Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Although "The Texans" (*** out of ****) beat Howard Hawks' "Red River" to the draw by at least a decade, "Arizona Raiders" director James P. Hogan's 92-minute, black & white saga about the first cattle drive to Abilene lacks both the cinematic polish and the passion of the Hawks' classic. Nevertheless, this above-average but predictable oater boasts a solid cast, sympathetic characters, several surprises, and some factual history. Reconstruction did take place in Texas and throughout the South, but historians differ on whether it constituted a scourge on the land. Traditionally, Reconstruction has been interpreted as merciless payback for the South. The bristling frontier action unfolds after the end of the American Civil War as Reconstruction becomes the order of the day in Texas, and the carpetbaggers haul their freight into the state to tax the poor citizens into poverty. Some of these scenes foreshadow the John Wayne & Rock Hudson western "The Undefeated" about Southerners heading to Mexico. The economic conditions are so dire that nobody has any money to buy anything, and the avaricious carpetbaggers are stripping citizens of the land because they have no money to pay taxes. Randolph Scott makes an appropriately stalwart hero who fears neither nobody nor nothing. He is a former Confederate private who has endured his trials and tribulations, while Joan Bennett is every inch the heroine but rather narrow-minded in her attitude. Not only did she support the Confederacy during the war, but she also is prepared to support any hopeless effort to resurrect the Confederacy with the use of foreign troops under the command of the Mexican emperor Maximilian. Bennett has fallen in love with an idealist Confederate captain who epitomizes the South's refusal to grovel in any set of circumstances. Moreover, our heroine wants nothing to do with the scheming carpetbaggers. Indeed, she wants nothing to do with America and prefers to throw all her support to the Austrian monarch. Scott detests this crazy scheme. According to our heroine, the French and Austrian troops along with Joe Shelby's Southern cavalry will join forces. "We'll fight for him (Maximilian), and he'll fight for us. He'll cross the Rio Grande, and the whole South will rally around him."

Meanwhile, Texans suffer grievously under Reconstruction. The Scott character is the only individual who isn't reluctant to forget about the war and embark on a new life. At one point, the Scott hero states that he knew some good Yankees during the war and has decided to let bygones be bygones. The theme of change and how these former Confederates struggle to change with the times lies at the heart of action. When they aren't herding cattle, contending with carpetbaggers, and battling Comanche Indians, Scott and Bennett are battling with each other. As a carpetbagger who isn't easily dispensed with until he meets his match, Robert Barrat plays greedy Isaiah Middlebrack. He pursues the Confederates when they smuggles guns into the region and later goes after them with a troop of U.S. Cavalry when they try to take ten-thousand cattle to Mexico. "Ebb Tide" scenarists Bertram Millhauser, "Geronimo" scribe Paul Sloane, and "Black Legion" writer William Wiser Haines adapted author Emerson Hough's novel "North of '36." Mind you, these characters are every bit as desperate as John Wayne and company were in "Red River," but Scott doesn't have somebody like Montgomery Cliff to contend with and a secondary character dispatches the chief villain before Scott can finish him.

"The Texans" opens at a river landing in Indianola, Texas, in 1865, where paddler wheelers are unloading cargo and supplies. The defeated Confederate soldiers are informed that they are still classified as the enemy until they shed their southern uniforms. In fact, the Union authorities refuse to let the men in gray pass the toll gate until they change clothing. Meanwhile, Ivy Preston (Joan Bennett of "The Woman in the Window") is driving a wagon laden with boxes of farm implements when a Union sergeant halts her so he can inspect her cargo. Kirk Jordan (Randolph Scott of "The Last of the Mohicans") spots the cargo and knows that the boxes contain weapons instead of tools. He helps Ivy get out of town before the Union authorities can poke around in those boxes. While Ivy delivers the weapons to Confederate Captain Alan Sanford (Robert Cummings of "Saboteur"), Kirk has to fork over ten acres of land to buy an ill-fitting suit of clothes. Ivy returns to Indianola to pick up her grandmother, Granna (May Robson of "Bringing Up Baby"), and Granna's ranch foreman Chuckawalla (Walter Brennan of "Red River"), so they can all return to their sprawling ranch Boca Grande on the border.

