The legendary director Raoul Walsh hits The Big Trail one more time for a CinemaScope & stereophonic ‘big star’ cattle drive movie, dodging most cliches but taking a few squarely between the eyes. Star chemistry is what keeps them dogies movin’, with Clark Gable making it look all too easy. Frisky Jane Russell fares well, but not our favorite Robert Ryan: despite the high-profile billing, he pulls S.O.B. duty yet again. There’s no doubt about it, pilgrim … I see a whole lotta cows in this one.
The Tall Men
1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 122 min. / Street Date September 17, 2019 / Available from Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring: Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan, Cameron Mitchell, Juan García, Harry Shannon, Emile Meyer, Argentina Brunetti, Chuck Roberson, Will Wright.
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Editing: Louis R. Loeffler
Original Music: Victor Young
Written by Sydney Boehm, Frank Nugent from the novel by Clay Fisher
Produced by William A. Bacher, William B. Hawks
Directed by Raoul Walsh
In his spirited autobiography, the famed director Raoul Walsh hops from one inconsequential anecdote to another, frequently forgetting to tell us how or why he chose his films, and skipping all but the hits with the big stars and sexy actresses. For 1955’s The Tall Men we learn that the Mexican police had to intervene on location to put down a shake-down attempt by a local honcho. That sort of thing happens practically everywhere, but it is credible that certain important folk down Durango way might remember that, forty years earlier, Walsh had ridden with Pancho Villa. The pioneer filmmaker had earned his status as a legend.
The Tall Men doesn’t try to out-do Howard Hawks’ definitive cow trail saga Red River. It instead settles for an amiable update in Cinemascope and color by Deluxe, the new movie miracle that promises to put a longhorn (steer) in your lap. In 1955 Clark Gable was still a major star, and Fox did a big buildup for the picture. Jane Russell was no longer under contract to Howard Hughes, who had stunted her career by keeping her off the screen. After The Outlaw, she made only six more pictures in nine years. Jane was making the most of her freedom, and even producing movies with her husband — Run for the Sun, The King and Four Queens.
The source novel is by Clay Fisher, a name used by cartoon gagwriter Heck Allen, of Tex Avery fame. The ‘big cattle drive’ in this epic can boast a fairly novel setup. Freezing to death in Montana, ex- Quantrill’s Raiders Colonel Ben Allison and his brother Clint (Clark Gable & Cameron Mitchell) decide to go the badman route. They rob entrepreneur Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan), who is loaded with a fortune in cash. To their surprise, Nathan offers to form a partnership with Ben & Clint, to drive a huge herd of cattle from Texas to Montana, where beefsteak on the hoof fetches top dollar. The partners stay together, even though Ben takes time out to rescue a pioneer woman, Nella Turner (Jane Russell) from attacking Indians. Ben and Nella almost become an item, until she vetoes his plan to settle down on a small ranch. The drive is beset by various problems, including bad weather. They’re stopped by a mob of terrible, despicable Kansas Jayhawkers, whose leader (Bill Shaffer Chuck Roberson) demands a huge ransom. Nella is now tagging along with Nathan, and teasing Ben for his lack of ambition. Ben seems able to take Nella’s insults, but the immature Clint begins causing trouble with Nathan, just as the cattle drive has to face a serious Indian ambush.
The Tall Men certainly has the desired ‘big sky’ feeling, aided by an impressive, enormous cattle herd that indeed fills the ‘scope screen, and a solid music score by Victor Young. When a couple-a-thousand cows ford a river just as Clark Gable wants them to, the wranglers make it look easy,. The only piddling complaint is that the terrain on the giant ranchero where the show was filmed, lacks variety. It’s one big desert between Texas and Montana, didn’t ‘cha know? When the Indian battle brews in act three, the herd is loitering around the same landscape we saw when they started.
Gable and Russell bring spirit and warmth to their characters. Their Meet Cute among some starving settlers ends up with a couple of days spent in a convenient woodsy shack, surrounded by a blizzard. The character conflicts are simply stated: Ben and Nella split over future plans, and Robert Ryan’s cultured-but-ruthless Nathan puts the moves on Nella. She apparently comes along on the drive to mainly get Ben to change his mind. This is expressed in a repeated song about her desired ‘Tall Man,’ which makes room for various scenes in wagons — bathing, dressing, and taking off those pesky tight boots. Russell could look harsh, cross and even somewhat hatchet-faced from some angles; here she manages a soft look, with winning smiles. Playing opposite Clark Gable had to be a dream of the former dentist’s assistant.
