“The characters in my Westerns were just men with guns trying to lick the West. That’s why, in Ride Lonesome, I started in that gigantic high shot [of Randolph Scott, tracking down James Best], to show how infinitesimal a man on his horse, with his pack, was in that vast expanse of the United States – surrounded by Indians who were out of sight. It was a very local, individual time of survival.”
(Budd Boetticher, 1992) (1)
|"infinitesimal a man on his horse"|
Ride Lonesome is the fifth film in the Ranown cycle. (2) As director Budd Boetticher describes it above, the opening sequence finds bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Scott) hot on the trail of Billy John (James Best). His quarry had shot a man in the back in Santa Cruz and now has a reward on his head. He knows Brigade is after him and has set a trap. As Brigade rides through a rocky ravine – the film is another of those Boetticher shot in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California – Billy John is calmly waiting for him, sipping his coffee and talking to his horse.
Hidden in the hills around him are his four partners-in-crime, armed and ready to shoot when the time is right. A single shot alerts Brigade to their presence. “There’s no way for you to get out of here,” the chuckling villain tells him, very pleased at how clever he’s been. But after Brigade points out that, even if they hit him, he’ll still have time to shoot Billy John before he dies, the outlaw has a choice to make. It’s the first in a series of Mexican stand-offs that drives the film’s plot.
|Randolph Scott, James Best|
Brigade says that this is just a job to him, and it’s not until much later in the film that it becomes clear that he’s not interested in the reward, that he has a hidden agenda. Here Ride Lonesome adheres to the same dramatic strategy – withholding the Scott character’s motivation – as the one deployed previously in Decision at Sundown.
Years before, Billy John’s brother, Frank (Lee Van Cleef), had murdered Brigade’s wife, by hanging her. Frank had just been released from prison, where he’d been sent after Brigade had brought him to justice, and was seeking to avenge himself on his captor. Now Brigade believes that it’s his turn and he’s the one setting a trap. He knows that Frank will follow him after he takes Billy John prisoner and he’s using the situation to set up his own revenge.
|Lee Van Cleef|
Their ensuing cross country journey draws in several other characters. At a swing station en route to their Santa Cruz destination, the pair meets up with two more wanted men, Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and his sidekick, Whit (James Coburn, making his screen debut). Carrie Lane (Boetticher’s girlfriend at the time, Karen Steele), the wife of the station manager, is also there, rifle at the ready, awaiting the return of her husband who’s headed out to track down some missing horses.
As in The Tall T, the landscape all around is rocky, dusty and dangerous, the Cinemascope frame making it appear to be stretching on forever, wide shots frequently dwarfing its human inhabitants. Shot by Boetticher’s trusted cinematographer, Charles Lawton Jr., the film is the first time the director worked in the wide-screen format and he put it to good use.
|Pernell Roberts, James Coburn|
“A man can’t be too careful in this part of the country,” Boone says to Brigade, explaining why he’s aimed a rifle at him and Billy John as they’d approached (and echoing swing-station boss Hank’s suspicion of unexpected arrivals in The Tall T). He only lowers his weapon when he recognizes Brigade.
Just as the female leads in previous films in the cycle are referred to by their marital honorific, Carrie is known as “Mrs. Lane” or “Ma’am” throughout by everyone and treated protectively simply because she’s a woman. After a stage-coach arrives, the driver with a lance through his chest and a passenger slaughtered (“Mescaleros!”), she moves towards the group gathered around the coach, only to be told by Billy John to keep her distance. “Don’t come out here. Nothin’ for a woman to see,” he commands. Even villains can be chivalrous in the Ranown cycle.
And Brigade is of like mind, subsequently (and insensitively) telling her that her husband had done the wrong thing, first by bringing her with him into this wilderness, then by leaving her alone when he’d gone off to retrieve the horses. “He never shoulda gone,” Brigade says. “I’m not talking about animals. I’m talking about you… He left you alone,” he continues by way of clarification. She replies, “I can take care of myself.” He presses his point: “If you were mine, you wouldn’t have to… I’d never have brought you here in the first place. Nowhere for a woman!”
A complicating factor here is that Brigade is not simply addressing her situation; although we don’t know it yet, he’s also talking about himself and how he believes he’d failed his wife. The past permeates everything he does and says, the world-weariness etched on to his face: Scott was 62 when the film was made, his age showing. And Brigade’s unbending dealings with everyone indicate how far he’s withdrawn into himself, preoccupied with his plans for revenge at the expense of everything else.
Mrs. Lane is treated as a precious commodity by all the menfolk, not only because she’s a woman but also because she’s beautiful, Boetticher’s camera angles showing off her fine figure in much the same way as it contemplates the cruel beauty of the rocky surrounds. The Mescaleros’ chief (Boyd Stockman) shares the other men’s view of her, offering to trade a horse in exchange for her becoming his squaw. As in all of the films of the Ranown cycle, the characters are forever bartering with each other. The horse, however, turns out to be her husband’s, a clear indication of the fate that has befallen him.
|"She ain't ugly", Karen Steele|
When the deal turns sour, the chief shamed when she reacts in horror on seeing the horse, the Mescaleros launch an attack. “Sure beats all, don’t it?” Boone says to Brigade, “I can't get over the way them Indians wanted to trade her for a horse. If it'd be me, I'd a’ give a whole herd. I guess she's about the best overall good-lookin' woman I ever seen.” Refusing to join in the leering, Brigade nonetheless reveals that he knows exactly what Boone is talking about. “She ain’t ugly,” he says. Cryptic can be funny.
