Tuesday 27 October 2020

Streaming and on DVD - Tom Ryan files a postscript to his study of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott WESTBOUND (USA, 1959)


The Ranown Cycle, Postscript  

“I think Randy might have ended up with most of the leading ladies [in the Ranown cycle], if they were available. Because if you don’t have that going for you, you’re a pretty stuffy guy. I thought the Scott character, before the pictures we made with him, was a pretty stuffy guy.” 

                                                                                    (Budd Boetticher, 1969(1)


Westbound was shot in September/October, 1957, between the filming of Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone. It was made for Warner Bros., which, 18 months earlier, had distributed the first film in the Ranown cycle, Seven Men from Now


Randolph Scott, apparently, wasn’t all that interested in making Westbound.  But, according to Robert Nott (2), his contract with Warners was hanging over his head. He’d extensively expanded his repertoire of Westerns under the company’s logo during the 1950s and now it required one final film from him. Director Budd Boetticher offered his services after the actor came to him for advice. 


Aside from Scott and Boetticher, though, neither Ranown nor any of the other key personnel who’d worked on the Ranown cycle were involved. Likewise, the Lone Pine locations that were central to the look of most of the other films were gone, replaced by the Warner Ranch at Calabasas in California. Still, numerous overviews include Westbound as part of the cycle.(3)


Indeed, the timing of the film’s production and release might suggest that it belongs with the other Ranown films. It was shot during the same time period that they were in production. Then, having sat on Warners’ shelves until March, 1959, it was released a month after the opening of Ride Lonesome (and almost a year before Comanche Station). 


Add to that the incongruity to which I alluded in the first of my essays about the Ranown cycle: if it’s called the Ranown cycle, shouldn’t all the films that are included in it have been made by Ranown Pictures Corp.? Seven Men from Now wasn’t, yet it’s generally seen as part of the cycle. So why not Westbound?

A not especially radical proposal to sort out the confusion: perhaps the whole idea of the Ranown cycle should be abandoned and the sequence of films simply re-labelled the Boetticher-Scott cycle, for the director-actor partnership is the single recurring factor for all of the films in the unofficial cycle. Thus redefined, the cycle could then include Westbound, even if it is, as is generally agreed, inferior to the other half dozen films Boetticher made with Scott, especially those written by Burt Kennedy and produced by Harry Joe Brown. 

Budd Boetticher




To Westbound. It might not belong in the same class as the films in the category which I’ll now refer to as “the so-called Ranown cycle” (4), but it is of interest: in particular, for the way the discord driving its tale of a divided town is effectively a displacement of the hostilities underpinning the Civil War raging elsewhere. 


The scars that the war left on the American landscape – and on its cultural mindset – is a recurring feature of the entire Western genre, including earlier Scott films, such as To the Last Man (1933), The Texans (1938), Virginia City (1940) and Belle Starr (1941). The actor also frequently played characters from the South who’d found themselves displaced after the surrender of General Lee, as in Santa Fe (1951), Hangman’s Knot (1952), The Man Behind the Gun (1952), The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953) and Thunder Over the Plains (1952). 


Anyone interested in studying the ramifications of that war (1861 – 1865), where Americans took up arms against each other and more than 750,000 died, might find it useful to reflect on the various ways in which the Western grapples with it. Almost everywhere that cowboys roam, there’s evidence either of the national tensions that preceded the conflict on battlefields around the country or of the legacy that it left in its wake. 


In the form, for example, of renegade soldiers, who had, in the name of their cause (or simply because they’d been enabled by the lawlessness all around), taken it upon themselves to execute innocent civilians, fellow Americans. Long before such perpetrators were known as “domestic terrorists”. Or of the divisive differences between ordinary folks that not only led to the war but have also persisted through to the present day.


Randolph Scott

Westbound is set in 1864. Scott plays John Hayes, a captain in the Union army who used to be the line superintendent for the Overland Stage business. Under instruction from his superiors (in the scene pictured above), he’s returned to his post with the company. His task is to ensure the delivery of gold bullion from California, which is to be used by the Union to buy guns, ammunition and equipment. The opening scroll explains the importance of that mission to both sides: the war has arrived at a stalemate, gold is “the lifeblood of both armies”, and it has become vital for the Confederate forces to prevent its delivery to their enemy.


After being assigned to the Overland job, Hayes goes to Julesberg, in Colorado Territory, where he used to live before the war took him away. Once leaning towards the North, the locals’ sympathies have now shifted Southwards, and Hayes’s arrival, alongside Corporal Rod Miller (Michael Dante), a young soldier who’s lost his arm in the war, causes the simmering hostilities to boil over. 

