I don’t think any of us can imagine what it was to live lost in the frontier, with the nearest town weeks away on horseback, and with the constant danger of someone raiding your ranch, burning everything and stealing what you had achieved. The harshness of the environment created situations like the one we see here.
Jeremy Rodock, played by an aging James Cagney, is a horse breeder who has established his own ranch and stud farm after years of fighting with rustlers, neighbors, employees and the horses themselves. That lifestyle has given rise to a dry, arid character, effective in dealing with everyday problems but not in establishing emotional ties. Despite this, at heart he maintains a high personal ethic and a desire to help those more unfortunate who cross his path, which is why he rescues a young man who had been robbed by bandits and a tavern singer, giving him a home without obligations so that he can rebuild his life.
The problem is that these attempts are framed in the ranch and horse breeding business, with the usual problems of theft. Rodock has established over the years what he calls “his law”, which is that anyone who enters his land to steal horses will end up hanging from a rope in some tree on the vast ranch. The conflict arises when he tries to make his protégés, the young apprentice cattleman and the singer, understand that such a measure is not cruel or arbitrary, but the only effective measure to send a message to the whole world and to prevent the thefts and attacks from multiplying.
As a spectator, you are in the same position as these two people, both from a more civilised environment in the East, who have ended up in these wilder territories, fleeing from their past or seeking new opportunities. And perhaps it’s a little hard to understand this double standard from someone who on the one hand is generous and compassionate with the underdog, but cruel and bloodthirsty with the transgressor. Or is him not?
When a former employee tries to take revenge by stealing the mares, he cannot think of anything else but sawing off the hooves to leave the meat alive, removing their protection and condemning the animals to constant pain by not being able to support their legs without suffering punctures in the living flesh. Can we describe Rodock as cruel when he catches them and punishes them by walking miles and miles barefoot and without rest?
I think that one of the most interesting aspects of the film is that it puts the viewer in a moral dilemma in which, on the one hand, you see the conflict with contemporary principles, but on the other hand every time you go deeper into the life that should be led in those places you understand the reasons of the protagonist. But the story is based on a short novel by Jack Schaefer, author of other memorable scripts like Shane, and there’s a quality here.
Even better is the second dramatic arc, the romantic affair between Rodock, the singer (played by Irene Papas), and two employees who aspire successively to conquer her. Rodock also wants her company but, as we see throughout the film, being the toughest of all, he is also the most generous in letting her choose her path without conditions.
Good story, good shooting on location, an interesting plot and a correct interpretation by everyone, but nothing exceptional. What’s wrong with it? To start with, when he starred in this film, Cagney was already quite old, almost 60 years, which makes it a twilight play for the actor, which would be very appropriate if it weren’t for the fact that the screenwriter is determined to put him in love with Irene papas who, at that time, was only 30 years old. The age difference is evident and, although both manage to convey considerable affection and appreciation between their characters, we don’t believe that it burst fireworks among them.
In addition, Cagney had grown up playing hard-boiled roles with an explosive character, something that the Hollywood “star system” had encouraged for years by taking elements of their stars’ character and turning them into “house brands”. Cagney’s outbursts, original in his youth, are almost a nervous tic here, and there are times that they are so excessive that we can’t believe them either.
Despite its shortcomings, it’s a good western story, far from conventionality, and more than 60 years after its release it still has a good rhythm. So, for my part, I recommend it without hesitation for a Saturday afternoon.