Saturday, June 05, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The Walking Hills (1949)

THE WALKING HILLS has to be one of the most peculiar films Randolph Scott ever starred in. It's a bizarre mishmash about a group of disreputable types who join together in a quest for gold, said to have been lost under the desert sand a century before. When Scott rides off with his foal across his saddle at movie's end, my husband and I just shook our heads and agreed it was a very strange movie.

This modern-day Western starts promisingly at the Calexico-Mexicali border, an area which has been in the news in recent weeks due to earthquake activity. A group of men playing cards in the back room of a saloon discuss a legend that a wagon train buried in the desert sand was carrying gold. The youngest man at the table innocently mentions having seen something that the others recognize could be a clue to the location of the wagon train, and the next thing you know, the entire group is off to the desert and digging for gold, followed by a mysterious woman (Ella Raines).

The men include Jim (Randolph Scott), who insists on bringing along his mare which is about to have a foal. We learn that Jim was once dumped by Chris (Raines), who fell in love with Dave (William Bishop), who's being pursued by federal agent Frazee (John Ireland). Or is the agent really after Johnny (Jerome Courtland) or Chalk (Arthur Kennedy)? Edgar Buchanan and Josh White are also along on the adventure.

The plot is kind of all over the place, as the various characters' back stories are gradually revealed during the expedition. Nobody seems particularly likeable, although Jim at least is devoted to his mare and her foal. Scott's character otherwise is fairly enigmatic from start to finish. Ella Raines (TALL IN THE SADDLE) plays another of her feisty Western gals, but her character is pretty murky as well. Everyone has "gold fever" to such an extent that they are bizarrely unconcerned with getting medical help when one of the men suffers a life-threatening gunshot wound. Which characters are good guys and which aren't is oh-so-slowly revealed, with matters coming to a head during a climactic sandstorm.

The best things about the movie are the music and the location shooting. The original score by Arthur Morton is striking, and Josh White plays guitar and sings a number of songs. (I believe his billing was "Josh White and his Music.") White had a beautiful voice, and his songs made the film worthwhile for me; he's also probably the most likeable character in the movie.

White's onscreen prominence and unspoken equality with the other characters was refreshing for that era in film, given that he was a black man. I did a little Googling and found a biographical sketch of White which was most interesting. The author said that THE WALKING HILLS was "one of Hollywood's first films where an African American was portrayed as a racially equal character in the story." (1943's CRASH DIVE also comes to mind in this regard.) White was honored with a postage stamp in 1998.

The movie was filmed on location at Death Valley, which is acknowledged at the end of the opening credits. (Death Valley had also been used very effectively the previous year in the 20th Century-Fox Western YELLOW SKY.) Occasionally there are shots cut in which were obviously filmed on a sound stage -- the characters' voices even seem to echo a bit in these scenes -- but there is a substantial amount of actual location shooting, and process shots are kept to a minimum.

THE WALKING HILLS was directed by John Sturges, whose other Westerns included ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO (1953), another film set in the desert.

The movie runs 78 minutes. The cinematography was by Charles Lawton Jr. It was produced by Harry Joe Brown, John Haggott, and the uncredited Randolph Scott for Columbia Pictures.

This seems to be a difficult film to find. I was able to watch a VHS copy recorded from cable which is part of my father's Randolph Scott collection.

Update: This film will be released on DVD by TCM in September 2013.


Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

You're not kidding about this being a difficult flick to locate--in fact, I scrolled down before I finished reading to see where you obtained the movie.

This has been one on my "must-see" list for quite some time--I'm a huge fan of John Sturges' work...and of course, nothing beats a good Randy Scott film.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Colin said...

Good review. This must be one of the very few John Sturges films not yet on DVD somewhere.

1:07 PM  

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