Saturday, May 29, 2010

Vengeance Valley (1951)

This Technicolor film, based on a Luke Short novel and released in 1951, is a rare western with actual working cowboys. Burt Lancaster is foreman of a ranch in an unspecified mountain setting (probably the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, where Hollywood often went on location to shoot westerns), and the action of the film includes a spring roundup of herds of Herefords, with talk of brands and voiceover explanation by one of the characters about what we’re watching. Early on, we see all the ranch’s cowhands gathered at a long table at the ranch house for breakfast, and there’s the usual joshing the cook, who clearly has the upper hand with them all. Later, we see him on the roundup, serving up coffee in the dead of night during a rainstorm. in a scene played for comedy, Lancaster shows his horse sense, as a horse dealer tries to sell him two worthless horses. All of these are authentic details of Old West ranching.

The timeframe of the film is also not specified, but judging by the women’s dresses, it is the late 1900s. But typical for 1950s westerns, the men dress like it’s the present day. Lancaster and the other cowboys wear jeans (Burt’s fit him like a glove), which no self-respecting cowboy would have worn at the time. Jeans were for farmers. Otherwise, Burt’s clothes look lived in when we first see him coming in off the range in his sheepskin coat and handsome Stetson (though a real working cowboy’s hat would be a good deal more worse for wear and sweat-stained). The other hats in the film are straight out of the box from the nearest western outfitters.

 Though guns are brandished during much of the film, there’s little actual gunplay. We get two magnificent fistfights instead, Lancaster with his substantial frame landing most of the punches. But when the guns come out, they have the miraculous ability to shoot weapons from hands and hit their running and riding human targets without effort from considerable distances. When this happens, we leave reality and head straight for the land of western myth.

Vengeance Valley is a well-above-average western revenge tale, with several twists. The central character is the target of revenge rather than the perpetrator, and the reason for it is not a murdered wife or other family member. Instead, we get an “adult” theme involving an unwed mother, who gives birth to a baby at the beginning of the film but refuses to divulge the identity of the father. Her brothers (played by John Ireland and High O’Brian in an early role) intend to kill the father; the only problem is that they’ve fingered the wrong man. The real culprit is Lancaster’s double-crossing foster brother. How this all works out provides an entertaining 82 minutes for western fans.


  1. I've got this on DVD. I have to say I was disappointed with it. I don't think it was a very strong role for Burt Lancaster (after I watched on the back of The Professionals). Good blog you've got here by the way. :-)

  2. You know, it was early in his career, and according to imdb, he was self-taught as an actor. That means reliance on good direction, which may have been a factor in this film.

    A problem for me is that the character he plays is too trusting and too unsuspecting of his foster brother, right to the end where he gets led into an ambush. The role may have been faithful to the character in Luke Short's novel, but in retrospect, we expect more of Lancaster in a western, which he showed in later films, like Gunfight at the OK Corral.