Devil’s Doorway

by Glenn Erickson May 07, 2024

Guy Trosper, Anthony Mann and John Alton’s western is shocking stuff for 1950 — Hollywood did address the historical raw deal handed Native Americans, way before the activist ’70s. Robert Taylor is a Shoshone rancher in Wyoming, who comes back from the Civil War with medals and finds that opportunists are passing laws that dispossess him of his citizenship and property rights. Rather than give up, he fights back and is labeled a terrorist threat to decency. 30 years before Heaven’s Gate, the cavalry comes to the rescue — for the villains. It’s rough stuff, the kind of ‘subversive’ movie that got other directors blacklisted. The remastered presentation is a beauty.

Devil’s Doorway
Warner Archive Collection
1950 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 84 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date May 7, 2024 / 21.99
Starring: Robert Taylor, Louis Calhern, Paula Raymond, Marshall Thompson, James Mitchell, Edgar Buchanan, Rhys Williams, Spring Byington, James Millican, Fritz Leiber, Chief John Big Tree, Dabbs Greer.
Cinematography: John Alton
Art Directors: Cedric Gibbons, Leonid Vasian
Film Editor: Conrad A. Nervig
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Second Unit Director: Yakima Canutt
Original Music: Daniele Amphitheatrof
Written by Guy Trosper
Produced by Nicholas Nayfack
Directed by
Anthony Mann

In 1947, movie star Robert Taylor gave a persuasive performance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, speaking about Red activism in Hollywood and smearing Howard Da Silva by name:

(I’ve seen) “indications which seem to me to be signs of Communist activity in Hollywood.”“I have seen things from time to time that appeared to me to be slightly on the pink side, so to say.”

All he could contribute was more innuendo, but the witch hunt was on and wouldn’t quiet down for twenty years. Filmmakers that made pictures deemed critical of America, its institutions or economic system were branded as subversives. When accusing Hollywood of slipping pro-Red messages into its movies, Ayn Rand cited the film  It’s a Wonderful Life as a salient offender.

Three years later Robert Taylor starred in Devil’s Doorway, a powerful Western that all but accuses America, free enterprise and white privilege of outright genocide. Any actor committed to a political position would realize that the script for Devil’s Doorway blames American capitalism and race prejudice for the crimes against the noble Red Man. Championing Native American rights was becoming a strong theme in westerns, one of the last genres where social comment was permitted, if it was buried deep enough. The big winner was the James Stewart western  Broken Arrow, an ‘Apaches are people too’ semi-remake of the romantic Polynesian tragedy  Bird of Paradise. But Stewart’s fling with the beautiful Indian princess Debra Paget isn’t subversive at all. Everybody tries to do the right thing except for a few isolated villains. “There are good people on both sides” is the sad refrain. Sigh, wiping out the indigenous population is just one of those regrettable ‘things’ about the building of the West.

Devil’s Doorway has its slimy villain, but it doesn’t exonerate the post-Civil war lawmakers. Even more anti-American is the depiction of land-hungry whites headed West, who have no problem using racism to get what they want. Drawing from historical fact, Guy Trosper’s screenplay directly condemns governmental policy as a thieving conspiracy to dispossess Indians of their property and remove them to ‘protective reservations.’ Native Americans are deprived of their rights and demonized as terrorists when they resist. 1970s pictures like Arthur Penn’s  Little Big Man were promoted as groundbreaking exposés of these historical crimes. Mainstream Hollywood had tackled the same issues a generation previously, only to find that viewers didn’t flock to message films, and that repressive political elements didn’t want the stories told.


Until he teamed up with James Stewart on five very successful, trend-setting 1950s westerns, director Anthony Mann was a potential target for accusations of subversion. Mann’s Eagle-Lion movie  The Black Book about the French Revolution plays like an allegory of America’s political divide. His first MGM film  Border Incident takes up the cause of victimized transient farm workers smuggled across the Mexican/American border. Mann’s  Devil’s Doorway is an even more emphatic indictment, reaching further back in history to refute cultural assumptions about Native Americans.

One of Mann’s best noir efforts was  Raw Deal, a title that would be a perfect fit for Devil’s Doorway. At the conclusion of the Civil War, decorated veteran and rancher Lance Poole returns home to Medicine Bow, Wyoming and finds that things have changed. A Shoshone Indian by birth, Lance has adopted many of the White Man’s customs. Lance does well with his beef sales and anticipates a rosy future, as his coveted Sweet Meadow ranch high above Medicine Bow is excellent grazing territory.

