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

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Lawless Breed (Universal, 1953)

Serial killer as good guy

In the great year for Westerns that was 1953, when memorable movies of the quality of MGM’s The Naked Spur, Warners’ Hondo and Paramount’s Shane were released, there were also to be seen in the theaters, throughout the year, not-so-great but still high-class oaters from all the studios, often directed by experienced hands. I’m thinking of the likes of Allied Artists’ Jack Slade, Columbia’s The Nebraskan, or MGM’s Escape from Fort Bravo, well-made Westerns all. Universal’s early-50s offerings tended to be B-Westerns but at the top end of that spectrum. B-and-a-half Westerns, if you like. Or A-minus ones. The studio had Audie Murphy in Gunsmoke, Tumbleweed and Column South, Ronald Reagan in a remake of Law and Order, Joel McCrea in The Lone Hand, Glenn Ford in The Man from the Alamo, Tyrone Power in The Mississippi Gambler, Stephen McNally in The Stand at Apache River and Van Heflin in Wings of the Hawk. These were all decent Westerns, with a lot to offer. Such a one, too, was The Lawless Breed, with Rock Hudson, though it had considerable weaknesses too.

Hudson would actually prove to be good in Westerns. I nearly said “surprisingly good” but perhaps that would be unfair. I do tend to think of him in ultra-light bedroom comedies with Doris Day but after all, he did get an Oscar nomination for Giant and he was also capable of tough-guy roles. He started in Westerns as the Indian who kills John McIntire to get that Winchester ’73 in 1950, followed by another small part in Tomahawk the following year. In ’52, though, he graduated to fourth billing as the gambler Trey Wilson in Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River with James Stewart and that same year he was one of Robert Ryan’s brothers in Horizons West (a film which resembles The Lawless Breed in some ways). The Lawless Breed, however, was his first starring role in our noble genre. He rode well and carried off the Western garb and style, managing pretty well to eschew his matinée-idol persona, unlike, for example, Alan Ladd.

Rock good in Westerns

The Lawless Breed was directed by Raoul Walsh. Now, Raoul was one of the best Western helmers in the business and was capable of a rip-roaring oater. He’d started as an actor in silent Westerns (in Sierra Jim’s Reformation in 1914; I’d love to see that one) and directed several silents too. He was to have been the Cisco Kid in the talkie In Old Arizona in 1929 but a jackrabbit through his windshield meant he lost the part (and an eye). His replacement Warner Baxter won an Oscar for it, so who knows what might have been. In 1930 he directed the young John Wayne in Fox’s huge epic The Big Trail, but that was all she wrote for 30s Westerns until he directed Wayne again in Dark Command for Republic in 1940. The 40s were a magic decade for Walsh Westerns because he made the wonderful Custer whitewash with Errol Flynn, They Died With their Boots On, in ’41, the first-class Western noir Pursued with Robert Mitchum in 1947 and the highly entertaining Colorado Territory with Joel McCrea in 1949. It was an impressive record. After that, though, the pictures were not quite so great. Along the Great Divide with Kirk Douglas and Distant Drums with Gary Cooper (both 1951) were less than glorious – surprisingly flat and listless for Walsh. And The Lawless Breed, too, does not have the zip and panache of his 40s classics.

Is that cool or what?

It’s a John Wesley Hardin biopic. At least it claims to be. Under the title, we read “Based on the life of John Wesley Hardin as written by himself.” Well, I think that Walsh and his writers William Alland and Bernard Gordon must have read a different edition of The Life of John Wesley Hardin: As Written by Himself than the one I have. Hardin’s autobiography is already self-serving and false enough without the frankly ridiculous changes made for the movie. Oh well, we don’t watch Westerns for historical truths but to be entertained by the myth. And if you watch this one you will be entertained – up to a point.

Taken (rather crookedly) in Abilene
Ideal photo for a WANTED poster
By the way, if you do want to know about the real Texas serial killer Hardin, an alcoholic psychopath, read Leon Metz’s 1996 book John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas.

The best book on JWH

We open in 1896 with Hardin being released from the Texas State Penitentiary, Huntsville – actually a rather fine zoom-in from on high by DP Irving Glassberg of Bend of the River fame, accompanied by dark Herman Stein music. Hardin is released with best wishes and good luck from a warder (evidently he was a model prisoner).

Nice shot of Hardin free

Once in town he immediately fondly pats both a foal and a puppy. Now, you know well that when a character is kind to an animal or a child in the first reel that is clear semiotics for Goody. By being nice to two, the hero ascends to the angelic class. So we know right away that we are not going to see the real John Wesley Hardin, but an anodyne Hollywood one with virtues, forced into crime by unjust circumstance (what you might call the Jesse James Syndrome).

Obviously a goody

Then Hardin calls in to a publisher and hands him the manuscript of the true account of his life he was written inside, to set the record straight, you see. Then the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, and we flash back to a Texas cabin in 1853 with voiceover by Rock telling us that this was where and when he was born. We stay in flashback mode until the last ten minutes of the movie.

