Lone Star (1952) is the second of three films that Ava Gardner and Clark Gable starred in together, which include The Hucksters (1947) and Mogambo (1953). Unlike in those two films, Ava has no rival for Gable’s affections in Lone Star, and she is quite decidedly the female lead, with Belulah Bondi the only other woman in the film.
Both Ava and Gable’s characters seem to have been created for the purposes of the film, but the events depicted seem to have been inspired by Texan President Tyler’s secret negations with Sam Houston. Although there is no mention of future Texan President Polk, and U.S. President Andrew Jackson is given a far greater role in the film in regards to his desire to have Texas annexed than in actual history. For these reasons, the film shows MGM, and the studio system’s, propensity for historical revisionism that concentrated on the Great Man and Rugged Individualism theories of history.
Where is Sam Houston?
Devereaux Burke (played by Clark Gable) agrees to find Sam Houston in Comanche Territory on the condition that the troops that will be needed for the inevitable war between Texas and Mexico after annexation, will be fed with beef from his cattle. There has been word that Houston is against annexation, and President Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore’s second turn as the president) wants Dev to find him and persuade him to support annexation. Dev does not think this will be too difficult as he believes that Houston really is for annexation, and that what has been reported is untrue.
Dev rides into Comanche Territory and saves a man, who turns out to be Craden, who is a powerful rancher in Texas and against annexation, from an attack by the Comanche. This scene is rather upsetting for its depiction of the gruesome killing of Native Americans and the two white men shaking hands over said corpses.
Dev and Craden then ride onto Austin (which is really just a main street with some buildings around it at this point), where opinion is strongly divided regarding the annexation, due to possible war with Mexico. Craden tries to shoot someone who is speaking in favour of annexation because he says they are a traitor, but Dev manages to make sure that the intended target is only winged instead of murdered.
Craden introduces Dev to Martha Ronda (played by Ava Gardner), who is the editor of the local newspaper and like Craden, is against annexation. Dev admires her incredible beauty and very decided opinions, but is wary of her political leanings and her relationship with Craden.
It then turns out that Dev knows the man who was wounded by Craden from the Texas Revolution. Dev recruits a group of men, most of whom he knows from the Revolution, to join him in his mission to not only find Houston, but make sure Austin doesn’t go up like a powder keg from all the fighting over annexation. He tells them that they should only be involved for profit, as he knows how little one gains from fighting for glory.
Dev is attends a dinner party at Craden’s ranch, where senators who are for annexation are meeting. Craden hopes to persuade them to change their allegiances. Martha is suspicious of Dev, but she still sings a romantic song to him, which he rather likes.
Craden tells the senators that Mexico has promised large swathes of land if Texas does not join the United States, and he also predicts that the Union will eventually be split over the question of slavery, as the north already disapproves of the Southern states continued dependence on it. He also explains that Europe supports Texas an independent republic, and that Texas can be larger and more powerful than the entire Union.
The senators are unimpressed, so Craden decides that he will hold them at his house so that they cannot vote in the upcoming debate on annexation in Congress. The senators are outraged, and challenged Craden to a duel. But Craden refuses to shoot any of the senators and withholds his fire, leading the senators to promise that they will fight their way out of the ranch right after having another tipple. Dev and Martha kiss and he declares his love for her, but she is torn over her loyalty to Craden and Dev’s seeming lack of interest over Texan independence.
He leaves the ranch and returns to the hotel where Minni, a forthright relation of President Jackson, is staying. He expresses his desire to change sides due to his love for Martha, but Minni warns him that Martha will reject him due to his mercenary tendencies and her own patriotism.
Dev is angered by Minni’s nay saying, and decides to return to Craden’s ranch and rescue the senators with the men he has recruited. Dev and his men are successful, and Martha and Craden are unsurprisingly furious when they learn where Dev’s true loyalties lie.
Dev then leaves the ranch, but is pursued by Craden into Apache Territory, where Dev hopes to make contact with Houston. Houston is indeed in Apache Territory, and he explains to Dev that his speech that was seemingly against annexation was a political to ploy to make sure that the Union admitted them after multiple rejections. Craden is furious when when he hears this, and accuses Houston of being a traitor.
Dev is tasked by Houston with taking word back to the President of Texas and President Andrew Jackson that Houston supports annexation. Whilst crossing the river, Dev is shot by Craden and washed down the river. He manages to survive and go ashore, where he sets upon Craden and his men, but allows Craden to live.
