Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Thunder Over the Plains (1953)

This is a gem of a western. Randolph Scott plays a captain in the U.S. cavalry, stationed in Texas in the aftermath of the Civil War. So-called Reconstruction is a slow process as carpetbaggers and profiteers breed resentment among Texans. Former Confederate soldiers band together as raiders to frustrate their efforts, while the cavalry acts as an army of occupation.

A Texan who fought for the Union, Scott is caught in the middle, as he sees the people he grew up with made victims of injustice. As much as duty allows, he has sympathy for the leader of the raiders (Charles McGraw). However, Scott’s commanding officer (Henry Hull) prefers that he put duty before sentiment.

Plot. The villain of the film is a crook (Hugh Sanders), who works with a tax collector (Elisha Cook, Jr.) to force farmers into selling their cotton to him at a fraction of its value. The raiders, meanwhile, are cutting into his profits, and he puts on the pressure to get more protection from the Army.

Phyllis Kirk, Randolph Scott
Matters are complicated by the arrival of another captain (Lex Barker), a young officer too eager to make his mark. He’s in a hurry to get the job done and return East to civilization. Ignoring orders, he clumsily advances on the raiders’ hideout instead of waiting for Scott and his men to join him. The raiders escape, and one of their men (Fess Parker) is shot and killed by the trigger-happy young captain.

Barker also has boundary issues with Scott’s wife (Phyllis Kirk). Charming her with talk of the social life in Washington, he easily wins her confidence. He rightly guesses that she is lonely and friendless, and he tries to take advantage. Scott discovers him in his parlor trying to get Kirk into a clinch, and the punch-up that follows leaves both men black-eyed and bruised.

Scott is finally ordered to make more of an effort to bring in McGraw or face the consequences. Led into a trap and surrounded, McGraw offers to surrender in exchange for the lives of his men. Scott agrees to the deal, promising to get him a fair trial.

But as Texas is under martial law, there’s no civilian court for this case. Soldiers are put to work building a gallows on the grounds of the fort, and McGraw will get hanged pronto for rebellion and sedition. His men then kidnap Cook and threaten to kill him if McGraw is not released.

Lex Barker
Scott goes out on a limb, acting on his own to rescue Cook, an attempt that is foiled by glory-grabbing Barker, who manages to get Cook killed. The excitement that follows involves nearly every member of the cast. Order is not restored until Scott finds evidence that Sanders has committed a murder and shoots down the vicious carpetbagger in the streets of town.

Five stars. This film has a tight script, good performances, and some excellent cinematography and editing. Exterior scenes are inventively shot, shadow and dim lighting are used well, and sequences are deftly played out for either suspense or excitement. The camera work is especially noteworthy, as it effectively moves from long shots to close-ups in single takes.

In one scene, the raiders waylay a wagon train loaded high with cotton bales and then are descended upon by Army troops who give chase as they ride off. It’s a complex sequence that is nicely put together. It builds suspense by portraying first the stealth of the raiders and then gradually reveals the presence of the watching and waiting cavalry.

Randolph Scott, Charles McGraw
Then comes the action. A modern-day film would cut this part of it like a music video, a rapid montage in which we lose sense of the relative placement of everything and everyone in the scene. But it’s a pleasure to see the use of this old-school style of filmmaking that preserves the scene’s visual continuity. Close-ups and long shots are nicely cut together to give a feeling of being close to individual characters while keeping us aware of the action whirling around them.

Shot in widescreen and WarnerColor, this western is easy to like. Scott’s character is a decent man put into a difficult position, that position being duty vs. sentiment. Given the lack of sentiment in its less likeable characters, it’s clear where the movie’s sympathies lie.

 History. The heavy-handed voice-over narration at the film’s beginning and end provides a historical context for the story that’s fairly oversimplified. Carpetbaggers were a plague upon the South after the war, and there were surely profiteers aplenty. But it’s a stretch to blame them as the chief obstacle to the smooth re-entry of Texas to the Union, as the film wants us to believe.

One can also look in vain for cotton fields anywhere in the film. Nor for that matter will you find the “plains” of the title. The movie was shot at Burbank Studios and in the grassy hills of Calabasas, California, with their pleasant stands of live oaks. The only nod to Texas in the film is the handful of black actors who appear as extras in early scenes.

Warner Brothers, Burbank Studios, 1928
Wrapping up. All that aside, this is an enjoyable film and one of Randolph Scott’s better ones. It has an excellent supporting cast. In addition to those already mentioned, veteran actor Lane Chandler gives a strong performance as Faraday, one of the raiders.

Phyllis Kirk appeared in numerous 1950s films, her decade-long career rounding out as Nora Charles in TV’s The Thin Man (1957-1959). Lex Barker was best known in the 1950s stripped down to a loincloth in a half dozen Tarzan movies. Fluent in several languages, he went on to appear in a number of German films based on the western novels of Karl May. Henry Hull’s 50-year career in film and TV included Werewolf of London (1935) and Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944).

Director AndrĂ© de Toth’s career included numerous westerns, such as Springfield Rifle (1952), Man in the Saddle (1953), and Day of the Outlaw (1959), each reviewed here recently. Writer Russell Hughes, whose brief career spanned the 1950s, wrote other westerns, including The Last Frontier (1955) and Jubal (1956). 

 Thunder Over the Plains is currently available at amazon and netflix. For more of Tuesday's Overlooked Movies, click on over to Todd Mason's Sweet Freedom.

Photo credits: 
Scott and Kirk, allmovie.com
Scott and McGraw, silentfilmstillarchive.com
Warner Brothers Studios, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 34


  1. I've seen this film a couple times and enjoyed it alot. You can't go wrong with Randolph Scott, Elisha Cook, Jr, AND Charles McGraw!

    1. All the performances are good. Portly Hugh Sanders does a spectacular death scene when Scott shoots him down.

  2. Poor Fess Parker put out early. Don't remember seeing this movie, but probably did. I enjoyed some of the Thin Man flicks.

    1. Fess Parker's early demise is a real loss for the film.

  3. Years ago I know I saw just about every western Randolph Scott ever made - I was an impressionable kid with a crush on tall, stalwart cowboys. :)

    I must have seen this, but I just can't remember. Time for another look since it's available on Netflix.

  4. Sounds interesting. I haven't seen it.