I am posting this on behalf of VT for the The Man Who Would Be Shane: The Alan Ladd Blogathon. PLEASE DIRECT ALL COMMENTS TO VT ON THEIR EMAIL ADDRESS OF VTDorchester@protonmail.com
Hello! I’m VT – a short story writer and Alan Ladd fan without a blog. (Although I do have a twitter account @VtDorch) I watched The Big Land (twice) last December, and am happy to share my review with you all here, through Pale Writer’s ‘The Man Who Would be Shane’ Blogathon. (Much of the data for this review was drawn from or confirmed by IMDB.com, but any mistakes are likely my own.)
This review contains spoilers. Consider yourselves warned.
The Big Land (released as Stampeded in the U.K.)
Released – 1957 Run Time – 1 hour 32 minutes
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Written by: David Dortort and Martin Rackin, based on the novel “Buffalo Grass” by Frank Gruber
Starring: Alan Ladd, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Anthony Caruso, Julie Bishop, John Qualen, Don Castle and David Ladd
“What makes them [coyotes] howl like that?” – Virginia Mayo as Helen Jagger in The Big Land
“The night, lonesomeness” – Alan Ladd as Chad Morgan, ditto
“You’re a strange man.”
“Maybe I’m like one of those coyotes.”
“Are you that alone?”
“I used to be.”
Is The Big Land a forgotten film gem? I’m afraid not. Is it a competent genre offering? It is.
The print of The Big Land that I watched was somewhat faded. It was hard to tell if some colour and tone inconsistencies from one shot to the next were original to the Warnercolor film or a result of print degradation. There are some aspects of this film that suggest a smaller budget. For example, I found the “gas lamps” in a couple of sets distracting – to me they seemed fairly obviously electric – and there were also times where continuity seemed under threat, possibly due to budgetary constraints. I wonder if The Big Land turned a profit? It did not receive a particularly kind review from the New York Times upon its release. (https://www.nytimes.com/1957/03/02/archives/screen-cattle-opera-the-big-land-opens-at-the-paramount.html )
It is, admittedly, not the world’s most imaginative western. It is a nice way to spend an evening if you’re in a classic family western kinda mood.
Set not too long after the end of the U.S. Civil War, Alan Ladd plays a former Confederate, Chad Morgan. (Watch for the big honking clamp ring over Ladd’s wedding band.) Morgan leads a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri, only to discover that low-down dirty dealing bad guys won’t give him and his pals a fair deal on their cattle when they get there. The chief baddie, dressed in black, is played by Anthony Caruso. (Caruso and Ladd crossed paths on-screen in eight films. Caruso was also in the 1956 Ladd-produced A Cry in the Night.)
After their failure to make a good sale on their cattle, Morgan’s disappointed business partners tell him to get lost. Off he goes, riding alone into an unfriendly town in the rain, right up to the doors of a “Union Hotel” while wearing the remnants of his Confederate uniform.
The rain is pretty well done.
Rebuffed as a “Reb,” Morgan is sent to stay at the stable. At the stable, where some other men are getting ready to sleep, Chad Morgan meets Joe Jagger, played by Edmond O’Brien.
(Edmond O’Brien was an Oscar-winning “character” actor who racked up 120 film and TV credits over three decades. Along with Caruso, he was also in A Cry in the Night. In Beverly Linet’s biography of Alan Ladd, she states that it was during the filming for The Big Land O’Brien and Ladd became friends, and that they remained friends until Ladd’s death.)
Joe Jagger starts off a friendly drunk. Here at the stable while we’re meeting Joe, we also encounter one perfect curl on Alan Ladd’s head. Joe finishes his bottle of whisky and decides to try and sneak another from a stranger after everyone goes to sleep. This is Not A Good Idea, and the next thing we know, a crowd has dragged Joe out to the street to lynch him, but don’t worry, Morgan is there to save the day. Ladd seems to do some of the stunts in this film, but not all of them, and one that he does not seem to do is the shooting here.
Morgan and Joe ride out of town together and now we stop to water the horses at a stream or pond, which leads to a discussion about Joe’s alcoholism.
“Can’t you get it through your head, I need a drink, I need a drink…don’t you understand?” – Edmond O’Brien as Joe Jagger
“I understand.” – Alan Ladd as Chad Morgan
The familiar discussion between western movie hero and sidekick about alcoholism and sobriety may have greater resonance if one recalls Ladd’s reported struggles with same. As we’ve seen in other westerns, here our hero is sympathetic but tough and helps his new friend get sober.