His pa is a Methodist preacher, a circuit-rider (hence his son’s moniker) and it’s John McIntire in black, with a long white beard, a sort of Texas Moses-cum-John Brown who prefers fire and brimstone to milk and honey. As I was saying the other day, when reviewing The Gunfight at Dodge City, I am the greatest McIntire fan and think he was especially good in Westerns. Starting with a couple of rather cheesy Yvonne De Carlo/Dan Duryea oaters in the late 40s, he was unforgettably sinister as the gambler/arms dealer in Winchester ‘73, killed by Rock Hudson that time, brilliant as the Al Sieber-ish scout in Ambush, classic as the crusty irascible rancher in Saddle Tramp (also with McCrea), superb as the California rancher recruiting wives in Westward the Women, and the list goes on. And on. Horizons West, The Mississippi Gambler. What a splendid villain he was as Judge Gannon in The Far Country! Not content with being Al Sieber-ish in Ambush, he actually was Al Sieber in Apache. I can’t think of a Western he was bad in. But for me he was best as a doc – one thinks principally of The Tin Star and The Gunfight at Dodge City. All this before he started bossing the Wagon Train when Ward Bond died in 1960. In The Lawless Breed he is both John Wesley’s father and his Uncle John, changing his beard and acting a bit younger and less reverent. Outstanding, again.

McIntire in two parts

We hear of the War Between the States and how Texas suffered from those evil Reconstruction days (Westerns rarely mention anything good about Reconstruction). We see a young JWH in the late 60s quick-drawing a Colt .45 (1973 model) and shooting at moving targets. It’s a particularly modern pistol actually because he can shoot eight shots without reloading.

Young Wes is nifty with a sixgun

But his daddy doesn’t approve, especially when he learns that the boy bought the gun with winnings from gambling at cards. He whips Wes (and McIntire really seems to lay into Rock). The young man is furious and determines to leave. Now there’s a girl in the household, an orphan adopted by the preacher with whom Wes has, naturally, fallen in love. Her name is the rather prosaic Jane Brown, played by Mary Castle, soon to be Frankie in Stories of the Century. She is rather a goody, urging Wes to forsake his drinkin’ and gamblin’ and settle down, which Wes says he wants to do but isn’t that convincing (or convinced). He says he’s going away, to make money for a horse ranch which he and Jane can make their home, and off he goes. “I’ll be waitin’,” Jane tells him.

She'll be waitin'

Now the scene shifts to a gambling den where a painted lady, Rosie (second-billed Julie Adams, fabulously beautiful) clearly fancies Wes but his heart is pledged to Jane. So she sighs and puts up with it.

Saloon gal pines for Wes - and gets him too

Wes gets into a poker game with lowdown Gus Hanley (Michael Ansara, Cochise in the TV Broken Arrow) and Gus cheats, there’s a quarrel, and gunplay, and Gus ends up dead on the floor. The trouble is, it’s post-war Texas and Gus has three brothers, so a feud is certainly in the offing. Luckily for us, these three vengeful bros are played by old friends of ours: Lee Van Cleef, Hugh O’Brian and Glenn Strange. You wouldn’t want that trio gunning for you. Of course, they will be no match for gunman John Wesley Hardin.

Glenn and Lee were paired as heavies in another movie too - The Road to Denver

So Wes skedaddles, hotly pursued by both the Hanleys and the US Army - Wes manages to shoot a couple of soldiers so he is now in even hotter water. He takes refuge with his uncle, John Clements (also McIntire), a very different character than his preacher sibling, who backs Wes and takes him on a cattle drive up to Abilene to escape the attentions of the military and the fraternal thugs. Also on the drive is Uncle John’s son Jim, i.e. Wes’s cousin, played by Dennis Weaver.

There’s a comic undertaker (Tom Fadden) who has some good lines. He says he’s just buried the Durango Kid in Abilene. It can’t be Charles Starrett: must be another Durango Kid. There were probably several, just as there were many Buffalo Bills and Billy the Kids. Unfortunately, though, the mortician, once back in Wes’s home town, blurts out to the Hanley brothers Wes’s whereabouts, so off to Abilene go Lee, Hugh and Glenn.

Now we get the famous (if probably mythical) event of Hardin in a saloon getting one over on the Abilene marshal, Wild Bill Hickok (John Anderson, decked out in Hickokian mustache), which legend says he did by executing a border roll. In the movie Wes doesn’t quite do a border roll, more a deft manoeuver of handing over one gun to the lawman while drawing the other. Anyway, he earns Hickok’s admiration and is allowed to keep his sidearms, handy when he has the Hanleys to deal with.

Hardin gets one over on Wild Bill

Actually, Francis Ford is the saloon janitor and even gets a one-line speaking part, so he was probably pleased with that. The former leading light of the early Western movie was reduced by now to taking menial bit-parts wherever he could find them.

Rock seemed quite lively in these saloon scenes and seemed to be enjoying himself.

