Of all the daft movies which twisted Western history into absurd myth, Pony Express must be one of the most egregious.
Buffalo Bill Cody was in some ways the central figure of the myth of the West. He made it his business (literally) to build up the legend of his past and prowess, and he glorified the popular fallacy of the frontier. Dime novels were being published about his derring-do in the Wild West even while that frontier life was still happening (and the Western frontier as we understand it from the novel to the screen, big and small, was incredibly short-lived anyway, if it even existed at all).
William F Cody as a (relatively) young man
Heston as Cody
So it is no surprise that Hollywood has given us a whole series of Buffalo Bills, each sillier than the last, from George Waggner in John Ford’s The Iron Horse in 1924, through James Ellison (a rather pale Bill) in The Plainsman in 1936, Joel McCrea as the eponymous Buffalo Bill in 1944, Richard Arlen, Monte Hale, Roy Rogers and many more. Over seventy movies have featured Cody. But none was as bonkers as Charlton Heston’s in 1953.
It is possible that Cody was never a Pony Express rider at all. As a boy of eleven in 1857 he rode as a messenger for a short while but that was not in the official Pony Express, which lasted only eighteen months in 1860 – 61. He most certainly did not found the service with Wild Bill Hickok. Charlton Heston was thirty in 1953 when the movie Pony Express was made and is shown as an experienced (and pretty well invincible) plainsman who invents the Pony Express and sets it all up with his partner Hickok. It’s complete piffle.
I never liked Heston in Westerns much. He always comes across as a superior, sour, even sadistic type. I make an exception for the great Will Penny, in which he was superb, but from his first oater, the movie The Savage in 1952, then Pony Express in ’53 and the noxious Arrowhead the same year, he sneeringly slaughtered people as if perfectly justified. In films like Major Dundee and The Last Hard Men he plays a bitter, violent man with few if any saving graces. He swaggers arrogantly about the West and I have invented a new word to describe his persona: swarrogant. I’m sure he wasn’t swarrogant in real life but he certainly appeared so in in his Westerns.
The ridiculous plot of Pony Express reduces Wild Bill Hickok (fourth-billed Forrest Tucker) to little more than a sidekick. Tucker isn’t bad, in fact, in his frock coat with brace of pistols, butts forward (Heston remains in buckskins throughout) but the script doesn’t give Hickok much of a chance.
The excellent Forrest Tucker as Hickok
As the screenplay was by Charles Marquis Warren we had the right to expect better of this deeply silly film. One of the creators and a writer/producer of some classic Western TV shows such as Gunsmoke, Rawhide and The Virginian, Warren also worked on the scripts of numerous big-screen Westerns, such as Streets of Laredo, Only the Valiant, Little Big Horn and Springfield Rifle. It is true that none of these was what you would call a great Western and some were decidedly weak but still, he had a considerable track record as a genre writer.
Charles Marquis Warren
Paramount threw budget at it. It had some stirring Paul Sawtell music, Ray Rennahan Technicolor cinematography and nice Kanab, Utah locations. Jerry Hopper gave the orders; it was his first of few big-screen Westerns as director (another was the syrupy The Missouri Traveler) but he went on to do loads of TV oaters. But no one, cast or crew, could overcome the dumb script.
It isn’t enough for the hero to set up the Pony Express and be threatened by Indians, say, or outlaws. The story invents some twaddle about Californian separatism, with a brother-and-sister team of plotters (Michael Moore and Rhonda Fleming) in cahoots with the boss of the Overland Stage line (Stuart Randall) who fears the Pony Express will drive him out of business. California will secede if Californians see the Pony Express service doesn’t work. I mean, honestly. I know you have to suspend credibility to watch Westerns at all but you’d have to be a moron to swallow this. And this skullduggery aspect means there is a lot of plot and thus a lot of talking, death for a Western. You can tell the brother is a rotter early on, though, because he pulls a derringer.
Naturally Yellow Hand (an uncredited Pat Hogan) has to appear as the Indian arch-enemy. Yellow Hand (who probably wasn’t even named that; he was Heova'ehe or Yellow Hair) actually fought with Cody on July 17, 1876, at Warbonnet Creek in Sioux County in northwestern Nebraska, and some stories tell that Cody scalped him – “the first scalp for Custer”. In Pony Express Cody slays Yellow Hand in ’61 when setting up the Pony Express, and he does so in a rather casual and undramatic way, fortunately not scalping him. Up to then Yellow Hand talks in that irritating way Hollywood Indians so often did, you know, “Ug, me big chief”, and so on.
The hand-to-hand combat with Yellow Hand
Calamity Jane often appears in Cody/Hickok movies. She doesn't in this one, not by name anyway, but there is a Calamity-like figure, the feisty Denny, whose unrequited love for Cody persists throughout the picture. She is played by a remarkably wasp-waisted Jan Sterling. For me, there was no contest – lovely, elegant Rhonda versus tomboy Jan? But of course Rhonda is a villainess so Jan’s chances get better. There’s a famous scene where the two gals bathe in adjacent tubs, but it isn’t as saucy as it sounds; in fact it’s all very chaste. Sigh.
Calamity-like Jan Sterling
One good thing: Jim Bridger has a cameo appearance. He’s played by Porter Hall and he is lord of Fort Bridger and a pal of the two Bills. There is of course no evidence that Bridger ever knew or even met William F Cody or JB Hickok.
The actual pony express service doesn’t start till the last ten minutes of the film. But then there’s loads of action as the staging posts are dynamited by the bad guys. (Dynamite wasn’t patented until 1867 but never mind). Then Cody himself rides the last leg of the relay into Sacramento to save the day in the nick of time and foil the evil secessionist anti-American plotters. There’s a last-reel shoot-out. So it isn’t all unalloyed junk. There are some good bits.
But overall, this is a very poor movie.