The decade of the 1950s was the Golden Age of Westerns, on both the big screen and television. Three lesser-known films of the period typify the originality, range, and intelligence of the genre, usually typified at its zenith by such classics as The Searchers,High Noon, and Shane. Though quite different in style and plot, these next three minor luminaries in the Western constellation share a unique device: In each, the hero relies on a weapon other than the trusty six-shooter.
The Last Wagon (1956) stars Richard Widmark, his blonde hair accentuated by buckskin duds, as Comanche Todd, a white man raised by Indians, now on a mission of revenge against the men who killed his family. A familiar-enough plot in itself, the vengeance motif is settled at the film’s beginning, then the single-minded hero is chained to the wheel of a wagon belonging to would-be homesteaders.
When the wagon train is all but annihilated by a band of Apaches, Comanche Todd is looked to as leader of the few survivors. The chain still hanging from his wrist becomes a rather useful weapon when he’s forced into a duel with the hostile tribe.
The Last Wagon wears its well-intentioned clichés about racial prejudice and justice openly (mostly within the supporting cast), but Widmark has never been better or more impressive-looking. The film also displays spectacular scenery, and old pro Delmer Daves is the able director. Daves’ other Westerns of the decade include James Stewart’s influential classic, Broken Arrow (1950), Jubal and the original 3:10 to Yuma, both with Glenn Ford.
Directed by Henry Hathaway, another old Western pro, From Hell to Texas (1958) pits Don Murray against a vengeful land baron and his sons. The plot is not particularly original: Todd Lohman (Murray) is a peaceable guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he’s now running for his life. He doesn’t want to kill the bad guys, but they just seem to keep forcing his hand.
A likable actor, Murray’s best and most famous film was Bus Stop two years earlier, playing another kind of cowboy opposite Marilyn Monroe. What sets him apart in this film is his weapon of choice, a Winchester rifle, which he wields with deadly accuracy.
(Coincidentally, the pilot for the popular TV show The Rifleman with Chuck Connors aired three months before From Hell to Texas on the anthology series, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater, the Connors series earning its own place on the small screen seven months later. Then Steve McQueen got into the action that same year, with a sawed-off Winchester carbine, on Wanted — Dead or Alive. Villains with traditional pistols didn’t have a prayer.
In addition to featuring Murray’s nifty rifle, From Hell to Texas is distinguished by its outstanding supporting cast, including Diane Varsi, Chill Wills, R.G. Armstrong, and a young Dennis Hopper. This was the film which, according to Hollywood myth (probably apocryphal), almost cost Hopper his career. Hopper was asserting his artistic bent, like his pal James Dean had done, and wouldn’t do what director Hathaway wanted. Hopper did more than 80 takes for one scene, until finally following orders. The sad tale of Varsi, another rebellious actor who should have had a glorious career, is unfortunately too true, but she’s radiant in this film.
The third of our trio is easily the oddest, and one of the most uncommon Westerns ever. The last feature film directed by Joseph H. Lewis, whose Gun Crazy (1950) is a noir classic, Terror in a Texas Town (1958) features Sterling Hayden as a Swedish whaler who, in the film’s final shootout, faces a pistol-packing villain (decked out in black with two gloved hands, one of which is made of metal) with a harpoon!
Scripted by Dalton Trumbo under an alias, the miniscule-budgeted movie (shot mostly on what look like TV sets) is a fascinating character study, particularly of the bad guys (Sebastian Cabot as the portly boss, Ned Young as the gunman). Always an interesting actor to watch, Hayden (The Killing,Johnny Guitar,Dr. Strangelove) does an unconvincing Swedish accent but is still riveting as a man on a mission.
There you have them: three unjustly overlooked Western gems well worthy of your consideration.