July 8, 2014
In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer: “It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.
Kennedy wrote the stories for the Budd Boetticher-Rudolph Scott “Ranown cycle” of Westerns, in which the majority of violence is psychological. Fort Dobbs retains the spirit of those Boetticher films, a three-person battle of resentments between Walker, Brian Keith and Virginia Mayo. The ever-reliable Gordon Douglas keeps the focal points of the triangle shifting in the frame, and makes the dramatic Utah desert-scape constrict around its characters. The near wordless opener depicts Gar Davis (Clint Walker) storming into a house to kill a man offscreen. Douglas keeps the camera outside, the only indication of violence a broken window and the sound of a gunshot. Gar then gallops away from the posse forming to catch him, and dresses a corpse in his clothes to throw them off the scent. The desert is a repository of dead things, which is why Gar seems genuinely surprised to find a working farm out there, operated by Celia (Mayo) and her son Chad (Richard Eyer). Knowing the Comanche are on a push to drive white settlers out, he agrees to lead them to safety at the titular Fort Dobbs. Along the way Gar runs into Clett (Keith), a black market gun seller. They were old running buddies turned sour, with a history of distrust between them. Celia is led to believe Gar had killed her husband, while Clett has less than respectable designs on Celia. The whole miserable group troupes through the dirt with eyes implanted in the back of their heads. Douglas emphasizes the act of looking through POV shots through Gar’s eyes, as well as in a remarkable reaction shot from Mayo, gazing at a shirtless Gar as he cleans his gun. An unruly mix of lust, hatred and confusion flickers through her eyes. Walker is improbably good looking, but what makes him compelling is his unwavering sincerity. He delivers his lines as straight as his ramrod posture, without modulation or any kind of visible performance. With Clint, what you see is what you get, and that’s very reassuring, almost calming. He didn’t make enough films to develop a persona beyond this, like how Marion Morrison was able to workshop “John Wayne” in all those Republic B-Westerns, but what’s there is clear and true.
Wayne and John Ford were once attached to make Yellowstone Kelly. They passed, and it fell down the bureaucratic ladder to Douglas and Walker, who turned in a fine-grained epic on a budget. The studio was attracted to the story of Western trapper and Indian scout Luther Sage Kelly because of an advertisement in Variety. According to Susan Compo’s biography of Warren Oates, A Wild Life, an ad centered around Kelly ran for U.S. Savings Bonds in early 1956 with the tagline, “His calling card had claws on it.” WB registered the title Yellowstone Kelly in February of ’56. In Burt Kennedy’s script Kelly (Walker), along with his assistant Anse Harper (Edward Byrnes) get caught up in an inter-Sioux feud when they nurse a young Arapaho woman, Wahleeah (Andrea Martin), back to health. Both the Sioux chief (John Russell) and his young charge Sayapi (Ray Danton) wish to have Wahleeah as their wife. Kelly has to return her or he’ll lose access to Sioux land for his trapping. And when a power hungry army captain attempts to push the Sioux off their land, the love quadrangle turns into a war.
While the land in Fort Dobbs is a deathtrap, in Yellowstone Kelly it’s fertile, lush, and Kelly’s sole source of sustenance. The Technicolor cinematography by Carl Guthrie is rich and viridescent – bursting with life. Walker’s red felt shirt emblazons itself on the screen. The plot is one of revivification, of Kelly’s soul and Wahleeah’s body. Kelly is a loner and a bit of a nihilist, becoming skeptical of all forms of society as he lives like a monk in the Western mountains. He finds peace in work and solitude, successfully repressing needs for human contact. It is the persistent annoyance of Harper asking for a job that begins to open Kelly up to human interaction, and it is the sarcastic, flirtatious Wahleeah who re-introduces him to the possibility of love. An intelligent matching of landscape, plot and theme, Yellowstone Kelly is top notch filmmaking.
For WB, it was yet another attempt to milk their stars while they were still cheap and on their initial contracts. The film is thick with TV stars. Edward Byrnes had made his name as “Kookie” on 77 Sunset Strip, while John Russell was the lawman on Lawman. Along with maximizing their low-money contract players, using TV actors was an attempt to lure back the crowds who had abandoned film for the antenna. In an August 1958 issue of Motion Picture News, ,future New York Times film critic Vincent Canby thought these small-screen names “may well bring out to theaters that part of the so-called ‘lost’ audience which has been lost because of TV Westerns and action dramas.” Using the full force of their marketing power, WB sent Walker and Byrnes on a nationwide in-person tour, calling the two leads “Warners’ traveling salesmen.” The tactic was successful, as by all accounts the film took in healthy profits. It didn’t turn into big screen superstardom for Walker, who remained a bankable TV actor and occasional film lead. But his Westerns for Gordon Douglas should secure Walker’s legacy as one of the genre’s finest strapping soft-spoken heroes.