Dir: Sam Peckinpah - Cast: Maureen O'Hara, Brian Keith, Steve Cochran, Chill Wills, Strother Martin, Will Wright, James O'Hara, Peter O'Crotty, Billy Vaughan
Peckinpah's directional debut, of course a western. It's also a sadly overlooked movie, even by fans of the director. To large audiences Peckinpah is best known for the violende-drenched westerns from the second half of his career, such as The Wild Bunch or Pat Garret & Billy The Kid, and fans who prefer the more restrained Peckinpah from his early days usually prefer Ride the High Country, made one year later.
Keith is a Civil War veteran called Yellowleg (1) who accidently kills the son of a saloon girl in a small western town. To ease his conscience, he escorts the woman - against her will - through hostile Apache land, to the cemetery in the desert where she wants to bury the son, next to his deceased father (a person whose existence was doubted by many). They're accompanied by a crook who was saved by Yellowleg in the opening scene (after he had cheated in a card game and was about the be hanged), and a dandy gunman who fancies the woman.
In 1961 Peckinpah was trying to make the transition from TV to the big screen. He got his first crack at a feature film thanks to Brian Keith, who had worked with him on the TV series The Westerner. Keith reckoned that Peckinpah would rewrite the mediocre script, based on a novel by Sid Fleischman, and co-written by producer FitzSimons. According to Keith, Peckinpah's rewritings were refuted; furthermore his direction was supervised by FitzSimons, who was also Maureen O'Hara's brother. O'Hara and Peckinpah didn't like each other and FitzSimons repeateadly intervened in his sister's favor when she had arguments with Peckinpah (2). These stories haven't done the film's reputation any good. Peckinpah biographer David Weddle calls it "a stilted melodrama filled with contrived plot twists and unbelievable situations"; he also mentions "cardboard characterizations and bad acting" (3).
I do not agree. The characters (and their motivations) will no doubt look a little artificial, but they work surprisingly well in a story that is basically concerned with existential angst: Both Keith and O'Hara are running away from the past while searching it: O'Hara wants to prove (if only to herself) that she really is a widow, not a tramp, Keith feels the urge to prove (again: if only to himself) that he's not a beast who does to others what they've done to him: the man he saved in the opening scene, was the very man he was looking for, to kill him.
The dialogue could have used some of Peckinpah's rewritings, but the lines are delivered in a natural, unrestrained fashion, which makes you forget how labored some of the material is. O'Hara's expressive style doesn't suit Peckinpah's approach very well, but both Keith and Wills are ideal Peckinpah actors, mixing a restraint acting style with flashes of flamboyance. Both their characters - Keith's guild-ridden hero with an old wound that cripples him on crucial occasions, and Wills' grotesque madman - would frequently return in Peckinpah's later movies.
This is by no means a masterpiece, the story is far-fetched and the music is horrendous, but the atmosphere is great and even if some twists feel contrived, the tension is well-sustained. The mid-section drags a little, but there's also a great scene - funny and eerie - with drunken Apaches parodying a stagecoach robbery. The film is flawed, but it's still essential viewing for every western fan.
* (1) The bizarre name is taken from the pulp novel by A.S. Fleischman (who also co-wrote the script) the movie is based on http://www.pulpserenade.com/2010/12/yellowleg-by-as-fleischman-gold-medal.html
* (2) In O'Hara's own words: "Peckinpah later reached icon status as a great director of westerns, but I thought he was just awful. I found him to be one of the strangest and most objectionable people I had ever worked with." See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maureen_O'Hara
* (3) David Weddle, If they move, kill 'em!, p. 197-198