Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Comanche Station (1960)

This is a gem of a 1950s western (released in 1960) and another fine one from the team of Budd Boetticher, Burt Kennedy, and Randolph Scott. It’s a high-stakes and tightly knit story with a handful of well-drawn characters. Shot in CinemaScope in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California, the film is also gloriously handsome.

Plot. Jefferson Cody (Scott) rescues a white woman, Mrs. Lowe (Nancy Gates) who’s been taken captive by Comanches. Arriving at Comanche Station on the stagecoach line to Lordsburg (same destination as the folks in John Ford’s Stagecoach), they find it locked up and vacant. The Comanche are on the warpath and have temporarily put the line out of service.

Soon the two are joined by three more men (Claude Akins, Skip Homeier, Richard Rust). They are being pursued by a large band of Comanche, and there’s a fierce firefight, which the five whites survive without a scratch. When no stage has arrived by the next morning, and the station manager shows up near death with an arrow in his chest, they decide not to wait for the stage and head for Lordsburg on horseback.

The rest of the film is their two-day journey over rocky wastes and through handsome groves of live oaks. The mission is to deliver the woman safely back to her husband, who’s offered a reward of $5,000 for her return. The Comanche are in pursuit, so there’s danger enough from that quarter.
Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California
But there is some history between Scott and Akins, and the two men do not make easy travel companions. The stakes mount among them as Akins has ideas about taking Mrs. Lowe himself for the reward, maybe enjoying her company for a while before delivery. He may even find it convenient to kill her since the reward is for her return dead or alive.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Scott and Mrs. Lowe continues to shift. At first she regards him as no more than a bounty hunter. Eventually, she comes to respect him as she learns that he has been looking for his own abducted wife for ten years. “You must have loved her very much,” she says.

Along the way, the travelers lose one of Akins’ young companions to another Indian arrow. When his other companion refuses to join him in his treachery, Akins shoots him in the back, and he is dragged to his death by a fleeing horse. Scott finally has to do away with Akins himself, and Mrs. Lowe is brought safely home to the welcoming arms of her son and husband.

Women. During the film, Mrs. Lowe plays several roles in succession. First of all, she’s the rescued woman. We don’t know how she happened to be the victim of Indian abduction, but there’s no doubt that some man or men need to risk their lives to bring her back to the protection of civilization.

Partly because she needs rescuing, she starts out as an object of disappointment and aggravation. “All right, lady, what’s your name?” Scott says not too kindly as they ride off from the Indians. Not a lot of sympathy for a woman who’s been held captive by savages and bought back for a few dollars in dry goods and a rifle. For her part, she assumes the reason for his brusque attitude is that she’s damaged goods.

During the Indian attack, she becomes an object of farce, as Scott tosses her into a water trough. Afterward, her wet and torn dress clinging to her body, she’s transformed into a sex object by the leering Akins and the two young men with him.

When she learns of her husband’s offer of a reward, she assumes Scott is only interested in the money. Abruptly resentful, she brands him a “comanchero” and attempts to recover her lost dignity by refusing to travel with him. She’ll wait at Comanche Station for the next stage.

Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California (CC) Bobak Ha’Eri

Soon she becomes the imperiled object of Akins’ dark villainy. Also, because she’s a woman, she gets the cooking duties, which then sets her up as an object of sexual harassment. She makes a great cup of coffee, Akins tells her, with a leer that implies he’d like to know what else she’s good at.

Designated caregiver, she tends to Scott when he suffers a knee wound. Unskilled with a gun, and therefore unable to protect herself, she empties a revolver at Akins at close range without hitting him. Scott, the marksman, then takes him down with a single shot.

Finally, she is more wrong than wronged. Mistaken in her judgment about Scott, she comes to know the truth about him and wants to apologize. He is a far better man than she has ever thought. Returned to her husband and young son, she looks with a regretful gaze over her shoulder at the departing Scott.

While Kennedy has written a nicely complex and interesting female character, Mrs. Lowe is also a composite of stereotypes. More often an object than a subject, she is portrayed as vulnerable and copeless outside her domestic and care-giving roles. At best, she is a grace note in the lives of men of true character. Before returning her safely home, Scott thanks her for helping him forget the loss of his own wife for a little while.

Indians. The Comanche were a fierce tribe, said to be at war with most other Plains tribes, and least enamored of Texans. Their nomadic range was vast, but the movie has them situated in what I think of as Apache country, in southeastern Arizona.

As for appearance, the movie’s Indians have been given bushy Mohawk haircuts and nothing distinctive to wear. The chief emerges from his tent like a man having stepped from a shower with only time to wrap a towel around him.

Unequipped with firearms, they suffer numerous casualties in an attack against white men with guns. Typical for the time, the camera chooses not to reveal the corpse-strewn field after the battle. Someone simply says, “Bury these Indians,” and the area is cleared between scenes.

Wrapping up. For a western actor, Randolph Scott had a broad range. Here he has a flinty nobility and stoic reserve that seem to suit him well. Discovering that he is a wounded man obsessed with finding an abducted wife, you see the hurt and the courage behind the stern exterior.

Credit goes to Burt Kennedy for adding complexity to his characters. Akins’ villain is nicely ambiguous, as he smiles and laughs easily and almost genuinely. There are hints, but it’s not clear for a long time that he’s been a vicious bastard and still is.

The two young men, Frank and Dobie, are believable trail pals, each alone in the world until they found each other. Kennedy gives the two a long scene of what could be called pillow talk as one unburdens his heart about wanting “to amount to something.” Then after the loss of Frank, Scott invites the tenderhearted Dobie to join him on the trail. “A man gets tired of being all the time alone,” he says.

For a high-tension western, Comanche Station is unusually spare in its use of violence. Fifteen minutes into the film, there’s a two-minute gun battle when the Indians descend on the whites at the station. After that we wait until almost the end before guns are fired again. Of fist fights there are none—only a single punch as Scott knocks Akins down for some loose talk around Mrs. Lowe.

This was Scott’s second to last film, before being called out of retirement in his sixties by Sam Peckinpah for Ride the High Country (1962). And a last word about the cinematography, by Charles Lawton, Jr., who has a long list of credits, including the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Filmed often in long shot, this western captures the grand sweep of the great outdoors. Not a single scene takes place indoors. Its characters are sometimes small moving specks against a vast, sometimes forbidding landscape. Perfect for the wide screen.

Definitely one of Boetticher’s best, Comanche Station is currently available at netflix and amazon. Tuesday's Overlooked Films is the much appreciated public service of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Further reading:

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don (1885)


  1. Sounds like an exciting movie, which I probably saw, but don't recall it specifically.

  2. It's been on my mind lately to give "Comanche Station" a rewatch. Your insights have pushed me over the indecision. I recall Nancy Gates as giving a nuanced and haunting performance. The last scene is emotional, but not overly sentimental. Boetticher couldn't do it any other way.

  3. I like all of the Boetticher/Scott films. Ride Lonesome is my favorite. Nice write up.

  4. Oscar, westerns will run together on you sometimes.

    Peter, I reviewed BUCHANAN here about a month ago.

    Caftan Woman, you are right about Nancy Gates; she is fine in this film.

    wyatts-classics, RIDE LONESOME is the one I have not yet seen; it's in the queue at netflix.

  5. Scott is sadly becoming forgotten today. I always enjoy his performances and first discovered him through RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY.

  6. Have you seen the blog '50 Westerns From the 50s'? The author is writing a book on 1950s Westerns and sharing some of his research and miscellaneous other things about the films. You'd probably like it.

  7. I'm not sure if I have seen this film. The scenery looks absolutely beautiful.