When I was growing up, back in the 1970s and 80s, one of the constant companions of my teenage movie viewing life was Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. In those pre-Wikipedia and IMDB days, Maltin's book of capsule movie reviews was one of the few ways to easily access and cross-check information about movies seen on TV and early VHS. I always remember the lingering sense of disappointment when the (otherwise estimable) Mr. Maltin would dismiss or castigate a particular favorite film of mine. One of his reviews that has always stuck with me was his brief comment about one of my all time favorite films (not just westerns), The Big Country. It came down to one word - "overblown" - and what, to my mind, still is a grossly conservative three-star rating.
That word, "overblown," annoyed me then and still does today. Though I suspect there are many out there who may tend to agree with Maltin, I take strong exception to that word. The Big Country is indeed big. It's long, no doubt (2 hours and 46 minutes, to be precise.) Epic, yes. Dramatic...certainly. Sprawling, even. But overblown? I beg to differ.
Alfred Hitchcock put such a stamp on the suspense thriller genre that his name has become synonymous with it. Many a director has since had to put up with the label of “Hitchcockian” when they try their hand at making a thriller. Hitchcock pioneered so many techniques, scenarios and effects as to leave little room for improvement for his heirs. Very few subsequent films that try to mimic his style come close to the original at his peak. Edward Dmytryk’s Mirage (1965) certainly doesn’t rank with the best of Hitch’s work, but it’s a clever and engrossing example of the sort of “innocent man on the run” formula that Hitchcock practically patented with films like The 39 Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959).
Capt. Richard Lance (Gregory Peck) is a strict, by-the-book cavalry officer, unloved but respected by his men for his leadership and survival skills. Leading an expedition to the ironically-named Ft. Invincible, which guards a narrow pass through the mountains, Lance finds the troops there massacred by renegade Apache chief Tucsos and his men. Lance captures Tucsos and insists on bringing him back to Fort Winston to stand trial, against the advice of crusty scout Joe Harmony (Jeff Corey).
Fort Winston’s ailing commander, Col. Drumm, worried that the fort is unprepared for an assault by Tucsos men, orders a detail to escort the Apache chief further north. Lance plans to lead the (likely suicidal) escort himself, and goes to bid farewell to his intended, Cathy Eversham (Barbara Payton). Lance’s best friend Capt. Holloway (Gig Young) also loves Cathy, and following the dictum "all's fair in love and war", is also making a play for her hand. Col. Drumm orders Lance to stay and command the fort and send Holloway in his place. Of course, Tucsos’ braves free him and torture and kill Holloway. Joe and a few other men return with Holloway’s body, and soon the whole fort thinks Lance sent Holloway to his death in his place out of cowardice. Cathy thinks Lance acted out of jealousy, and calls off their engagement.
I like it when a movie opens with a helpful map.
Lance comes up with a plan to possibly delay an attack on the fort until a complement of relief troops arrive in 5 days. He picks seven men, most of whom hate his guts, all men he thinks can be best spared from guarding Fort Winston. These include an alcoholic Irish sergeant (Ward Bond); bullying Sgt. Murdoch (Neville Brand), who Lance has kept from promotion; a former Confederate who is being held for desertion of his cavalry post; a disgraced former West Point officer who has followed Lance into service looking for his best shot at revenge; a wild trooper commonly referred to as “the Arab” (Lon Chaney, Jr.); a cowardly young bugler; and a consumptive officer. Together with scout Joe Harmony, they head for the abandoned Ft. Invincible, with the hope of holding the nearby pass against Tucsos and his men until reinforcements arrive.
It’s a daring and suicidal gambit that becomes increasingly hazardous for Capt. Lance. With the fort baking under a pitiless desert sun, a dwindling water supply, and the merciless Apache threat looming, the men begrudgingly come to realize that Lance is their best hope for survival. But will his plan be enough to stave off an attack against overwhelming odds? And will the men be able to put aside their hatred of Lance to work together as a team, or will they sacrifice their own lives to fulfill their revenge?
Opinionated ramblings about new and old movies (mostly old, as that's the way I like 'em!)
Blogs of Note
Stuart Galbraith IV's World Cinema Paradise
Movie Morlocks (TCM's Classic Movie Blog)
50 Westerns from the 50s
Riding the High Country
Tipping My Fedora
Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Classic TV and Film Cafe
Just a Cineast
She Blogged By Night
Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema
Out of the Past -
A Classic Film Blog
Pretty Sinister Books
They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
In So Many Words...
Greenbriar Picture Shows
My Love of Old Hollywood
Tales of the Easily Distracted
Another Old Movie Blog
Lasso the Movies
Kevin's Movie Corner
Films From Beyond the Time Barrier
Carole & Co.
Rupert Pupkin Speaks
Vienna's Classic Hollywood
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
ClassicBecky's Brain Food
Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed below, to be informed of new postings!