The other day, a blog reader, Dr Pradeep Prahlad, commented on one of my reviews of a Tyrone Power film, Witness for the Prosecution. It reminded me that a few years back, I went through a longish spell of complete and utter Power fandom. I watched, over the space of a few months, just about every Tyrone Power film I could lay my hands on. Some were good, some were forgettable. Some I reviewed. Some I thought I’d review—and then forgot about them.
So here is one film that I liked, but ended up not having the time to review back then. I rewatched Rawhide a couple of weeks back, saw flaws in it I hadn’t noticed the first time round, and decided it merited a review. Even if only to keep the Power love alive, and even if only to draw attention to a Western that generally tends to get overlooked.
… though it begins in a way I find very irritating. To shots of magnificent landscapes—deserts, cacti, massive boulders, hills, snows and more—through which a stage coach travels swiftly, a somewhat pompous voiceover tells us about the Overland Mail. From San Francisco to St Louis, a distance of 2,700 miles, the Overland Mail carries passengers and goods: pay $200 (meals included), and you can do the journey in a mere 25 days. Scoffers said it couldn’t be done, and that only jackasses would attempt something like that. It was dubbed the Jackass Mail, a badge it now proudly wears as it does that daunting stretch, one stage following swiftly on the heels of the other, crossing east to west and west to east.
The action is centred round Rawhide Station, which lies approximately midway through the 2.700 mile course of the Overland Mail’s coaches. The station is bang in the middle of nowhere, with little except a comfortably-sized cabin, a corral, water tower, water trough, and—that’s about it. In sole charge of Rawhide Station is Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan). Right now, he also has a helping hand in the shape of Tom Owens (Power), the son of one of the owners of the Overland Mail. Tom is here to learn the ropes [and it’s a pleasant surprise to see him actually pulling his weight—and to see that Sam, instead of favouring him with any deference, treats him just as if he were another hand].
Shortly after we’re introduced to Sam and Tom, a stage coach heralds its arrival, the driver pulling up short in the shadow of the nearby mountain and tooting on a bugle. This is the signal that the stage is drawing up; only when Sam (or Tom) blow their bugle in return, indicating that the station is safe, will the coach draw nearer.
This time, when the coach draws up after receiving the all-clear from Tom, there are two somewhat unusual passengers aboard: a young woman (Susan Hayward) and her baby, Callie (Judy Ann Dunn, cute as a button). Her mother gives her own name as ‘Holt’, and when addressed by Tom as Mrs Holt, flies into a fury and says that no, she’s Miss Holt. She’s snappish and tetchy all through the brief time they spend at the station, eating a quick meal before they continue.
Tom gets it in the neck from her every now and then, so by the time the coach is ready to leave again, he’s happy to see the last of Miss Holt.
But, just as the coach is moving away, a posse of four soldiers, headed by a lieutenant, comes riding up. They ask the driver if he’s seen four riders pass by on the way; but no, the driver’s seen nobody. The lieutenant explains: the outlaw Rafe Zimmerman has broken out of jail. Along with some other fellow escapees, he held up another stage coach and murdered the driver. There’s an alert out: a stage coach is due to come this way the next day, bringing with it a massive amount of gold from the mines in California—and that, undoubtedly, is Zimmerman’s target.
Some hurried (and worried) conversation ensues. The decision is quickly announced: Miss Holt and her baby must alight and stay at Rawhide Station until all is safe along the trail. Miss Holt (her name eventually turns out to be Vinnie, so that’s what I’m going to refer to her as from now on) flies into a rage and refuses. She has to get to Independence as soon as possible; she can’t afford any delays—there’s a job waiting for her there, and if she’s late, she’ll be in a fix.
The men working for the Overland Mail tell her the company’s rules: that children must not be allowed to proceed in coaches that are deemed to be in danger. Vinnie does not listen and lunges in through the open door of the coach, having already seated Callie inside. The men have their work cut out: the other passengers (all male) have already climbed up, as has the driver and the man who rides shotgun. Tom grabs Vinnie, who kicks and shrieks and tries her best to get free, while Sam gets hold of little Callie.
They hold on to the two females while the coach rushes off in a cloud of dust.
A furious Vinnie takes Callie from Sam, and while Tom brings her luggage into the cabin, she flounces into his room and places Callie on one of the beds. When Tom points out that this is his room, she lets him know that it is now her room. Then, she demands to know where she can have a bath. Tom points the way to a creek nearby, back in the canyon. Vinnie reaches out and smartly pulls the gun from his holster; she’ll take it along, thank you.
So Tom gives her his ammunition belt as well. Without his gun, he’s not going to have much use for it anyway. Vinnie gathers up Callie and they go off to freshen up.
