Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Return of the Gunfighter (1967) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

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?").

Upon discovering the murder of his closest friend and his wife, Ben searches for their daughter Anisa (Ana Martin), who is relieved to see the man she calls "Padre" and views as a second father.

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).

This was simply a really good, satisfying movie which I would rank near the top of the Westerns I've seen this year in terms of enjoyment, perhaps surpassed only by the several Anthony Mann Westerns I saw at UCLA. The film doesn't really have anything new to say, but isn't that sometimes one of the good things about watching a Western?

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.

All that said, the truly key thing which elevates this film above the ordinary is the performance of Robert Taylor. His bright blue eyes in his now weathered face, his authoritative deep voice, his ease with a horse, the way he wordlessly conveys sadness and a desire to escape from troubles yet meets the responsibility he feels to Anisa and Lee -- well, he simply commands the picture.

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.


Blogger john knight said...

Hi Laura,

And rather belatedly may I say welcome back from Lone Pine.
I've been really busy lately on that marathon post over at
Toby's over 110 replies a sort of record breaker.
At any rate you have been there in spirit;you have been
name-dropped several times!
As you know I love RETURN OF THE GUNFIGHTER and prefer it to
CATTLE KING which I also like.
I really appreciate your very positive review and it's
wonderful that yourself and Toby are drawing attention to
these lesser known Westerns issued by The Archive.
I really thought Robert Taylor aged really well compared to
some of his peers.
One of the most interesting Westerns released by The Archive
which has so far been overlooked is the very interesting
MASSACRE RIVER with Guy Madison,Rory Calhoun,Carole Matthews,
Cathy Downs and Steve Brodie.
It was directed by John Rawlins who also made FORT DEFIANCE
another unheralded little gem that you gave a very positive
review to.
I would love to get your opinion on MASSACRE RIVER Laura,for
a low budget effort it has good production values and
some spectacular location work.

6:18 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Hi Laura,

Wow, three really nice little westerns reviewed in a row! I'm a big fan of "BRIMSTONE so it is good to see it reviewed for others to pick up on.

"RUSTLERS" is one of 5 new ( to me) Tim Holt movies I have picked up. Your review of this one makes me want to bring it up the list - fast.

Finally, "RETURN OF THE GUNFIGHTER". I know I have spoken about this film somewhere in "Blogland" fairly recently so wouldn't want to repeat myself.
When I first saw this film I was truly shocked to discover it had been made for TV. Not obvious in any way. I am thrilled you enjoyed it as much as I do and shared my feeling that it was Robert Taylor's fine performance that really makes the film. I believe he knew by then that he had cancer (I don't think I am imagining that look in his eyes) and I find it a wonderful film on which to end his career.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

John, thanks so much for the welcome back and also for mentioning that thread is still ongoing -- just went over there and left a comment! Was distracted last week by my Lone Pine coverage and Toby's Webbathon!

I enjoyed CATTLE KING, which is a cozy film with a lovely autumnal setting, but I agree RETURN OF THE GUNFIGHTER was the better -- I am still feeling a glow. I love coming across an unexpected jewel like that -- perhaps not so unexpected as it has been mentioned positively by Western fans such as yourself and my dad but it really pleasantly surprised me given it was late '60s etc.

Have made a note to look into MASSACRE RIVER in the future, I don't have that one yet! Also, thanks again for BRIMSTONE which I enjoyed earlier in the week.

Jerry, glad to know you also enjoyed BRIMSTONE and I hope you find RUSTLERS as pleasing as I did. The beautiful Idyllwild setting and bubbly Lois Andrews really made it fun.

I also posted this query at Toby's place but if you or anyone else can provide more info on the TV-movie background of RETURN OF THE GUNFIGHTER I would love to know -- my dad was curious about it being a widescreen King Bros. production yet considered a TV-movie. (The Warner Archive box says it was originally shown on ABC in January 1967.) I will be checking out my sources today but if you or anyone else knows some background info off the top of your head on this film's background my Dad and I would be most interested.

Best wishes,

8:47 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

A postscript that there is interesting feedback on the TV-movie/aspect ratio background of this film way down in a long thread at 50 Westerns From the 50s -- look for the comments dated October 23, 2014.

Best wishes,

2:51 PM  
Blogger john knight said...

Hello again Laura,
I think RETURN OF THE GUNFIGHTER would have been shown 1.85 ratio when it was
shown in cinemas overseas. I saw it at the Ritz Cinema in London's Leicester
Square and it certainly did not look like a made for TV movie on the big screen.
At that time the budgets for "made for TV movies" were certainly getting bigger as were
the budgets for TV series,especially Westerns.
Another interesting curio is HONDO AND THE APACHES which some say was the pilot
for the TV series HONDO and others say it was two episodes cobbled together.
In any case HONDO AND THE APACHES played in cinemas in England as a B picture.
This was in fact Robert Taylor's last Western appearance and he is very good as
usual. Warner Archive have had requests for this on their Facebook page and they
do say they will release it at some point.
The production values on the short lived HONDO series were certainly impressive.
HONDO AND THE APACHES was directed by Lee H Katzin.
Mr Katzin was really thrown in at the deep end when he took over Steve McQueen's
expensive "vanity project" LE MANS after McQueen had a major falling out with
John Sturges.LE MANS was a very troubled production and the then virtually unknown
Katzin afterwards mainly did made for TV movies.
Interestingly the very last King Brothers project was HEAVEN WITH A GUN,also
directed by Katzin.This was filmed in 2.35 widescreen and was a proper cinema
release.The Warner Archive DVD is a lovely transfer and the film is certainly the
best of Glenn Ford's later Westerns.
It's well directed by Katzin and the only bad thing about the film is the violence
quota raised and some nudity included too,more or less in line with other films
of that era.Apart from that it's a pretty decent traditional Western.
May I add to Jerry's comments on how much we are enjoying this "WEstern Wave" and
I too really enjoyed your review of BRIMSTONE.

6:54 AM  
OpenID vienna said...

Must catch up on this Robert Taylor western. Thanks for your fine review.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Hal Horn said...

HONDO AND THE APACHES is pretty much the first two episodes of the HONDO series, sans about 8 minutes of footage from the second episode and 3 from the first. The story from the second episode, "Hondo and the War Cry", picked up almost immediately from where the opening episode "Hondo and the Eagle Claw" left off. I really wouldn't call it cobbled together, and IMO they could have just released the two episodes together as a 97 minute feature.

I've been reviewing the HONDO series at my blog, The Horn Section, and Warner Archive is streaming the complete 17 episode series. I'd say it is almost certain they will release it at some point, especially since they are releasing the 16 episode JERICHO series next week and HONDO has been much more popular in reruns and on their streaming service.

The production values were strong throughout the 17 eps, as you'd expect from Andrew J. Fenady (THE REBEL, BRANDED). ABC really erred IMO by putting this in a death slot opposite Gomer Pyle and Star Trek and not giving it a chance in a better slot before cancelling it.

1:11 PM  

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