But new federal laws enacted to ‘resolve the Native American problem’ have arbitrarily classified Indians as wards of the state, not U.S. citizens. Local tribes are being booted from their traditional land and shipped off to reservations. Declaring that an Indian can own nothing, the opportunistic attorney Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern) intends to steal Lance’s ranch before the government can take it. He’s solicited money from dozens of sheep men, promising to guide them to good grazing land – Lance’s Sweet Meadow. Coolan’s racist remarks in Medicine Bow inflame racial prejudice against Lance, whose good friend Sheriff Zeke Carmody (Edgar Buchanan) now deserts him as well. Concerned attorney Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond of  The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) takes Lance’s side, only to discover that “the fix is in” – the authorities ignore Lance’s petitions to homestead his own land. Under the law Lance has no legal rights; he doesn’t exist.


When Lance refuses to budge, Verne Coolan goads the shepherds into storming the meadow by force, knowing that the Army will interpret any violence as an Indian uprising. Lance has only two choices — to accept gross injustice and humiliation, or see his ranch and fellow tribesmen wiped out.

Devil’s Doorway may be a western, but its outrage against prejudice and profiteering is clearly meant to have contemporary relevance. Verne Cooley’s mob gives Lance Poole little choice but to become an outlaw-terrorist. The rush to violence quickly overshadows hints of mutual romantic yearning between Lance and Orrie Masters. Robert Taylor surely took the part for the same reason any actor would — it’s an excellent role, and remains one of his most impressive performances. We cringe at the thought that 21st century activists would invalidate Devil’s Doorway for casting an Anglo movie star as a Native American — and then claim that ‘old’ Hollywood never told the truth about the reality of the ‘winning of the West.’

Truly uncompromised Hollywood movies about racism were rare, like Clarence Brown’s eye-opening  Intruder in the dust. Other westerns showing Native Americans being subjected to unfair treatment (Fort Apache) blamed isolated “bad apple” traders for cheating the Indians with bad rations, or (more frequently) selling them weapons with which to rebel. Doorway’s opportunistic Verne Coolan is a supremely loathsome villain, but Doorway also observes that the majority of Americans flowing into the West consider Native Americans a pestilence to be swept aside. The first step is malicious discrimination. A doctor ignores Lance’s pleas for medical help for his ailing father (Fritz Leiber). Verne Coolan begins his harassment of Lance right in the barroom, through a local ordinance that forbids Indians from buying drinks. Four years before, John Ford had given Henry Fonda’s remark in  My Darling Clementine a humorous spin: “What kinda town is this, sellin’ liquor to Indians?” In western movie terms, a man forbidden to drink in a bar is by definition not a real man.


The inevitability of violent struggle is Devil’s Doorway’s most subversive aspect. Most dramas about the fate of Native Americans are pessimistic tragedies, the difference here being that Lance Poole fights back. Lance’s beautiful mountain meadow becomes a battlefield. His rebellion is joined by a small band of dispossessed Shoshone holdouts. Anthony Mann dwells on scenes of Lance and his warriors shooting and stabbing members of Cooley’s posse. Lance is even shown strangling one enemy in a bloodthirsty rage. Verne Cooley’s private vigilante army is reinforced by the U.S. Cavalry, just as in Michael Cimino’s  Heaven’s Gate, thirty years later. To be honest, Cimino’s epic has a lot in common with this Anthony Mann film, starting with the suggestion that something about America is Evil.It’s just that Devil’s Doorway tells its heartbreaking story in more clearly and more efficiently — in one third the running time.

Well, what country’s history is above reproach?  This reviewer thinks such messages can be useful, knowing that it’s not the majority position.


Robert Taylor is excellent as the proud Shoshone war veteran, whose heart hardens as his former friends and neighbors abandon him. Louis Calhern’s odious Cooley easily manipulates Edgar Buchanan’s weak lawman and Marshall Thompson’s pliable sheep man. Spring Byington is a local matron who learns that the Shoshones pose no credible threat to their neighbors. James Mitchell is Lance’s warrior aide, Red Rock; he had played a migrant farm worker in Mann’s Border Incident. Paula Raymond’s frontier attorney could easily have come off as a foolish idealist, but is wisely written as Lance Poole’s only friend in the conflict. Loyal to a fault, Orrie keeps angling for a peaceful solution to an irreconcilable problem. But we can tell that Devil’s Doorway is too honest for that. No authority is going to side with Lance, the righteous martyr.