Everybody else seems pretty tame until these two show up, and Robson and Brennan steal the show. Brennan's character is intrigued with locomotives because he has never seen a train and wonders where they put the engines after dark. Granna is a headstrong woman with pioneering blood who refuses to buckle under any adversary. The two characters provide most of the comic relief in "The Texans," but the comedy doesn't overwhelm the drama. Kirk has to save Ivy's bacon again when the Union authorities, principally Middlebrack (Robert Barrat of "Baby Face"), arrests her and questions her not only about the stolen firearms but also a renegade Confederate officer Sanford. Granna has no use for Middlebrack. "There wouldn't be no enemy if there were scum of the earth like you. You with your plundering, murderous reconstruction." A riot enables our hero and heroine to escape from Indianola, and they ride back to Ivy's Boca Grande Ranch. The Preston women own ten-thousand cattle, and Ivy wants to drive the herd to Mexico to feed Southern troops working with Maximilian. Things, however, don't work out for Sanford. He eludes death in Mexico only to find himself back in Texas where the authorities want him for treason. Ivy upsets Kirk to no end when she announces that Sanford and she are engaged to be married.

The scheming Middlebrack decides to let bygones be bygones with regard to the stolen rifles. Nevertheless, he saddles up with a detachment of Union cavalry and rides out to Boca Grande. He informs the Prestons about the new head tax on cattle at a dollar per steer. While they are plying Middlebrack with liquor and food, Ivy strums a guitar and sings a coded song to Granna about taking the cattle away. Middlebrack plans to count the steers the following morning, but Granna drinks him under the table, and Kirk leads the herd out. Initially, Ivy still wants to head the herd south for Mexico, but Kirk persuades her to turn north to Abilene. "The North's been short of beef ever since the war. They'll pay $15 to $20 a head for steers," he tells Chuckawalla and Granna. Kirk adds that this new market for cattle will mean a brighter future for Texas. Reluctantly, Ivy gives in to Kirk. Middlebrack wastes no time when he recovers and chases them. The Union officer with Middlebrack, Lt. David Nichols (Harvey Stephens of "Baby Face Harrington") doesn't like the way that the civilian official is treating the former Confederates. Ironically enough, Nichols and his cavalry ride to the rescue when the Comanches try to destroy the Southerners and steal their cattle. The irony here is interesting. Our heroes and heroine are saved but at the cost of being disarms and put under arrest. Middlebrack dies during an Indian attack when Kirk's cohort, Cal Tuttle (Raymond Hatton of "Undersea Kingdom"), kills him with his tomahawk. Of course, we don't see Middlebrack bit the dust. Not only does this diminish the statue of his villain, but also it undercuts "The Texans." Ironically, when our heroes arrive in Abilene, they find the citizens wearing long faces because the Kansas Pacific Railroad plans to halt construction of the railroad. Cane-toting Kansas Pacific Railroad President Jessup (William B. Davidson of "Each Dawn I Die")announces,"This country of Kansas remains unsettled and unproductive. We find it no longer possible to feed the army of workmen necessary to extend our lines across the plains and over the mountains to California." Interestingly, among the crowd of on-lookers is a wagon filled with well-dressed ladies. The lady who drives the wagon tells the women that they will have to return to St. Louis. It is amazing that the Production Code Administration allowed the filmmakers to keep this scene when it is entirely obvious that these girls are prostitutes. Kirk turns a crisis into a celebration when he offers to sell ten-thousand cattle. Of course, Kirk wants to make Ivy his wife, but Sanford hasn't given up on retaliating against the Yankees. Nevertheless, Ivy has had enough of his pipe dreams to last her a life-time. He struggles to convince her that the new organization that he has joined with help drive the Yankees out of Texas. The organization is the KKK and they plan to make midnight rides in hooded robes to run out the Northerners. Ivy thinks that this mob justice is not fitting for the South.

Altogether, "The Texans" is a good little western.