Friday, May 22, 2009


“Twilight Zone” writer Rod Serling tried his hand at writing a western with director Robert Parrish’s “Saddle the Wind,” (** out of ****) an average but unexceptional oater with Robert Taylor, John Cassavetes, and Julie London. Mind you, Serling was one of the top writers in early television, but he seems about as lost in these wide open spaces as a stray calf with this hard-bitten, hackneyed oater about two brothers, with Taylor as the older and Cassavetes as the young brother, clashing about just everything that comes up. Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor of “The Law and Jake Wade”) had to raise his younger, impulsive brother Tony (John Cassavetes) because they had no parents. Tony turned out no good, and Steve has had to take care of his hot-headed sibling since then. Basically, this is a juvenile delinquent on a range scenario with little to recommend it beyond Cassavetes’ spirited performance.

The action opens when Tony comes back to their spread, the Double S Ranch, after selling their herd. The surprise is that he has with him his fiancée, Joan Blake (Julie London of “Man of the West”), in a brand new buckboard. Steve explains to Joan that the Double S is no more ready for a female than Tony is a wife. Joan isn’t the only thing that Tony has brought back. He has purchased a fancy six-shooter. Steve doesn’t approve of Tony’s ‘tricked-out’ revolver because the trigger has been honed “so fine you could sneeze it off.” Tony feels committed to protect his older brother and starts practicing with the revolver. Although Steve is a reformed character and an ex-gunfighter to boot, Tony doesn’t think that Steve is fast enough to protect himself. Steve isn’t impressed with Tony’s fervor to protect him. Tony spends hours perfecting his draw. In one telling shot, he shoots his reflection in a pond.

In the ranch house alone with Steve, Joan reveals that she was the daughter of a hide hunter and has roamed every frontier town. She met Tony in a saloon where she sang songs and he treated her with so much respect that she found him refreshing and his description of the valley and Double S prompted her to accompany him back to the ranch.
Steve informs Joan that he has been Tony’s father and mother since his kid brother was four. Steve still cannot believe that Tony wants to get married. Just as Tony returned with Joan, Steve asked his top hand why he didn’t dissuade Tony from bringing the woman back with him. The ranch hand delivers the best line in his response to Steve: “Looking after your brother is like poking hot butter in a wildcat’s ear.”

Meanwhile, a tough hand with a six-gun, Larry Venables (Charles McGraw of “The Narrow Margin”), wanders into the valley looking to kill Steve. Steve served as Deneen’s trail boss for three years before he got the Double S Ranch. Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp of “The Sea Hawk”) owns the rest of the valley, but Deneen gave Steve a third of his precious valley to raise cattle. Indeed, Deneen is the law in the valley, though we never see any of his hired hands, except for his gruff foreman, Brick Larson (seasoned heavy Ray Teal of “Bonanza” as a good guy), who backs Deneen up at every turn.

Tony takes Joan into town and runs into his good friend and former Confederate enlisted man Dallas Hanson (Richard Erdman of “Objective, Burma”) who Steve had run off the Double S. Venables saunters into the saloon. Tony and he swap tough talk because Venables is looking to Steve, but doesn’t want to give Tony his message. Instead, Venables suggests that Tony take a ‘flying jump at the moon.” Tony prods Venables into a showdown and kills Venables because the gunman is distracted. Deneen is upset because he hates violence and wants Steve to run Tony out of the valley. Meantime, things aren’t going so good between Joan and Tony because she doesn’t like the way that Tony kisses her. The showdown comes when a former Union officer, Clay Ellison, Owner of Strip (character actor Royal Dano of “Moby Dick”) arrives with his family to farm the land left to him. Steve warns Ellison to clear out, but Tony isn’t as nice. Dallas and Tony harass Ellison and his family and set a wagon on fire before Steve and Blake arrive to calm things down. Ellison takes his claim to Deneen. Again, Deneen is dead set against violence for no reason that we are ever given. He agrees to stand by Ellison despite his lack of love for barbed wire.

The following morning Deneen and Brick escort Ellison into town to buy his barbed wire. Tony is waiting with an itchy trigger finger, and he kills the shotgun wielding Ellison. Ellison’s death doesn’t reduce Deneen’s resolution to see not only Ellison’s land fenced off but also his own land fenced off. He warns the storekeeper not to sell anything to Steve. Steve decides to hang it up and give his ranch back to Deneen. Predictably, Tony is furious, rides out, and confronts Deneen. They have some brief words and Tony shoots him, but Deneen wounds Tony. Brick rides over to Steve’s ranch and lets him deal with Tony. Steve and Tony pull their six-guns on each other in the high country.

The end to “Saddle the Wind” is pretty depressing and there is nothing in Tony’s character to explain his mysterious decision to commit suicide when it comes to a showdown. Steve rides back, checks up on Deneen and then decides to settle down with Joan at his side. The uninspired Elmer Bernstein musical score doesn’t heighten the tension and the theme song is rather bland. Julie London isn’t given a lot to do other than stand around and look gorgeous. Reportedly, John Sturges of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” performed some polish up, post-production work, but nothing would have saved this western. The performances are strong, the scenery is rugged, but the cliches are intact. “Saddle the Wind” is pretty saddle sore stuff.

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