There must have been high hopes for the young Patrick Wayne when this film was made in 1959. Son of Hollywood star John Wayne, gifted with good looks and already experienced in front of the camera in several John Ford westerns, he was ready to launch his own screen career.
From the first scenes of this film, however, you can tell that something is amiss. You feel the need for the guiding hand of a John Ford to bring life to the performances and the action. Except in rare moments, the film never really seems to be more than a walk-through of the script.
Plot. The entire story takes place in an Old California village just after the war with Mexico. The population, a mix of Anglos and Mexicans, is still getting used to being part of the U.S. Old animosities continue as before. And now, when a gringo (Dennis Hopper) kills a Mexican in a gun duel, there’s some question of whether it was self-defense or homicide.
Circuit Judge Isham (Dan O’Herlihy) arrives in town with U.S. deputy marshal Stroud (Cliff Ketchum) to hear the case. Acting sheriff in the village (Patrick Wayne) has already jailed Hopper. He is then pressed by O’Herlihy to maintain order as Hopper’s friends get drunk in the cantina and vaqueros from surrounding ranches ride in for the trial.
To make sure we don’t miss the trial’s significance in this time and place, a local don (Roberto de la Madrid) arrives to see how “American justice” works. He and O’Herlihy, a stuffy Yankee patrician, provide a commentary on the proceedings. As a handpicked jury hears the case and then takes a long time behind closed doors to come to a verdict, the two men exchange politely thoughtful observations.
Outside the courtroom, tensions mount, and de la Madrid’s daughter (Yvonne Craig) attaches herself like glue to the otherwise preoccupied Wayne. Now that she’s an “American girl,” she’s eager to exercise her liberties. Hopper’s friend (Ken Curtis) first picks a fight with Wayne and then reluctantly agrees to be a guard in the jail as Hopper awaits the verdict of the jury.
When the verdict is delivered, Hopper and Wayne are called upon to provide an action-packed ending in the streets of the village. Justice is finally done, but it’s Old West-style, with guns and horses.
Performances. The standout performance in the film is Dennis Hopper, who burrows into his character so deeply he never once leaves you doubting the guilt of his character. Cocky and ill mannered, he is a grinning sociopath. Ken Curtis is entertaining as a congenial outlaw. Cliff Ketchum is believable as a lean and crag-faced marshal.
Wayne is affable as the young sheriff but doesn’t have (or wasn’t given) much range to enliven the role. In some scenes, he seems to be working hard just to remember the lines. You wish, too, that he’d been given a better hat. The one he got from costuming makes him look more like a plantation owner than a western sheriff. For Yvonne Craig, this was one of her first feature roles. She would later become known as Batgirl in the final season of TV’s Batman (1967-1968).
Production notes. Writing credit went to veteran screenwriter Norman S. Hall, who had written scores of B-movies, mostly westerns, from the 1930s through the 1950s. His script for this film was based on a story, “Frontier Frenzy,” by western writer, John Reese. Listening to the lines as they’re spoken, you can imagine a much stronger film, with wry ironies and humor. Too often instead, they are just matter-of-fact and lacking any subtext.
|Dennis Hopper and Patrick Wayne|
The film was shot in Mexico, and despite the Technicolor it has a rough, low-budget appearance. The costumes, which seem too consciously color-coordinated, work too hard to prettify rather than simply clothe the actors. The marshal’s blue hat rings a particularly false note, although for the disreputable characters, it should be noted that a good deal of realistic dirt and grime has been worked into their outfits.
Direction was by Ted Teztlaff, who previously had a long career as a cinematographer. The orchestral music track, credited to Dimitri Tiomkin, plays steadily and often to no particular purpose throughout the film. At start and finish, there is a theme song with top-40 aspirations that seems ready material for the likes of Pat Boone. Called “Strange Are the Ways of Love,” it is sung over the hoof-beat rhythm heard in Tex Ritter’s “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling.” More germane to the film is the music provided onscreen by the Mariachis Los Reyes de Chapala.
Wrapping up. This film is a curiosity. Essentially a courtroom drama, it wants to be grounded in history. An opening title specifies “California, 1848.” And it deals with a real issue, the transfer of power to the U.S. for the Hispanic residents who have lived there for generations and are now Americans themselves.
We know from history that old land grant ranchos were taken by fair means and foul from their rightful owners. American-style justice would often fail to grant equal citizenship to former Mexicans, as was promised in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The bias against Mexicans in the frontier West, which Hopper’s character and his cronies exemplify, is a legacy of bigotry that continues today.
The Young Land is currently available at netflix and amazon. The print available at netflix is murky and surely does the original little justice.
Coming up: John Reese, Angel Range (1973)