Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Bushwhackers (1951)

This rousing low-budget western had a remarkable cast and enough fresh ideas to keep it more than interesting from start to finish. The cast includes John Ireland as a disaffected veteran of the Civil War and Dorothy Malone as a small-town newspaper editor’s daughter. Lon Chaney, Jr., plays the heavy, a maniacal cattleman. Jack Elam is nicely sinister as one of his henchmen.

Plot. At the movie’s start, Ireland seems to be in a post-traumatic state, having sustained unnamed battlefield experiences as a Confederate soldier. He arrives in Independence, Missouri, intent on drifting westward, maybe as far as California. We’re told that he’s looking for “a way of life where he would never again have to bear arms against man.” He doesn’t find it in Independence.

Before even arriving, he’s witness to the murder of a homesteading couple, whose house is then burned to the ground by a gang of ruffians. They work for Chaney, who regards the nesters as unwelcome squatters on his land.

The local newspaper editor (Frank Marlowe) is being encouraged by Malone, his outspoken daughter, to demand justice. But the town banker (Charles Trowbridge) is in cahoots with Chaney and threatens to call in his loans to the newspaper if it sides with the homesteaders.

Leaving town, Ireland is intercepted by Chaney’s nasty daughter (Myrna Dell), who doesn’t like him crossing the property. She arranges to have him shot as he’s being escorted away by one of the ranch hands (William Holmes). When, at her orders, Chaney’s chief thug (Lawrence Tierney) bushwhacks both men, he ends up dead himself, shot by the dying Holmes.

Ireland survives the shooting and is taken in by the homesteaders, who are mustering courage to fight Chaney. But he soon finds himself arrested for the two killings. He is taken prisoner by the town marshal (Wayne Morris), who is in the hire of Chaney. Surprisingly friendly, even-tempered, and reasonable, the marshal is a man of some refinement, who keeps a chessboard on his desk.

When Elam and another man attempt to interfere with the publication of the newspaper, Malone pulls a gun on them. As Elam tries to intimidate her with his patent leer, she shoots him dead. Marlowe’s editorial when it sees print is a scathing attack on Chaney, who sends two men to ride into the print shop on horseback and wreck it before mortally shooting Marlowe.

Ireland escapes from jail and marshals the farmers into an armed defense of their homesteads. He acquires a gun for that purpose, and Chaney’s gang, led by Dell, rides into an ambush that quickly reduces their numbers. Only Dell escapes.

Chaney collapses and dies when he learns from Ireland that his days as a tyrant are over. Meanwhile, at the bank, Dell shoots the banker after she’s persuaded him to open the safe, and makes off with a bagful of cash. But the dying banker manages to put a slug through her before she gets away.

All the villains removed from the picture, we last see Ireland and Malone getting friendly on the floor of the wrecked newspaper office. He has decided to stop drifting and take over for the departed editor. The movie ends with a kiss.

Dorothy Malone, before she found fame as a blonde
Flourishes. Tightly plotted, the film manages to keep track of more than the usual number of characters. Scenes are often shot with better than workmanlike ingenuity. After a montage of Civil War footage, no doubt gleaned from other movies, Ireland is introduced with his back to the camera as a rider comes whooping into the frame shouting news that the war is over. Ireland then turns to the camera, as men loudly celebrate behind him, and tosses his rifle to the ground with disgust.

Camera angles and the blocking of actors before the lens (sometimes called “mise-en-scene”) often show a wish to be freshly different. Sunlight catches clouds of dust stirred up by galloping horses. There is a Citizen Kane-style montage as the newspaper’s fiery editorial is read aloud by various characters. An interior scene involving Ireland, Malone, and a half dozen farmers is carefully played out in a single take, the camera following the actors as they speak lines and move in the space.

An early scene shows us a funeral being held in a saloon. On the wall behind the preacher is a painting of a reclining nude. As mourners leave, he attempts to get contributions to cover the cost of the funeral. And the saloonkeeper flips around a sign on the bar indicating that he’s open again for business.