Anthony Mann’s direction makes a feast of glorious locations filmed in Colorado’s Aspen and Grand Junction by the legendary cinematographer John Alton. Every close-up is given expressive character lighting, and carefully chosen outdoor vistas contribute to the film’s darkening mood. Medicine Bow’s saloon begins as a friendly haven, but Verne Coolan’s influence transforms it into a sea of hostile faces. Mann’s forceful blocking frequently ties close-ups with relevant action background action, eliminating the need for standard coverage cutaways.

It’s likely that Anthony Mann’s association with James Stewart, and their mostly apolitical film output, saved him from the blacklist ordeals suffered by the leftist directors of  films like  The Prowler and   The Underworld Story. Anthony Mann’s Stewart westerns were violent and sometimes disturbing, but the conflict was psychological, not political. Social comment was dropped in favor of simple morals and ‘bad apple’ sermonizing. The Stewart-Mann Thunder Bay promotes and defends the oil industry’s drilling in costal waters, dismissing the ‘uninformed’ concerns of fishermen and ecologists. Stewart’s otherwise cynical hero in  The Man from Laramie looks right at the heroine and declares, “The U.S. Cavalry would never fire first in a fight.”



The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Devil’s Doorway is another welcome HD remaster for a feature film remembered from good copies on TCM. The Blu-ray encoding impresses with the creative lighting of ace cameraman John Alton, whose talent wasn’t just limited to film noir classics. Filters bring out the life in the handsome exteriors high in the Rockies; we don’t mind that the film is in B&W. Alton finds ways to light his interiors with illumination limited to natural sources.

The audio is excellent as well, with Danielle Amfitheatrof’s busy music score matching the film’s dark themes. (If only Amfitheatrof’s music for his later Major Dundee were as judiciously crafted…)

The WAC has added two remastered Technicolor cartoons to lighten what becomes a very grim movie. A Tom & Jerry mayhem-fest is organized around a billiards table. A second Tex Avery entry pits Droopy Dog in athletic contests against his occasional nemesis ‘Spike,’ herein renamed ‘Gorgeous Gorillawitz.’ A fun time and permanent injuries are had by all.

The original trailer included indicates that MGM’s studio publicists were well aware that social relevance was box office poison. The trailer uses every shot available of Robert Taylor when he’s not in Shoshone garb. The film’s grim storyline isn’t even hinted at, while a repeated text tagline assures us that the show is, “A Great Drama of Flaming Frontiers!”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Devil’s Doorway
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
2 MGM cartoons, remastered: The Chump Champ and Cue-Ball Cat
Original Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
May 1, 2024

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Randal Gist

Thank you, Glenn. This is the one Anthony Mann western I have to see. It never came up on television (on the channel section I had) that I remember. American Westerns made late 40s through the early 60s – Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Delmer Davies, et al – is among favorite group of films. I wouldn’t mind having “The Last Frontier” (1955), “Seven Men From Now” (1956), and “The Last Wagon” (1956) make their appearance on bluray. Cheers. Take care.

Barry Lane

Had Randolph Scott been cast instead of Edgar Buchanan as the lawman, the narrative might have taken an entirely different turn and diminished the racial and political narrative. The fix was in. Just for reference, I am eighty-five years old and saw The Devil’s Doorway in 1950 at the Rivoli Theatre in Rutherford, New Jersey.

Bill Huelbig

Barry, I started seeing movies at the Rivoli in 1963, right up to when it closed in 1977. I must have seen at least 100 movies there. Proud to call it my neighborhood theater. There aren’t too many of those left anymore, especially in Northern New Jersey.

Barry Lane

I loved the place and salute you.


This is my first time seeing Devil’s Doorway. It has received universal praise, it’s an excellent western. Audiences in 1950 must have found John Alton’s noir photography to be a little strange in a western but it works well. The Blu-ray print/transfer is bright, if you view in a darkened room I recommend reducing your TV’s brightness setting. Highly recommended, enjoy!


I should note that two years earlier came Robert Wise’s BLOOD ON THE MOON, widely recognized as the most noir-looking of all westerns–photographed by the great Nicholas Musuraca. It’s available on Blu-Ray, plus my pal Alan Rode has written an entire book about it.

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