One of the things I most appreciate about the Warner Archive is that it makes available lesser-known but really interesting Westerns.
Examples of this are recent releases of GUNSMOKE IN TUCSON (1958) and RATON PASS (1951), movies I'd never heard of which proved to be quite entertaining.
Yet another example is an earlier Archive release, RETURN OF THE GUNFIGHTER (1967), a TV-movie which marked one of the great Robert Taylor's last screen appearances.
The Robert Buckner screenplay is based on a story Buckner cowrote with Burt Kennedy, who wrote some of Randolph Scott's best Westerns, and the movie is good stuff. This 98-minute film, which was released theatrically in Europe, was directed by James Neilson, shot by Ellsworth Fredricks at Old Tucson.
When I read it was a TV-movie I wasn't expecting all that much, but RETURN OF THE GUNFIGHTER is a quality Western; the story is pleasingly familiar, anchored by Taylor's compelling performance as an aging gunfighter seeking justice for the murder of friends.
Taylor plays Ben Wyatt, recently released from a Yuma prison after being cleared of murder. The weary Ben would like to live in peace, but it seems there's always someone ready to draw on him ("Why won't they leave me alone?").
Along the way Ben has also picked up Lee Sutton (Chad Everett), who is on the run from Frank Boone (Michael Pate) and his family; Ben and Lee clash, but Lee reminds Ben of his younger self and he continues to look out for him. The kindness Ben offers Lee, perhaps against his better judgment, will prove to be key in the path the young man chooses in life.
Ben and Anisa travel to Lordsburg to search for her parents' killers...who turn out to include Lee's brother (Lyle Bettger).
What matters is the way the story is presented, and this was sure a good one, from the tight script with its strong Burt Kennedy influence to the acting to the extensive location exteriors to the evocative score by Hans J. Salter. Then add in some of the all-time great Western villains in Pate and Bettger, and you've got yourself quite a little movie. Everything works.
The final scene, as he walks away by himself, inevitably calls to mind John Wayne at the end of THE SEARCHERS (1956), or even the ending of ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947), as the older man frees two young people to live in peace. There's a wealth of Western history which gives the shot so much more meaning than it has as simply part of the story, and knowing that Taylor would all too soon pass on adds yet another layer of poignance.
Indeed, he's so good here that it seems sadder than ever that this wonderful actor didn't have the chance to act for many more years.
The supporting cast includes John Crawford (later Sheriff Ep Bridges on THE WALTONS), Willis Bouchey, Rodolfo Hoyos Jr., Mort Mills, John Davis Chandler, Henry Wills, Boyd "Red" Morgan, and Harry Lauter.
The widescreen Warner Archive DVD looks great except for just a scene or two which are a little more fuzzy. The DVD includes the trailer.
Western fans will love this one. Highly recommended.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.