Map of the U.S. in 1848, Independence, Mo., at far left
The script has some clever exchanges of dialogue. When after a bar fight Chaney’s chief henchman says to the marshal, “This stranger insulted me and Franklin,” the marshal replies, “I didn’t know it was possible.” When he tells the pistol-toting Malone, “Don’t you know that ladies aren’t supposed to handle guns,” she says, “Now you know one that does.”

The two women’s roles in the movie are unusually strong. Malone is not just a pretty face whose chief purpose is set decoration. She fearlessly voices strong opinions. In an argument with her father, we get this exchange:

Marlowe:  You should have been in politics.
Malone: I am. Every American is in politics.

She also knows how to use a gun and will kill a man if she has to. Chaney’s daughter is her foil, a woman of similar grit, who has gone over to the dark side. However, Dell’s performance is consistently shrill, and you find yourself wishing for a little nuance.

A curious choice that doesn’t work is making Chaney a man who has become both mentally and physically rigid. Unable to rise from the chair where he sits, he delivers all of his lines in a rage, without gesturing, shifting position, or even turning his head. His final scene has him rise stiffly and fall in a heap, like Dracula in his last moments.

John Ireland in Gunslinger, 1956
Wrapping up. Ireland and Malone give performances that elevate this routine western into a minor gem, and they have a serviceable supporting cast. The actors portraying the homesteaders are convincing in their roles, each of them distinctly different from the other, and Norman Leavitt is an enjoyably comic deputy sheriff. William Holmes, identified at imdb.com as “heir to the Fleischman fortune,” makes an earnest ranch hand dragged reluctantly into the criminal carry-on by Chaney's daughter.

With over 200 screen credits, John Ireland would go on to make more westerns, including Gunslinger (1956) and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). Director Rod Amateau had a long career in TV, producing and directing comedies the likes of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1956-1958) and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963). The Bushwhackers seems to have been his only western. The script was co-written with Tom Gries, whose long writing and directing career in film and TV included Will Penny (1968) and Breakheart Pass (1975).

The film is currently available online at Internet Archive, where there are also a number of stills from the movie. At netflix and amazon, it is included with three other films in volume 12 of the cheapy Platinum series, “The Great American Western.” The film is available singly at Barnes&Noble. For more overlooked Movies and TV click on over to Todd Mason’s blog.

Photo credits: 
Dorothy Malone photo, tcm.com
John Ireland photo, imdb.com

Coming up: Oakley Hall, Warlock (1958)


  1. According to associate producer Herman Cohen - who was just a kid when he worked on this one for Realart - this was the flick that pushed Zinneman and Kramer toward casting Lon in HIGH NOON. Don't know about that, but the films were made very close to each other. Also, Lawrence Tierney was in this one, playing a baddie. Larry never felt he was suited for westerns - he was a true man of the city - and we just did a little piece about that in the new issue of TRUE WEST (sorry about the plug!).

    1. Thanks, Courtney, for the background. I think Chaney is wonderful in OF MICE AND MEN. I'd forgotten about HIGH NOON.

  2. I always liked Dorothy Malone especially. When my husband first met me I looked a bit like her and he called me Connie after her part in Peyton Place. I wonder if he remembers.

  3. I remember seeing this one years ago -- probably at a drive-in -- and thinking it was a good film. But in those days I thought any Western was a good film. But I viewed this one within the past year and I think it holds up very well.

    I always thought John Ireland was a highly underrated actor.

    Good review.

    1. I should have mentioned RED RIVER, too. He plays an interesting role there opposite Montgomery Clift.

  4. And I'll suggest that GUNSLINGER is a better than we could/should reasonably expect no-budget western, as well. Beverly Garland being the star doesn't hurt.

    1. Need to give that one a look if I can find it.

  5. Women have played a decisive role in the westerns I have read and watched in recent months. Your excellent review highlights the "unusually strong" roles of the two women, Malone and Myrna, in this film. They are gutsy and they mean business, whichever way they go. That said, I haven't seen THE BUSHWHACKERS and I am not familiar with John Ireland in spite of having seen GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL long ago.

  6. Not use to seeing Lon in a western and Malone as a blonde. Different enough for me to take a gander.