They Just Don’t Write ’em Like That Anymore
I’d have taglined this movie Sterling Hayden with a friggin’ HARPOON. This tasty taco of a B Western may lure you in with the fast food flavor of Hayden and harpoons, but it has serious nutritional value in the form of unforgettable performances by Victor Millan as farmer standing up for once in his life, and Nedrick Young as the force of evil he must confront.
This don’t mean Sterling Hayden’s ain’t no slouch here either. Ya, he plays Big Swede- coming home to his Papa’s farm, only to learn that someone done shot his Pa. We see the final confrontation first thing, Swede with his Pa’s harpoon, facing the gunman Johnny Crale all in black, in a near parody of the classic Western showdown. Crale, played by blacklisted screenwriter Nedrick Young, quietly goads him on: “Just five steps closer, Swede. Give yourself a fighting chance.” Swede backs down, and we learn what led to this…
Pa Hanson’s death begins the story with Johnny Crale once again facing the old man who has only his harpoon from his whaling days. He wants him to sign over his land, and when he doesn’t, he shoots him dead and empties his six shooter into the fallen corpse. Yeah, it’s a brutal story. Written by Dalton Trumbo through front Ben Perry, it is bleak and cynical. The town fat cat, played by Sebastian Cabot, has Crale and the town sheriff in his pocket, and wants the folks land for the crude he’s found beneath it. The only one who knows is Jose Mirada, a good man frightened because he and his son Pepe are the only witnesses to Hanson’s murder. And if Crale finds out, his family will surely be killed.
Sterling, that big expressive brute, comes to town unaware of the tragedy. He meets his father’s murderer first thing, but doesn’t know it. The town toughs play the big Swede for a dummy. The Sheriff tries to run him off with sly questions about his immigrant status and shaky standing as an heir. He won’t be moved, and once he finds the Miradas he realizes something is amiss in town and won’t budge. So the thugs taunt him until they can beat him up and throw him on the next train. But he staggers home along the tracks, collapsing at Jose’s feet. His stubborn perseverance begins to inspire Mirada, whose family has been threatened again by Crale.
Once Swede and Jose talk they figure out that fatcat McNeil wants the land for oil, and Swede wants to get all the farmers to church that day so they’ll stand together. So when McNeil sends Crale to force the Miradas out, Jose stands fast. It’s a tense and emotional scene, with the fear playing across the unarmed man’s face, as he confronts the stone cold killer. Victor Millan’s dignified portrayal singled this film out for Turner Classic Movies Latino Images in Film marathon, and it still holds today. He knows he’s dead whether he takes it standing or on his knees. He chooses to take it on his feet.
But his newfound courage shakes the killer to his core; Ned Young was better known as a screenwriter, but his performance here is somehow more chilling than Jack Palance’s famous turn in Shane. But he knew something about standing up. He was blacklisted for refusing to name names, and was blacklisted for it. Maybe he drew on the ruthlessness of power he saw in the men who tried to break him? He’d later win the Oscar for best screenplay for The Defiant Ones, and be well-remembered for others like Jailhouse Rock and Inherit the Wind. But here his acting is likely at its best, crafting the classic Western villain that we want to see more than dead- we want to see a harpoon hanging out of his chest!
The 80 minute script surely obliges, and fans of Sterling Hayden will not be disappointed by his simmering portrayal of the good man done wrong. This overlooked Western is fine viewing, and about the only time you’ll get to see sixguns face a whaling harpoon on the silver screen. But look past that to the roles of Jose Mirada and Johnny Crale, which defy our expectations of hackneyed cutouts and elevate a B movie to something special.