I found myself caught in a seventy year time loop, again being offered Audie Murphy on a Saturday afternoon - when GEM aired Sierra in what proved to be a nice transfer of the Technicolor original. I watched it more out of curiosity than nostalgia or anticipation. There were all the prized elements - hard riding in the lush Utah scenics, the golden oil lamp nights, ripe western dialogue “You just haven’t got a bad enough reputation. That’s all.” “Shall we start hanging them now?”
Veteran director Alfred E. Green was a competent craftsman who collected these
ingredients rather than honored them. Unlike most of his contemporaries he didn’t have a long apprenticeship on silent westerns and had no great feeling for the form. Robert Stack in his Badlands of Dakota is similarly functional though the other time he hit the trail, Green had Pop Sherman looking over his shoulder and Joel McCrea climbing into the saddle for the agreeable Four Faces West and the difference showed.
Sierra is short on action. The piece comes to a halt at regular intervals for Burl Ives to do unmemorable numbers. His function as side kick includes singing the jail house deputy to sleep and making a comic escape on a slow moving mule. The punch up between Audie and Richard Rober (and their doubles) is anti-climactically brief. When they do exchange gunfire Rober apologises to Audie! The finale isn’t a shoot-out but a (quite effective) stampede of suspiciously well-groomed wild horses.
What the film does have, along with cowboy movie atmosphere and Russ Metty’s great scenics (minimal process shots), is its determined attempt to make Audie a western hero. Our leading man lives in seclusion (“He’s different from our kind”) with his outlaw dad Dean Jagger. When told to explain himself in a hurry, he says “I never talk fast” and reacts badly to Elliot Reid’s attempt to be grateful. Like Hopalong Cassidy, he doesn’t take hard liquor. “You can stand at the bar and hold a glass, can’t you?”
|Wanda Hendrix, Audie Murphy|
Murphy speaks clearly and moves well. Like all the film’s cowboys he rides a horse impeccably. That’s pretty much all that was expected from a western star ahead of him but the cycle was about to peak in the fifties when John Wayne was joined by Jimmy Stewart, William Holden, Richard Widmark, Kirk Douglas and the rest. Audie and then wife Wanda Hendrix register more like the local kids doing dress up by comparison. It took a long while for his producers to develop properties like The Posse from Hell (Herbert Coleman, 1961) and Showdown (R G Springsteen, 1963) to accommodate his underplayed macho.
The script, partly authored by regular Stanley Kramer associate Edna Anhalt, integrates themes which we can now see as key in the Hollywood movie, notably the rule of law, with small town judge Erskine Sanford managing to make an impression in minimum footage. “I always go by the law once I know what it is.” He weighs in when his courtroom ridicules (“a woman’s got no right to be a lawyer”) Hendrix.
Add in a nice selection of support players - Elisabeth Risdon, once Mrs Maurice Elvey, Sara Allgood’s last performance - along with James Arness, I. Stanford Jolley, Jack Ingram and young Anthony Curtis getting a snatch of dialogue apiece.
If you compare Sierra with the Allan Ladd Whispering Smith (Leslie Fenton, 1948) of a couple years before, which it occasionally resembles, it takes its place as a not unwelcome reflection of the achievements of the cycle.