"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Canyon River (AA, 1956)


George bosses a cattle drive




 
 
A mid-50s George Montgomery Western written by Daniel B Ullman and with Peter Graves, Robert J Wilke, Jack Lambert, Ray Teal and Alan Hale Jr. in the cast, this one augurs very well. It’s going to be good. And it is.

It’s one of Allied Artists’ big color efforts, in CinemaScope and Color DeLuxe, and though the locations are standard Californian ones (standing in for Wyoming) they are nicely photographed by Ellsworth Fredericks, who cut his Western teeth working on They Died With their Boots On and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the 40s and later shot the likes of At Gunpoint and Trooper Hook. There's a good Archive Collection DVD.

It’s a pretty standard cattle-drive + skullduggery Western but it’s well done.

Director Harmon Jones had been a successful editor at Fox but was not so distinguished at the helm. He did a few features before devoting himself to TV work. Still, he did a couple with Dale Robertson which weren’t bad (City of Bad Men and The Silver Whip) and he manages to keep Canyon River rolling along.

We open with unhappy Wyoming cattlemen selling out. Naturally, there’s a crooked town boss who wants to buy up all the land at knock-down rates. It’s the ruthless Maddox, played by good old Walter Sande. I think he may even have had a derringer. We only catch the briefest of glimpses and it may have just been a pocket pistol. But it could have been a derringer. In which case, perfect.

His chief henchman is Robert J Wilke. Excellent. One of the best baddies ever, Bob Wilke improved any number of Westerns with his tough-guy tactics.

One rancher, though, Steve Patrick (Montgomery) doesn’t cotton to Maddox and his thug at all. In fact he punches Wilke out very effectively in the opening scene. Steve also advises against selling. He has a plan to save his own and neighbors’ ranches. It’s the old one about crossing Texas longhorns with Herefords, to create a hardier breed. He mortgages his spread to the hilt to raise enough cash to go to Oregon and drive back Herefords for breeding.

His foreman and close friend, Bob Andrews (Graves), agrees to go with him. Little does Steve know that Andrews is two-timing him and in league with the evil Maddox. Oh no!

On the way, some renegade Indians attack their camp while Andrews is supposed to be on guard but is sleeping, and they drive off the horses. Andrews is shot. With grit and heroism, Steve walks to get help and eventually, near exhaustion, stumbles across the fair rancher Janet Hale (Marcia Henderson, in the first of the only three feature Westerns she did), and Janet helps out. She and Steve save Andrews’s life. Janet is a widow with a young son, Chuck (it’s Richard Eyer, Davey Kane from Stagecoach West, only four years before that series but looking very much smaller) and you sense right away that wedding bells will be sounding in the last reel.

There will be nuptials

With Andrews back to health (though feeling increasingly guilty about betraying the pardner who has just saved his life, and jealous too because he lusts after Janet) Steve buys a thousand head from cattle dealer Ray Teal (sadly thereafter written out) and the pair of apparent pals now need to drive the stock back to the Powder River country. To do this they need to hire hands but no one is dumb enough to want to do that with winter coming on. In the end, in a ratty saloon, some outlaws bossed by George Lynch (Hale, hearty as ever) agree to sign on (after a good brawl, what you might call the Robin Hood/Little John syndrome – it needs a good punch-out to make a friend) and so Steve has a crew. It’s the opposite case of Andrews: these are bad men gone good.

Entertaining poster

Now Janet and the boy ask to come along, and Steve reluctantly agrees. Women or whiskey on a trail drive? Not good news, apparently. One of the drovers, the excellent Jack Lambert (did he ever play a goody?) hits the bottle, while others cast covetous glances at the winsome Janet. It’s a recipe for disaster. And then there’s Andrews in cahoots with Maddox and his scurrilous rustlers. Trouble is most definitely looming.

There’ll be all the usual accoutrements of a cattle-drive Western, including the inevitable cry of “Stampede!” All excellent stuff.

The plot is very reminiscent of a 1951 Bill Elliott oater, The Longhorn, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Daniel Ullman wrote that one too. It’s not that original. But it’s not routine or dull either.

Definitely recommended. And of course George always wore that perfectly splendid hat.

 

 

4 comments:

  1. Actually a remake by Allied Artists of their 1951 Bill Elliott "THE LONGHORN" with Peter Graves mirroring Myron Healey from the earlier film, but all good fun anyway. And now it's filmed in colour of course. I am more than happy to watch either film (or both). Good 'bread-and-butter' western, just the kind I like!!

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  2. I really like this one a lot. Went in not expecting much, based on the Maltin guide's review, and ended up having a very pleasant time watching it. A simple story, quite nicely told.

    Have been regularly enjoying your Western reviews! :)

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Laura.
      Yes, this one's fun!
      Jeff

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