Dev then goes to Martha’s place, where she tries to shoot him because she thinks he’s killed Craden, but he wrestles the gun from her. He accuses her of being as ambitious as Craden, who wants to be the next president of Texas, while she wants to be the president’s wife. He then tells her about Houston’s letter, which causes her some confusion, before they embrace.
Back in Austin, Dev tries to give the letter to the Texan President, but the fact that the letter is terribly water damaged and that Dev’s contract to supply the army with beef upon war with Mexico, causes the President to dismiss his claims regarding Houston. All seems lost until Martha prints the truth about Houston supporting annexation, despite her still thinking Dev is a cheap adventurer.
Despite this, Craden won’t accept Houston’s plans for annexation, and rallies troops to stop the senators from voting for annexation in the Texan Congress. Although Craden’s army is far larger, Dev leads a small collective against Craden’s approach, and Austin rallies to ward Craden off. Dev and Martha reconcile, with her praising his bravery and his patriotism.
Craden attacks the town and initially things go in Dev and his men’s favour, but Craden’s forces batter the wooden wall with makeshift rams, breaking through Dev’s collective’s defences. Whilst the attack rages, the senators argue, and refuse to allow the treaty with Mexico to go through, before deciding to join in the large scale gunfight outside.
Houston arrives with the Apache, causing the battle to cease. But Dev and Craden attack each other brutally. The fight goes on for a while until Dev manages to overpower Craden and is victorious.
Houston assures the Texans that soldiers from the Union will fight with them against the Mexicans, resulting in joyous cheers. Dev and Martha kiss before he rides off with the men to join the army on the southern border. Craden who has decided to support annexation, carries the Texan flag, as the men ride to meet what may come.
The film ends with the American flag over the screen, with one star on the flag, representing Texas, sparkling.
While this is a well made film, it lacks the urgency that better made and paced Westerns have, such as Shane, True Grit and Pale Rider. Although the film takes great pains to ensure that the audience is aware that there is much at stake, there is too much talk and not enough action until the last half an hour of the film.
While Ava is quite clearly the female lead, as previously mentioned she and Belulah Bondi are the only two women in the entire film, she isn’t given a large amount to do. Her character is feisty and interesting, which was Ava’s specialty, but she mostly acts as an object of desire for Clark Gable and Broderick Crawford, who plays Craden, and another reason for the two men to be hostile to each other aside from their differing political beliefs.
Ava looks absolutely stunning in the film, but as I said, her character is largely unequally written. For example, it’s never explained why she decides to believe Dev and print what turns out to be the truth, in the newspaper. While it is probably supposed to be because she loves Dev, it seems very strange that she suddenly gives up her passionate anti-annexation feelings, and decides to throw her lot in with a man she barely knows. It seems as if the screenwriter was far more intent on making sure that Martha and Dev ended up together than ensuring that Martha continued to be an independent, interesting and patriotic character. While she and Gable have wonderful chemistry, as they did in Mogambo, their reconciliation seems forced and trite after her calling him a cheap adventurer and someone who entirely lacks any redeeming characteristics. It is true that a man defending the town in which you live proves his loyalties, but it doesn’t mean that as a real woman you will fall into his arms. And that’s the problem, Ava is so good as making us believe that Martha is a real woman, with real convictions, that it’s almost impossible to believe her sudden about face concerning the annexation of Texas.
Criticisms of script writing and character development and motivation aside, Ava is a pleasure to watch, as usual. She does much with a very limited and quite thankless part. If this role had been played by another, less competent actress, I don’t think we as the audience would have had much time for Martha. While Ava said that she wished she’d taken her craft more seriously and put more effort into it, I think this film shows that she wasn’t just a “glamour girl”. She was an actress who could imbue even very limited parts with something that made us like with her and root for her. This is clearly Gable’s film, another one where MGM was trying to ensure that he carried on playing the rugged leading man despite his advancing age, but Ava pretty much steals every scene they’re in together, and when Gable kisses her, she doesn’t look like some fragile flower that’s being overwhelmed, she gives as good as she gets.
Would I recommend this film? Probably. I doubt that I’ll watch it again in a hurry, but Ava really is something to see, especially because the script tries to make it otherwise.
This is my contribution for The Ava Gardner Blogathon being hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please check out her blog for further details and to read everyone else’s contributions.