Film Review:The Ride Back,
Allen H Miner,1957
" A dead priest is about as much use as a dead deputy" Hamish
"I'm going to take you back now and I don't want no trouble" Hamish
"How're you going to avoid it Mr Hamish?" Kallen
Film Review:The Ride Back,
Allen H Miner,
If you like your westerns to conform to the stereotypes you may not rate this film as highly as I do. For me the rather subdued reception from reviewers at the time came from this film being way ahead of its time. It is a "psychological" western which explores the characters which are brought out in such a way as to make them much more complex than the usual goodies and baddies. While audiences were familiar with the exploration of character in "psychological" Westerns like the classic My Darling Clementine and the excellent Warlock, these were "community" westerns which explored the way people reacted in the extreme situation in the frontier town where Law and Order was frail, never mind the characters. Typically these films set the towns in a wilderness from which the main character(s) appear(s) in the opening sequence and into which he leaves at the end. Back to:
When films were set in the wide open spaces the expectation was to see classic action sequences set against the awesome background of rugged but beautiful and colourful scenery. As with many of Budd Boetticher's great series of films The Ride Back is an odyssey western in which the sparse dialogue takes place when the next stopping point of the journey is reached. The dialogue is developed so that we discover sides to the characters which are quite unexpected. But unlike Boetticher the journeying is not accompanied by pastoral "home on the range" music, the atmosphere is altogether more forbidding. In The Ride Back everything is understated: although the scenery is wonderful it is shown in black and white, which makes the whole atmosphere introspective. Its wild remoteness and hostility, including some drunken Apache warriors is something to be negotiated. As in Budd Boetticher's long underrated westerns, The Ride Back's villain: Kallen (Anthony Quinn) has an endearing smile and redeeming qualities like Richard Boone and Claude Akins, but also like them Kallen can be a menacing handful. The sheriff: Hamish (William Conrad) has frailties, in fact he is torn apart by self doubt and feelings of inferiority.
When Kallen kills a man in Scottsville he flees to Mexico since it offers him a safe haven. Kallen is a fluent speaker of Spanish: his mother was Mexican while his father was Americano. Kallen is very popular in the village to which Hamish traces him, which makes his capture difficult. Hamish's determination overcomes his obvious apprehension, he is uncomfortable in his role, something which the brash Kallen picks up on and is a source of constant sarcastic remarks which Kallen makes throughout the journey. Hamish snaps, and in a great piece of dialogue which plays with the film's title, accuses Kallen of constantly "riding" him. Hamish's low self esteem contrasts strongly with Kallen's bravura.
Much of the early dialogue is in Spanish, and although there are no subtitles this adds authenticity to the exchanges and does not interfere with ones enjoyment as one can work out pretty much what is being said from the context. In fact it is a clever device to enable us to realise the problems faced by Hamish and the courage he is showing in making a real effort to bring back Kallen to face the "justice" in which Kallen has no faith at all. The importance of family and relationships which develops in the film is also expressed in the integration of children into the scenes when daily life is depicted. For example when Hamish seeks permission from a Mexican official to pursue his fugitive having crossed a non existent border, the Mexican lawman is caught up in family life as they converse. While the monochrome emphasizes the bleakness of life in the borderlands this depiction of the family shows that those trying to eke out a living there were used to hardship and learned to be tough as they grow up.
As in the films of Budd Boetticher the Apache are not hyped up, their threat is by suggestion: not toms toms, war dances or whooping and the like, but by the darkness, the unseen is unknown. You never know where they are or indeed whether they are there at all, except by the calls which may or may not be animals or the Apache mimicking them. This is preferable to the usual stereotypical stuff. Some problems remain with their presentation, especially in the scene where they are drunk. At least it seems to show the native Americans as having some rationale behind their behaviour: they wish to steal the horses. Here they are human and as impoverished as the Mexicans. In the context of the film they are part of a hostile environment, something to be negotiated if they become an obstacle, but otherwise they will be left alone.
The Ride Back seems to be much more realistic than the standard Western even aims to be let alone achieves. That the movie did not compromise to commercial pressures despite using a star name in the lead role is perhaps indicated by the fact that William Conrad, the co star, produced it. The film is populated by people who have problems, who are preoccupied by their family and friends, who have their strengths and weaknesses. The one flaw is the song which accompanies the film. It is as haunting as it was intended to be, but to twentieth first century ears it sounds corny. In 2010 it is gash, and stands out as the rest of the film really stands the test of time. Perhaps its aim was to make the film more acceptable to audiences at the time, as the use of "Country and Western" songs was a device used to increase a western's popularity. But the song is dated and its lack of subtlety is in direct contrast with a movie which otherwise is a brilliant exploration of the two main characters and a relationship which develops when they become an unlikely and incongruous pair of travellers. As the film progresses so does their mutual respect. There are some parallels to the relationship which develops between Ben Wade and Dan Evans, the leading characters in Delmer Daves's superb 3.10 to Yuma. When I saw the opening credits of this The Ride Back I was surprised to see the name of Robert Aldrich in the production company. This should have given me a clue to the quality of what was coming. After watching it, I am only surprised that its quality is not more widely recognized. I would be most interested to know if you agree or disagree with me.
I wonder whether the film is underrated because both the director and co star seem to have gone on to work within the medium of television. Perhaps film critics have wittingly or unwittingly failed to properly evaluate The Ride Back and thus see what a fine film it is.
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© Chris Smallbone November 2010