Richard Carlson, I was immediately intrigued when film historian extraordinaire Blake Lucas told me about one of his favorite Westerns, FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER. FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER was one of a handful of projects directed by Carlson, the follow-up to his first directing effort, RIDERS TO THE STARS (1954).
When I stumbled across the hard-to-find FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER on the internet this weekend, I made sure to watch it immediately, lest it quickly disappear.
Ray Cully (Rory Calhoun) leads a group of rather goofy bank robbers (John McIntire, George Nader, and Jay Silverheels) in the Pacific Southwest. In their wanderings they meet up with Simon Bhumer (Walter Brennan) who's escorting his daughter Lolly (Colleen Miller) back to their home.
Lolly shares a mutual attraction with Cully, so her wary father puts space between them just as fast as he can. Cully and company have a bank to rob, anyway...but with the Apaches on the warpath, Cully will soon face a life-changing decision about his priorities.
This is, by and large, a good-natured film with a rather unusual theme for a Western: what it means to grow up and act like a mature adult. Cully and his gang aren't so much bad men, it's more that they've never grown up -- as evidenced by the constant childlike roughhousing of two of the men -- and lacking responsible jobs, robbery happens to be the way they support themselves. They're not killers, they're just looking for some easy money.
While Cully's been wandering aimlessly with his merry band of bank robbers, his old friend and rival, Jim (Charles Drake), became a responsible citizen -- the sheriff! -- and married a lovely woman (Nina Foch). One senses some of Cully's growing inner turmoil during a creatively staged bank robbery, where Cully brawls with the sheriff to distract an entire town, but it takes the Indians attacking Lolly and her father to finally trigger the chain of events which will push Cully into assuming the role of a responsible man.
The theme of growing into an adult also applies to Lolly, who is emerging from tomboyish adolescence into womanhood. I was initially somewhat bemused by the ultra-obvious approach to Lolly's burgeoning sexuality, what with her rolling around on the ground, water poured all over her torn shirt, and some additional blatant symbolism which I'll leave it to viewers to recognize. One might be forgiven for thinking her ripe character overdone up to this point, or for wondering why on earth Lolly decides to wander out into a rainstorm clad only in a short, thin nightgown. (The answer to that, incidentally, is soon apparent: "Because she wanted to.")
But it's at this point, as Cully follows Lolly into a horse shed, that the movie turns into something really interesting and special, in an extended scene tracing the romantic awakening of a young girl. Curiosity, fear, tenderness, and passion play out one after the other. The sequence is simultaneously beautiful, touching, and rather amazingly hot for 1954.
As Blake Lucas describes this sequence in THE WESTERN READER, it's a "lyrical love scene in an obscure programmer...with matchless intensity and insight, a fine cinematic suppleness, and a rare command of mood." It's a beautifully choreographed scene worthy of a second look to take it all in.
From here on the movie is really outstanding, as Cully faces his past and then makes decisions about his future. The final confrontation between Cully and the sheriff, with the now more adult-looking Lolly sobbing and yelling at the wounded Cully to give up, is simply marvelous, particularly as the scene evolves in such an uncliched way.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Calhoun makes a handsome, conflicted Western hero, while Miller is an unusual screen presence. She's not classically beautiful, but as her character matures into a young woman she becomes increasingly appealing and ultimately is quite memorable.
It sometimes seems that John McIntire must have been in every Universal Western of the '50s, but the man never wears out his welcome. He's truly one of the great ones, who seems to bring a little something different to every character.
Nina Foch is also superb in the middle section of the film, as a woman who fears that she may suddenly and unexpectedly lose her man. Mary Field is also deserving of mention, in a terrific little role as a nervy gun-toting dressmaker who tells off Cully.
As noted above, director Carlson brings some fresh perspectives to the Western, and one really wishes he'd had a more extensive directing career.
The screenplay of this 83-minute film is based on a story by Louis L'Amour. It was filmed by Russell Metty at Southern California locations which included Bell Ranch.
I note that, per IMDb, one of the stuntmen on the film was Bobby Hoy, who I recently wrote about as one of the cast members of the late '60s TV Western THE HIGH CHAPARRAL.
Let's hope that FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER will be a future release in the Universal Vault DVD series, as it's deserving of a wider audience.