Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Sierra (1950)

SIERRA is a great example of what I love about Universal Westerns of the '50s. It has an excellent cast, beautiful photography, and a haunting musical score. It provides a great evening of entertainment.

SIERRA was Audie Murphy's fifth film. He plays Ring Hassard, who lives with his fugitive father Jeff (Dean Jagger) high in the mountains. The Hassards keep away from civilization, surviving by trapping and breaking wild horses; they're aided in selling the horses by their friend Lonesome (Burl Ives).

Riley Martin (Wanda Hendrix), an attorney, meets Ring when she is lost in the wilderness and then comes to his aid when his father is injured. In her own way Riley is also an outcast from society, looked down on because she dared to go to college and become a lawyer.

As the film goes on Ring must deal with townsfolk for the first time, and there are all sorts of tussles over wild horses and whether or not Jeff committed a murder 15 years previously. The 83-minute story keeps up a good pace, with plenty of action, and moves toward a satisfying conclusion.

I really enjoyed this colorful film, which was shot by Russell Metty against stunning vistas in the area of Kanab, Utah. Murphy is cast as someone who is initially a man of few words, and he's awkward around Riley, the first woman he's ever interacted with. This was canny casting of the young actor, as any onscreen awkwardness Murphy might have would fit right in character. That said, Murphy is really quite good, looking very much at home in the open spaces of the West, and as the years went on he proved to be a fine actor.

Murphy and leading lady Wanda Hendrix had married in 1949, but sadly they were divorced weeks before SIERRA was released. It's reported via multiple sources that at least part of the reason for the collapse of their marriage was that Murphy suffered greatly from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, having episodes which were very frightening for Hendrix, causing her to fear for her safety. Being a great war hero had its dark side. Fortunately more is now understood about PTSD, which Murphy helped to publicize by speaking out on the subject.

Riley is yet another interesting role for Hendrix, who played quite a variety of characters within the span of a few years. This time around, instead of portraying a poor Mexican girl or Italian noblewoman, she gets to play a more spunky, All-American girl type, who dares to represent a man in court despite the derision of the men in the audience. The same year Hendrix made SIERRA, she appeared in one of my all-time favorite Joel McCrea Westerns, SADDLE TRAMP (1950).

One of the film's greatest assets is a really beautiful score with several songs sung by Burl Ives. "Hideaway," sung during the opening credits and again at the conclusion, is part of some very memorable moviemaking, accompanying gorgeous shots of the Utah landscape and wild horses. "Black Angus McDougal" is cleverly used as part of a jailbreak plot. The music helps elevate the film above being a more run-of-the-mill Western.

Burl Ives had also been excellent in STATION WEST (1948) and SO DEAR TO MY HEART (1948), but sadly, SIERRA would be Burl Ives' last film for half a decade. He returned to the screen in EAST OF EDEN in 1955.

The supporting cast is outstanding. When Ring and Jeff form an alliance with another family of genial fugitives headed by Sam Coulter (Houseley Stevenson), two of Sam's several sons are played by James Arness (billed as Jim Arness) and Tony Curtis (billed as Anthony Curtis). Griff Barnett plays the town doctor, with Elisabeth Risdon as Hendrix's aunt. Other roles are filled by Elliott Reid, Richard Rober, Roy Roberts, Sara Allgood, John Doucette, Ted Jordan, and Gregg Martell.

SIERRA was directed by Alfred E. Green. The Edna Anhalt-Milton Gunzburg screenplay was based on a novel by Stuart Hardy titled THE MOUNTAINS ARE MY KINGDOM. The story had previously been filmed as a Universal "B" movie, FORBIDDEN VALLEY (1938), with Noah Beery Jr. as Ring and Samuel S. Hinds as his father. The leading lady in that version was Frances Robinson.

I watched SIERRA thanks to a very beautiful print which is part of the TCM Vault Audie Murphy Westerns Collection. SIERRA is also available in the brand-new Classic Westerns 10-Movie Collection.

SIERRA can also be seen on the Encore Westerns Channel.

Previous reviews of Audie Murphy films: GUNSMOKE (1953), RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO (1954), and NIGHT PASSAGE (1957).

Previous reviews of Wanda Hendrix films: NORA PRENTISS (1947), RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947), PRINCE OF FOXES (1949), CAPTAIN CAREY, U.S.A. (1950), THE ADMIRAL WAS A LADY (1950), and HIGHWAY DRAGNET (1954).


Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I've heard of this one before, because it was re-adapted one more time as an episode of The Virginian, Season 3's "Hideout" (Anhalt got co-credit for the script). The character names were all changed and the story was trimmed down and streamlined a little bit to fit into the confines of a TV episode. I'm kind of interested in reading the original novel if I can ever find a copy, to see what there was about it that made it so popular for adaptation...or if there wasn't anything special about it at all, and the script was just handy for re-working! :)

7:55 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

You have really whetted my appetite for "Sierra". I've hinted to the hubby that the Audie Murphy collection would be a nice birthday present, but we'll have to wait a month to see what happens.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

I saw Sierra on TCM one night about 15 years ago and it stuck with me. So glad they released it on DVD. Audie Murphy was truly something special.

5:52 PM  

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