and the guerrilla leader was shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down. He died from his wounds in a military hospital in Louisville in June 1865. He was only 27. (Most of the actors who played him were stocky men in their forties).

The farrago was directed by Edward Bernds, a former sound technician who graduated to directing but probably shouldn’t have. He was once nominated for an Oscar but the Academy had mixed him up with another director. He still kept the nomination and displayed it proudly, framed.
The real William Clarke Quantrill
The movie was shot in among very unKansas-like Californian high rocks (I mean, have you ever been to Kansas?) by William Whitley, the Cowboy G-Men cameraman, and is in Color De Luxe and CinemaScope. AA were trying to produce big, color movies at the time. Mind, the budget still only runs to about 20 raiders: no 400 for Quantrill, I fear. And movies with Quantrill often have him burning the town down, with lots of looting and hinted-at rape, but in this one they just ride down the main street of the movie-set town and attack a barricade of wagons, get shot down, recoil and then do the same again. A bit dumb, honestly. In reality, they killed about 180 men and boys (some as young as 14) and did indeed leave many buildings in flames.

Capt. Cochran surrenders honorably at the end and is told that he will only be imprisoned for the war’s duration. “I’ll be back”, he tells Diane Brewster. She has a young nephew whom Steve has befriended and so they will form a family unit and settle down, à la Hondo, The Tin Star, Yuma, and about a thousand others.
Family unit
I have no objection whatsoever to historical bunkum in Westerns. It doesn’t worry me that Quantrill is killed in Lawrence in 1863, if it’s dramatically necessary. We don’t watch Western movies for history lessons. But if the film is a turgid clunker, now, that’s a different thing. And I’m afraid Quantrill’s Raiders is firmly in the Turgid Clunker category. Still, Leo is great, and Will Wright is the judge. Will was like an emaciated walrus. I always like him in Westerns. Better yet, Glenn Strange is Quantrill’s right hand man. Wasn’t Strange just marvelous? I mean, a guerrilla band led by Leo Gordon and Glenn Strange, now that would be scary.

Judge Will Wright

That's Glenn Strange on the right, riding as Quantrill's left-hand man



  1. I live in northeast Kansas within an hours drive of Lawrence. I've seen plenty of strange "Kansas" landscapes in movies, including snowcapped mountains.

    When Leo Gordon was filming Riot in Cellblock 11, which was filmed at an actual prison, the guards insisted on searching him when he came to work. His tough reputation as an ex-con preceded him.