After, Joe and Morgan ride onto a Kansas homestead. (The film was made in Tuolumne County, California and on the Warner studio’s Los Angeles lot.)
Here at this homestead, we encounter a young David Ladd, warming up for his much larger role in The Proud Rebel the next summer. David, along with his character’s brother, ‘hold up’ Joe and Morgan. This is a gently humorous scene, where we are also introduced to Sven Johnson (John Qualen) and the rest of their homesteading family.
(If John Qualen looks familiar to you, that’s probably because John Qualen has credits for over 200 film appearances, including roles in His Girl Friday, The Searchers, and The Grapes of Wrath.)
This homesteading family are hospitable good folk struggling to get their grain to market. As Joe and Morgan spend the night, they learn that a railway won’t build out to the homesteading community only to ship grain once a year. A plan is hatched to combine grain shipping and cattle shipments and a new town to attract the railway investment (and break the bad guy’s hold on the current railhead.) It is revealed that Joe is a talented architect who looks forward to a chance to prove he can again complete building projects since he is newly sober.
Somewhere about now in the story we meet Joe’s sister, Helen. (played by Virginia Mayo) Helen works as a singer at a hotel. She is happy to learn that Joe is no longer drinking, but is somewhat sceptical about how long this will last. And a bit suspicious of Morgan, although also approving of his charms.
(Virginia Mayo was also Alan Ladd’s co-star in The Iron Mistress and had very nice things to say about him in a couple of interviews I have encountered, you may be able to find one on YouTube. Virginia Mayo was reputedly Warner Brothers biggest box-office star in the 1940s and worked on stage and television, with the occasional film appearance into the 1990s. I would list a bunch of credits for her here except I’m already worried about boring people with a long, rambling review!)
Fortuitously, Helen is engaged to a railway guy named Tom Draper (played by Don Castle), and Joe and Morgan are able to get an agreement from Tom that if they build a town, he will see that a railway line is built. Helen sings a song, and Morgan wears a nice suit. The song doesn’t exactly fit the time period and setting, with its blues-spiritual vibe, but it’s fun, and may turn itself into an earworm for you. In fact, the song is probably the highlight of the movie. The song was dubbed by Bonnie Lou Williams. (“I Leaned On A Man.” YouTube link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ww2TWadsVY )
We have a brief encounter with the bad guys again, to remind us that they are still out there.
Now before Joe and Morgan go to talk to Tom, we get a couple of little fan goodies. We get Alan Ladd taking a bath. And we get what I strongly suspect was an intentional tip of the hat towards Shane.
The bathtub scene is so minimally revealing that you can only barely use the word revealing. Although Alan Ladd still looks pretty darn good in this film, his health problems are starting to show a little. There are a few occasions during this film where he doesn’t seem quite engaged. He is still capable of putting across quite a lot of charm, however. One is tempted to write off the bath scene as plain old fan teasing, but there is a precedent for bathtub scenes in other westerns with far less attractive actors. So…perhaps it’s a bit of fanservice and a bit of genre convention combined. I also see it as evidence that people involved in this film had a sometimes-sly sense of humour.
Our second fan goodie is Joe saying he’s going to go and order himself some sarsaparilla at the hotel bar– which I took as a for-the-fans reference to the scene in Shane where Shane goes into a saloon and orders a soda.
Further into The Big Land, you will see happy town building scenes – and then a brief town burning scene at the hands of the black hats. You will see cattle stampeded through the town by said baddies, and of course, a final confrontation between Caruso and Ladd. This final shoot-out is filmed in part from outside the hotel where it’s taking place, from the perspective of the townsfolk across the street. Which is a bit different – and it also requires less careful stunt work and therefore expense, yeah?
There is little here that we haven’t seen in other, perhaps wittier, better-paced, better-funded and better-written westerns. There is a fair amount of predictability to this one.
But, there is absolutely nothing wrong with making a simple tale. The Big Land is a nice, enjoyable if not spectacular, decent later-innings offering from Ladd. Sometimes nice and simple is what you want and need. I would assign it 2.5 stars out of 4 for Ladd fans, and concede it’s probably only a 2 star movie for anyone else.
P.S. – Watching this film, it occurred to me to wonder – why did Alan Ladd always seem to play southerners in his Westerns?! To me, he does not sound southern. Distinctly American, yes, certainly, but southern, no, not really. Not to these Canuck ears. I realize the man was born in Arkansas, but, really. Does he sound ‘southern’ to you? Is there any western in which he plays a specifically stated union-aligned character?