Shortly after, a lone rider (Hugh Marlowe) arrives. Sam and Tom are already wary, but he reassures them by showing them his badge: Deputy Marshall Ben Miles of Huntsville. He’s looking for Zimmerman and his gang, too, and wants to know if these two have seen them. Sam and Tom relax, and Miles chats easily with them, asking if they’re the only ones at the station and so on…
… and then suddenly, when they’ve dropped their guard, he pulls a gun on them. This is Zimmerman himself. And here, summoned by him firing a couple of shots into the air, come his three cronies, riding up now. The bug-eyed and more-than-a-little-mad Tevis (Jack Elam); the somewhat stupid, bumbling Yancy (Dean Jagger), who would rather fill up his belly and dress himself up in the smart clothes he’s stolen from someone’s luggage than go helping Zimmerman in these hair-raising adventures. And Gratz (George Tobias), the stereotypical stolid, unflappable German: not flamboyant, not mad, just quiet and reliable.
Zimmerman questions Sam and Tom, but they stoutly deny that there’s anybody else with him, or that they know anything about whether or not the coach due tomorrow is carrying gold.
It doesn’t help; Zimmerman already has his information. He knows what time the coach is expected to arrive, what’s the value of gold on board, where it’s headed—everything.
While this interrogation—getting increasingly violent on Zimmerman’s part—is in progress, Tevis (who’s been exploring Tom’s room all this while) emerges with a dress and some crack about putting it on. The joke doesn’t go down well with Zimmerman, who gets irritated—but who also realizes, the very same moment, that this means there’s a woman around. These two have been lying; if there’s an as-yet unseen woman somewhere nearby, she could well have ridden away for help. When Sam denies that he’s married, Zimmerman jumps to the conclusion that the woman must be Tom’s wife.
‘Where is she, Owens?’ Zimmerman yells, and when Tom says that he hasn’t got a wife, Zimmerman gets mad enough to hit him. And Sam, taking advantage of the sudden diversion, hurls a table, knocking down Gratz, and runs out the front door of the cabin—
—and is shot in the back by Tevis.
Vinnie, coming back with Callie from their bath, is surprised to see what’s happening [Considering Zimmerman fired to summon his colleagues, it’s odd that she’d didn’t hear those shots]. Before she can even begin to guess at what’s happening, Zimmerman and his men have caught her and the baby and dragged them into the cabin.
Where, because they are, after all (as Zimmerman thinks) a family, he locks up all three—Tom, Vinnie, and Callie—into Tom’s (or Vinnie’s, whichever way you look at it) room. They’ll stay in there, held captive.
Because Zimmerman has realized one important thing: he needs Tom to be around. Tonight, the west-bound coach is expected to stop by at Rawhide; with Sam dead, if even Tom isn’t around, the alarm will be raised all the way up and down the trail. The stage carrying the gold may not even come through tomorrow if that happens.
And even when the night coach is safely (and with no suspicions aroused) on its way, Tom will have to be around to usher in that valuable coach tomorrow. That bugle call to signal the all-clear is all-important.
Tom, however, realizes something Vinnie does not: that once their usefulness is over, there is no need for Zimmerman to keep Tom, Vinnie and Callie alive. He’s certain to kill them once he’s robbed that stage coach that’ll be coming in the next day. They have to get out, they must get out, before then.
But they’re in a locked room, and with the four men—Zimmerman, Tevis, Yancy and Gratz—constantly on watch in the main hall of the cabin, separated from them by just one door. How will they get out? And will they manage it in time?
There was a time—way back, when I was in my early teens—when any Western, good, bad, and ugly, was grist to my mill. I watched any that came my way. Later, I became more discerning (mostly when I realized that so many of them follow fairly predictable plotlines). Rawhide is not terribly different (if one had to point to ‘different’ Westerns, I’d mention Westward the Women), but it does have certain elements—the suspense, importantly—that make it a fun watch. Not a great Western, but definitely an entertaining one.
What I liked about this film:
As I mentioned, the suspense. It’s pretty obvious, this being standard mainstream Hollywood Western, that the hero and heroine will overcome the challenge they face—but the path to it is interesting, because Tom and Vinnie are facing pretty daunting odds:
- They’re racing against time;
- They’re, for all practical purposes, confined to this one room—so escaping Rawhide will first mean escaping the room;
- And, Callie is one adventurous baby.
What I didn’t like:
The dialogues and the dubbing. A lot of the dialogues are the type that read all right, but when actually spoken out loud by a character, sound somewhat artificial. That artificiality is accentuated by the fact that the majority of the actors seem to have sleep-walked through the dubbing, so what they end up with isn’t very convincing.
Still, all said and done, not a bad film. You get to see Tyrone Power looking really handsome; if you’re at all the baby-loving types, you get to gush over little Judy Ann Dunn. The scenery is gorgeous (I’m wishing this film had been made in colour rather than black and white—it would’ve been quite spectacular, I think). And the story is good.