Well, the herd sold and two of the Hanleys eliminated - and it’s rather a good scene in the windblown street when Rock gets Lee …

Gunfight in Abilene

...it’s back home to loyal Jane with a fancy wedding dress from an Abilene tailor. There, he agrees to turn himself in for trial and uses all his farm money to pay a crooked lawyer (Leo Curley). He goes off to the races to win back his cash by beating all comers on Rondo, the fancy nag he has won on the cattle drive, and does so. Rosie’s there too, and the undertaker (who offers him “a drink on the hearse”). Wes and Uncle John go off to the saloon to collect their winnings. But there’s a lawman, Sheriff Charlie Webb (George Eldredge), in the pay of the last Hanley, Ike (O’Brian) who wants to arrest him for that killing of Gus. Wes won’t have it, not till after the wedding, and leaves the saloon, but Webb shoots him in the back, the skunk. Wes is wounded but nails the lawman. He gets away but now he’s shot a sheriff. Uh-oh. You see, all these killings are justified. This JWH never shoots anyone who doesn’t deserve it. "I never killed anyone who didn't try to kill me first,” he says. Yeah, right.

Hugh is Ike Hanley, gunning for Wes

A posse chases Wes but can’t find him (“He musta taken to the hills!” one member cornily opines). However, he’s holed up at home, and eventually the posse arrives there. There’s a shoot-out and Wes gets away (though hit again) but Jane catches a stray bullet and it’s RIP.

It’s Rosie who alliteratively whisks wounded Wes away in a wagon, and she becomes his new partner. They wander the West, gambling. Wes now has a mustache. But then the Texas Rangers are reconstituted and get on Hardin’s trail. They catch up with him in Kansas City, where Hank Worden is credited as a barfly but I didn’t see him, sigh. They escape again.

Rosie whisks the wounded Wes away in a wagon

Now they finally get that idyllic ranch, in Alabama, and Wes marries Rosie. They have a baby, young John, but she writes home with the news and the Rangers intercept the letter. Finally Wes is captured, at a railroad station, and stands trial. He is sentenced to 25 years in the pen.

He does quite a lot of eluding

We are nearing the end now. We flash forward again, and Wes (Rock in gray wig) goes back to the farm, which Rosie has been stalwartly managing, and bringing up the son (Race Gentry, who does in fact look a bit like a young Rock). Wes finds his son twirling a six-shooter, just as he himself had done as a boy, and stupidly strikes the lad to the floor, causing him to go off in a huff. History is repeating itself. Will the boy go bad and become a gunslinger, just as Wes had done when his own daddy whipped him?

Race did look vaguely Rockish

The kid goes off to the saloon, Colt on his hip, and there gets into a quarrel with a drunken lout and nearly draws on him, but Wes arrives in the nick of time and intervenes. But wouldn’t you just know it, the lout shoots Wes in the back, just as that sheriff had done all those years before. Oh no!

Don’t worry, though. It’s only a flesh wound, they go off back home, the boy renounces the gun and they all live happily ever after in what is, to be blunt, a pretty sentimental and cheesy ending. In reality, of course, Hardin was a bad husband and father who went to El Paso and set up with a prostitute, and ended up shot to death in a sordid saloon by John Selman in August 1895.

"Based on" maybe but much altered

Well, well. As I said, this one was far from Raoul Walsh’s best. Still and all, there are moments, and Rock isn’t too bad at all. The relationship between Wes and Rosie is well handled. McIntire is superb. I could have done without the rather preachy message that a badman can change for the better, crime doesn’t pay, etc., which is supposed to be an edifying moral but just comes out weakly. Especially as the real JWH didn’t redeem himself at all. But all in all, you could watch it! It just squeaked up to three revolvers for Walsh and McIntire.
Talk about kitsch!






  1. Another recent re-watch for me, and I was kinda surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Far from the best western of 1953, as you said, Jeff, but miles better than most westerns of a decade later.
    In my mind's eye, I always picture JWH in the shape of Lyle Bettger, who portrayed him quite chillingly in "Tales Of Wells Fargo" in 1957 (and once again in a follow-up episode).
    True, not one of Walsh's masterpieces but then he made several of those!

    1. Ah, Lyle Bettger, one of my all-time favorite baddies. In those shows he captured the mixture of ruthlessness and charm that Hardin was said to have had.
      There have been many other screen JWHs, such as Jack Elam, James Griffith, Neville Brand, John Dehner, Richard Boone and Charles Bronson, among others. It's quite a list.

  2. To my shame,I know very little regarding John Wesley Hardin the catchy Bob Dylan
    title song to the classic album (the one where, on the cover, he poses with the Native
    Americans) is a jaunty engaging piece but tells us little,or indeed nothing about
    the man. The earlier Johnny Cash classic "Hardin Wouldn't Run" I thought told it
    pretty much as it was; but certainly not as a cold blooded killer. The book you mention seems like a good read,to set the record straight.
    I like Walsh's film as I do his other 50's Hudson Western GUN FURY.
    I would certainly point out MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER is an out and out A Movie and
    according to imdb (not always the most reliable source of information)
    Tyrone Power picked up a million dollar pay packet when his percentage of the
    box office was taken into account.Great review as always.