For her part, Mrs. Lane is resilient and resourceful, determined to look after herself and a straight shooter with a weapon, as she reveals the first time we see her and then demonstrates again later when the Mescaleros attack. She’s also shocked by the killing. When she shoots a charging brave during the Indian attack, she’s dismayed by what she’s done. And then, near the end, when a confrontation looms between Brigade and Boone, she’s direct in her criticism of them: “You’re like two dogs fighting over a bone,” she accuses.
And she’s right, in touch with what’s required to release both men from their pasts, even if she’s yet to understand exactly what’s motivating them. Like the women in Decision at Sundown, she makes good sense, while the men around her are all bravado, bluster and deep-seated macho angst.
For Boone, taking Billy John to Santa Cruz means a chance for amnesty for him and Whit, and he’s prepared to kill Brigade in order to get what he wants. In a scene that echoes the key exchange between Pat and Frank in The Tall T, he tries to bargain with Brigade, offering to give him the money he would earn from taking Billy John in, “double if you say”. “Take me a while, but I’ll get it,” he adds. “How? Stoppin’ coaches? Killin’?” the single-minded Brigade asks contemptuously. For him, money’s not the issue. “Well, that’s all over with,” Boone says, with a convincing sincerity. “Is it?” says the upright, hard-nosed Brigade, disbelieving. “Gotta be,” Boone continues. “Man gets half-way, he oughta have somethin’ of his own, something to belong to, to be proud of.” Now Brigade’s listening: “They say that,” he concedes. “I’ve got me a place,” Boone reveals. “Gonna run beef, work the ground, be able to walk down the street like anybody.” That he means what he says is later confirmed when he tells Whit that he wants him to be his partner in this new venture.
Driving the characters in Ride Lonesome, as in most of the Boetticher/Scott Westerns, are aching regrets, a sense of loss and a yearning for something else, something different, something that’s been missing from their lives. Like Pat and Frank in The Tall T, Brigade and Boone understand this about each other, even if only instinctively. It’s why Boone tells Whit, when they think they’re going to have to kill Brigade to get their way, that he’s not the kind of man that you take from the back. Boone recognizes that Brigade deserves respect. He knows the rules of the game they’re playing.
It’s not by chance that it’s Boone, rather than Brigade, who delivers Pat’s line from The Tall T when Mrs. Lane wonders to him why he thinks he has to kill Brigade. “There’s some things a man just can’t ride around,” he tells her. Whatever their flaws, both he and Brigade are men of principle. And, finally, this sense of a bond with Boone and a readiness to trust him is also why Brigade finally surrenders Billy John to him.
Both films’ emotional force comes from the various ways in which these interactions are understated, the laconic dialogue simultaneously camouflaging and intimating a turbulent undertow, pointing to feelings these men will never talk about, can never talk about, but desperately need to. The woman generally holds the key, but it’s one they’ll never discover because they fail to see her as anything more than an accessory in a man’s world.
The recurrent Mexican stand-offs provide the most dramatic illustrations of the deal-making that is like a way of life for the characters. One has Billy John grabbing Boone’s rifle and thrusting it into Brigade’s stomach, momentarily turning the tables on his captor(s), only to find that Boone has drawn his pistol and has pointed it at him. The fact that Boone saves Brigade’s life here makes Brigade’s subsequent refusal to help the outlaw in his pursuit of amnesty seem simply perverse (at least until we learn that the money isn’t the real issue for him). Another is the showdown between Frank and Brigade where the two men face each other down, the bounty hunter having tied a noose around Billy John’s neck so that, at the first shot, the horse will bolt and leave him hanging.
Brigade ends up by himself at the end, Boone and Whit riding off with their prisoner and Mrs. Lane (who might or might not have accepted Boone’s earlier proposal), leaving him standing by the now burning cross-like tree where his wife had been hanged. Frank’s body is stretched out on the ground behind him. It’s an uncompromising but ambiguous closure, allowing the possibility that Brigade has finally exorcised his demons but also suggesting that, like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers, he is doomed forever to ride lonesome.
1. Michael Wilmington, “Tall in the Director’s Chair: Budd Boetticher”, The Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1992 [Here, Boetticher appears to have mixed up the first sequence and the opening one in Comanche Station. Understandable given the similarities between all the films in the Ranown cycle. His description accurately renders the Scott character’s first appearance in Ride Lonesome, as well as the sequence’s metaphorical implications, but “out of sight” are James Best’s four no-good companions. The Indians, Mescaleros, come later.]
2. For commentary on the previous four films of the cycle, click on