Ryan’s character is less interesting. His Nathan is supposed to be the sharpie who plays all the angles, but he defers to Ben in all things, and his play-safe instincts are repeatedly proven wrong. Nathan even refuses to go back in the snow and help Nella’s lost settlers, because heroism doesn’t fit in with his business plan. Cameron Mitchell isn’t as much of a heel as he is in Garden of Evil, but his Clint is still pretty dumb and disposable, going goofy over the purty wuhmman and foolishly trying to outgun Nathan. Curiously, Nathan is shown to be an incredibly fast draw … he doesn’t advertise that skill, nor does he use it anywhere else.
Although the show stacks up a few annoying Mexican stereotypes, trail boss Luis (Juan García) has a solid part and plenty of quality screen time as a respected sidekick. Luis helps work up more sentimental attachment between Ben and Nella. Everyone else gets short shrift. Well-known player Emile Meyer has a fragment of a scene but then disappears, perhaps indicating something was cut from the screenplay.
The show has more than enough authentic cows-on-the-trail footage, but for the cattle stampede Fox’s effects department whips up a number of shots that rotoscope cattle against different backgrounds, to make it look as if the unstoppable stampede is mowing down Indians and trampling them underfoot. Some of these effects look pretty good, even though the trickery is fairly easy to spot.
Raoul Walsh’s direction is excellent for exteriors, finding a good balance between the human drama and the scenic backdrops. Interiors are flat and unconvincing, mainly because of the lack of wide-angle CinemaScope lenses. Leo Tover adjusts the anamorphic squeezer quite well, avoiding some of the worst flat field effects seen in early ‘scope pix by others. But the interiors are shot with long lenses to avoid distortion, making a tiny snowbound shack seem like a barn, and a wagon interior seem like… a lot bigger than it should.
I’m a little fuzzy on the basic economics of Nathan Stark’s business deals in The Tall Men. In 1866, wasn’t Chicago closer to Montana than Texas, or were those Indian tribes in the Dakotas really making the route too dangerous? When Nathan starts out in Montana, he has $170,000 in paper money, which in 2019 dollars must be worth several million. He buys all those cattle, drags ’em to Montana and sells them at an enormous profit. Did Nathan get the $170 thousand because he owns the saloon-casino? How did that much money ever get up to the sparsely populated Montana Territory, anyway — all the bills look fresh from the Washington D.C. mint. Why would he for a moment think of transporting all that cash by himself? What has Nathan earned at the end — two million? If Ben Allison is a full partner, why would he ever settle for such a tiny cut?
Hollywood storytellers working under the Production Code tended to push many stories into fairy tale territory. Typical is the dubious assertion that real heroes don’t care about money. You can bet that everybody above the line on The Tall Men employed lawyers to insure a fair count of the box office!
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Tall Men is a real beauty. This show was one of the first offerings on the initial 1961 Saturday Night at the Movies show that introduced recent movies to network TV. The film was entertaining even when Pan’n’scanned in B&W – no matter what the scan, a major character would be cropped off-screen. But subsequent flat 16mm prints were all but unwatchable.
This snappy encoding is clean and colorful, giving us beautiful snow vistas and plenty of widescreen glamour shots of all them cows, and without the accompanying stockyard fragrance. Ms. Russell fares even better, even though she seldom gets a close-up … early CinemaScope being stand-offish, as stated above. The four-track DTS audio doesn’t hurt either. Mike Finnegan’s insert essay makes the case that the third tall man on the marquee should be Raoul Walsh. The director was associated with John Wayne’s debut, Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough and James Cagney’s gangster comeback, among a hundred other masculine accomplishments.
And I include this final note just because I caught it and want to show off. We hear the song ‘Little Brown Jug’ early in an early scene. I looked it up. Glenn Miller’s signature tune is said to have been written in 1869, and our story takes place in 1866. Subpoenas are pending; we’re not accepting any plea bargains.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Tall Men
Movie: Good +
Supplements: Isolated music track, trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 21, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson