Tuesday 20 October 2020

Streaming and on Blu-ray and DVD - Tom Ryan (almost) concludes his study of Budd Boetticher's westerns with Randolph Scott - COMANCHE STATION (USA, 1959)


The Ranown Cycle, Part 6


“Whatever happened to Randolph Scott, ridin' the trail alone?   

Whatever happened to Gene and Tex, and Roy, and Rex, the Durango Kid?   

Oh, whatever happened to Randolph Scott, his horse plain as could be?   

Whatever happened to Randolph Scott has happened to the best of me.”


(from The Statler Brothers’ “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?”,  

               1974) (1)


1959 was the year of The Alamo (John Wayne), Cimarron (Anthony Mann), Flaming Star (Don Siegel), The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges), Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford) and The Unforgiven (John Huston)…. And Comanche Station, the final film in the Ranown cycle (2)

Written by Burt Kennedy, directed by Budd Boetticher, and shot in 12 days, it once again brings together a Randolph Scott character, three outlaws and a damsel in distress. This time Scott is Jefferson Cody, a former army major who’s been riding Comanche country for ten years on a search mission. As had become the storytelling practice of the films in the cycle, his motivations only gradually become clear. 


The opening image reintroduces the rocky landscape that has served as the regular setting throughout the cycle: the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine in Northern California, with Mount Whitney in the background. (3) The last of cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr.’s three films for Boetticher (afterThe Tall T and Ride Lonesome), it introduces Cody behind the credits. A man riding lonesome in a landscape where he appears at home, he’s moving from right to left across the CinemaScope screen, visible in the middle distance atop a rise, trailing a mule behind. 


His solitude is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a small group of Comanches, their presence signalled an instant earlier by what the untrained ear might identify as a bird call. But Cody knows better. He’s aware of the Comanches’ presence before he sees them. It’s later revealed that he’s done this many times before. Communicating his wish to trade by sheathing his rifle, he negotiates with their spokesman (Foster Hood) – albeit in sign language – before joining them to ride to the village for further discussions with their chief (Joe Molina). 

Randolph Scott

As in all the other Ranown films, bargaining is to the fore in Comanche Station and it turns out that the Indians have a prize to trade, a white woman, Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates), inevitably known as “Mrs. Lowe”, or “Ma’am”. Cody’s Winchester seals the deal. She introduces herself. “I might have known,” he mutters. His manner is gruff, but he clearly knew what he was doing. So why has he come to her rescue in the first place and why is he disappointed now? He brushes off her question: “It seemed like a good idea,” he says. “You could have been killed,” she persists. “Yes, Ma’am,” he replies matter-of-factly, and walks away. The conversation is over.

Together they head across the unforgiving terrain towards Lordsburgh, he giving nothing away, she nursing an undeclared but implicit trauma. She wonders aloud to him: “If you had a woman who’d been taken by the Comanche, then you got her back, how would you feel knowing…?” She doesn’t complete the question, but its implications are clear. Three years earlier, in The Searchers, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards had been prepared to kill his teenage niece after she’d been captured by Comanche; it was a time when even the word “miscegenation” was still forbidden by Hollywood’s Production Code. “I loved her, it wouldn’t matter,” Cody responds. She’s disbelieving: “Wouldn’t it?” “No, ma’am, it wouldn’t matter at all.”


Nancy Gates, Randolph Scott

At this point in the film, their conversation appears to be about her situation and her fears about how she’ll be received when she returns home. By the end, it’s become achingly clear that it’s also about his situation and his sense of displacement from the life he’d once taken for granted. As with the Scott characters in the other Ranown films, there’s a painful absence in his life, driving him on. The reason he’s been wandering Comanche country for so long has been his search for his wife, abducted years earlier by the Comanche. Whenever news of a white woman being traded has reached him, he’s set out to retrieve her in the hope that it’d be his wife. 


Thus his disappointment: Mrs. Lowe isn’t Mrs. Cody. But now, as he instinctively understands, it’s his job to return her to whatever safety civilization has to offer. As they pause in their journey at Comanche Station, a swing-station for the Lordsburgh stage (on which much of Ford’s Stagecoach took place), three riders arrive with Comanche braves in hot pursuit. After the gunfire dies down, Cody realizes that he knows one of them, Ben Lane (Claude Akins). 


Randolph Scott, Claude Akins

Their history is not a friendly one. Cody was responsible for court-martialling Lane after he’d disobeyed orders and led his troops in the slaughter and scalping of a tribe of peaceful Indians. When the two briefly discuss what had happened, Lane insists he didn’t understand the orders he’d been given, but Cody isn’t having any of it. “You’re a liar,” he snaps and strides off. The film doesn’t allow any definitive reading of who’s right about what took place, but the exchange does allow one to believe that Lane could be telling the truth and it also points to Cody’s righteousness and his reluctance to see things other than his way.


Like Richard Boone’s Frank in The Tall T, Lane is flanked by two offsiders who aren’t especially bright and who don’t appear to know any better than to do his bidding. This Frank (Skip Homeier) seems happy enough to go along with the situation, but Dobie (Richard Rust) is increasingly resistant to the condescending way that Lane treats them. He doesn’t like Dobie’s bossiness and he’s drawn by Cody’s charisma and authoritative demeanour. 


“Sure hope I amount to somethin’,” he says wistfully to Frank. Cody is his model: “He was army. Had braid on him.” Frank’s dismissive: “Yeah, but not anymore.” Dobie’s not convinced, remembering how his pa told him that he shouldn’t be discouraged by the changing times. “A man does one thing, one thing in his life he can look back on, go proud. That’s enough,” he explains. 


Richard Rust, Skip Homeier, Nancy Gates

Later, after Frank is killed by the Comanche, Dobie talks to Cody about the course his life has taken, explaining that Frank “never knew anything but the wild side”. Cody is firm about the choices that can bring one undone: “Man can cross over any time he’s a-mind.” But Dobie holds firm, insisting that the world is a lot more complicated than Cody is allowing. “It ain’t that easy,” he tells his elder. “It ain’t that easy at all.” And Cody is impressed, offering him an alternative future, in partnership with him, their exchange echoing the ones that Frank (Boone) had with Pat (Scott) in The Tall T, that Tom Buchanan had with Pecos (L.Q. Jones) in Buchanan Rides Alone, and that Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) had with Whit (James Coburn) in Ride Lonesome. Whit survives, but The Tall T’s Frank dies at the end of the film. And Pecos is shot in the back, as is Dobie, after he tells Lane that he wants no part of his plans.


Like Lee Marvin’s Bill Masters in Decision at Sundown, Lane immediately sees the spark that’s been ignited between Cody and Mrs. Lowe and resents it. In front of her, he accuses Cody of rescuing her for the $5000 bounty her husband has offered. She’s furious that Cody hasn’t told her about it; Cody’s not about to plead his own case, but later reveals that he hadn’t known of it.


Nancy Gates, Skip Homeier

And Lane’s later parable about the man who’d rescued a woman from Indians and fallen in love with her is a minor variation on the story that the lascivious Masters tells. “Sure is a good-lookin’ woman,” Lane teases salaciously. “Kinda just made you go along with bein’ around her, hearin’ her say words, seein’ her move.” Then the brutal punch-line: “Come to think of it, she was a lot like you, Mrs. Lowe.” There’s nothing subtle about Lane.

Further echoes of earlier films in the cycle abound, as when, like Boone’s Frank in Ride Lonesome with his offer to Karen Steele’s Mrs. Lane, Comanche Station’s Lane – presumably no relation (4) – makes his feelings for Mrs. Lowe clear with what amounts (in his eyes) to a proposal. However, in the process, he also mocks the husband who hasn’t come looking for her himself. “If you were mine, I’d come lookin’ to find you, even if I died in the doin’,” he tells her. The awkward tenderness that Boone’s Frank brings to his pitch is entirely absent here, Lane’s leering manner devoid of any feeling for Mrs. Lowe. 


At the same time, though, Lane’s comments are similar to the Scott character’s in Ride Lonesome when he passes a harsh judgement on the absent swing-station manager for leaving his wife to fend for herself in the middle of nowhere. The only difference between them is that, while Brigade’s motives are protective, Lane’s are predatory. 

His private exchange with Cody about Mrs. Lowe are also reminiscent of the “she-ain’t-ugly” scene in Ride Lonesome in which Brigade and Boone talk about Mrs. Lane. “It’s amazing what an Indian’ll give up for a Winchester rifle and a bowl of red calico,” Lane says. “Sure a handsome woman. See one like that and a man gets to thinking about taking a wife and settling down.” Cody is bemused: “You?” he observes incredulously.


He understands that it’s money that makes Lane’s world go around. And he’s shown to be right about this when Lane tells his increasingly unhappy offsiders that he’s prepared to kill her as well as Cody, since the bounty will be paid to whoever brings Mrs. Lowe back, “dead or alive”. Her husband has thought that it would better to know that she’s been killed than be left wondering (like Cody). 


That choice has unleashed the monster inside Lane and it’s almost as if he’s surprised to learn what he’s capable of. As he tells Cody, “That amount o’ money has a way o’ makin’ a man go all greedy inside, get to thinkin’ about doin’ things he might not otherwise do.” It’s also as if, all along, he’s known where his moral weakness is leading him. He eventually dies at Cody’s hands because he hasn’t been able to find a way to “cross over”. “Come too far to turn back now,” he explains to Cody, almost apologetically. “Pure shame, ain’t it? How a man’ll push himself for money?” 


Without exception, the Ranown films have powerful and astutely-judged endings. But, of all of them, Comanche Station’s is the most satisfying, and moving. The gunfire ended and the journey over, Cody and Mrs. Lowe ride out of the wilderness to a homestead. She dismounts. A little boy (P. Holland) runs into her arms. With Cody, we then look to the husband who’s come out of the homestead to greet her: a blind man with a cane, reaching forward towards her. 


Randolph Scott

Everything that has been said in all of the films about how men ought to act towards their women – all the leering, all the talk about possession – is suddenly given a new context. She’s been the strong, silent one, the one who knew better, but who kept her thoughts to herself. It’s the men who haven’t been able to see how things might be different from the way they’d been thinking about them who are actually blind. 

“If you knew my man, you’d understand that he’d have to have a reason not to come after me,” she says. “Yes, ma’am. I always figured there was,” Cody replies, setting himself finally as apart from all the other men as the Scott characters have been throughout the cycle. He turns and rides away into the empty West, still hopefully leading the pack-horse along behind him, doomed to “ride lonesome” until he finds his lost soul-mate, or, worse, “to wander forever between the winds” like that other hapless searcher, Ethan Edwards. 


The final scene reverses Cody’s movement across the frame in the opening as he rides across the rocky rise before moving out of shot. It’s a glorious ending and would have made a fitting finale to Scott’s career. He retired after shooting Comanche Station, but there was still one more screen adventure to come.




Randolph Scott’s final film was Sam Peckinpah’s Guns in the Afternoon/Ride the High Country, made in 1962. He died in 1987. 


Producer Harry Joe Brown, who’d originally been trained as a lawyer, died in 1972, only producing two more features after Comanche Station


Budd Boetticher died in 2001. He only made a couple more features, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) and A Time for Dying (1969), continued with TV work (notably The Zane Grey Theatre and an episode of The Rifleman) and, in 1972, made the admired documentary, Arruza (1972), about the famed bullfighter Carlos Arruza.


Writer Burt Kennedy, who was in his 30s when the Ranown cycle was made, also died in 2001. He had a long career as a director, making more than 30 features, including films such as The Good Guys and the Bad Guys(1969) and the first version of The Killer Inside Me (1976), as well as doing regular work for TV (including LawmanCombat! and Simon & Simon).


Charles Lawton Jr., whose nickname was “Bud”, died in 1965. After Comanche Station, his features included Two Rode Together (1960), his fourth project with John Ford, and three films with Delmer Daves (for whom he’d shot 3.10 to Yuma in 1956). He died during production of Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet, and I’m Feeling So Sad.


Ranown Pictures Corp.’s final film was Comanche Station.


(1)       Written by Don S. Reid & Harold Wilson Reid Watch the song performed here

(2)       For commentary on the other films of the cycle, see 

Seven Men from Now


The Tall T


Decision at Sundown


           Buchanan Rides Alone


Ride Lonesome

(3)       The setting also featured in earlier Scott films – The Thundering HerdThe Doolins of OklahomaFrontier MarshalHangman’s KnotMan in the Saddle,The NevadanThe Stranger Wore a Gun and The Walking Hills– as well as several hundred other Hollywood movies

(4)       The Ranown cycle constantly recycles names: as well as the two Lanes, there are three Franks, two Bens, a Billy John, a Billy Jack, and a character named Boone (in Ride Lonesome) who shares his surname with an actor (named Richard, star of The Tall T).


Next a Postscript: Westbound

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