Karen Steele, Michael Dante

Whereas most of the townspeople simply give them the cold shoulder, Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), an old friend of Hayes who appears to be the owner of the Palace Hotel, the town saloon, is actively plotting to sabotage the efforts to get the stage to run on time. He explains to the cold-blooded Mace (Michael Pate), his hired enforcer, that their methods can include anything “short of bloodshed”. 


But Mace operates according to his own agenda which makes Putnam something of a man caught in the middle, torn between his commitment to the Confederate cause and his antipathy to Mace’s methods. The enforcer’s crimes include cold-blooded murder (the shooting of Corporal Miller) and an attack on a stagecoach, which leads to the death of all the passengers on board, including a young girl and several other innocent civilians.


Michael Pate (centre)

Written by Berne Giler (Guns of DiabloMidas Run) and based on a story he wrote with Albert Shelby Le Vino (a veteran from the silent era), Westbound makes the workings of personal conscience its key issue, even if it never develops that as fully as it might have. Almost every scene pivots on a character making a choice and many of them are crucial pointers to personal moralities. 

This is clear in the case of Putnam. In part, his hostility towards Hayes stems from his misplaced jealousy about the former relationship between his wife, Norma (Virginia Mayo), and his old friend. And he’s clearly implicated in Mace’s villainy. But just as he’s made sympathetic by his idealism, so too are several of Mace’s henchmen in their expressed disapproval of their boss’s proposed attack on the doomed stagecoach. “What about the little girl?” one of them asks. They have a choice to make. And, along similar lines, the townspeople’s sympathies for the South lead them to vacillate about which side they should be on while Mace and his men do their dirty work unimpeded. 


Only Hayes and Mace remain uncomplicated, Hayes as morally righteous as Mace is evil incarnate. The latter explains to Putnam that he couldn’t care less about the Civil War and is just waiting for an opportunity to wreak havoc and turn the situation to his own advantage (he’s a variation on a carpetbagger). 

Unfortunately, none of the characters’ quandaries or relationships is given anything more than a perfunctory treatment, perhaps because of the production circumstances under which the film was made (in a rush, Warner Bros. attempting to cash in on the Boetticher-Scott partnership). And the film’s running time, a scant 72 minutes, suggests that any hope the studio might have had for the production was abandoned in the editing room. 


The result is that potentially interesting dramatic material is nipped in the bud. For example, like The Bounty Hunter, made four years earlier, and Decision at SundownWestbound echoes High Noon’s concern with the townspeople’s choices regarding whom they should support. But far too little is made of this and their eventual decision to side with Hayes seems to be simply laying some groundwork for their involvement in the final shoot-out in the streets of Julesberg rather than a result borne of conscientious thought about the principles at stake.

Virginia Mayo, Karen Steele

The two women in the film, Norma and Miller’s wife, Jeannie (Karen Steele), both end up as widows. Hayes remains properly aloof from Norma throughout, and is fatherly towards the Millers as he takes responsibility for their marriage by encouraging the disabled soldier not to seek pity but to make his own way in the world. He even provides him and Jeannie with work they can do together, running a stagecoach station after Mace and his gang’s rampage has led to the departure of Overland employees from the territory.


However, after Miller’s death – although not until the film’s closing scene – Jeannie emerges as a potential love interest for Hayes. After he has packed Norma into a stagecoach on her way back east, he turns to a now-interested Jeannie and tells her that, since she’s still in charge of an Overland station, “I’ll drop in on you from time to time, if you don’t mind.” “I don’t mind,” she replies as he rides off into the landscape. One might say, given the discomfort of Scott’s characters when confronted with the possibility of a romantic relationship, the relative safety of the landscape.


Boetticher’s film looks handsome, cinematographer John Peverell Marley’s impressive compositions using the outdoor locations to good effect to give a sense of the geography of the action and the characters’ relationships to each other in it. But David Buttolph’s score is, as Nott observes, “overly jaunty” (5) and seems to make a mockery of the melancholy aspects of the material in which decent Americans are pitted against other decent Americans and exploited by the villains amongst them.


For his part, Scott was looking his years – he was approaching 60 when the film was shot – and he simply seems to be going through the motions here. It’s not that he’s not up to the task: he’s carrying an iconic history with him. It’s just that he’s done everything that’s required of him here many times before and the strain is starting to show, especially given the pace at which the film was reportedly shot. Fortunately, there were still good times ahead.


(1)       Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin, The Director’s Event, Signet, USA, 1969,            p. 58

(2)       Robert Nott, The Films of Randolph Scott, McFarland & Company, Inc., North Carolina, 2004, p. 210

(3)       Click on, for example, to an enthusiast's blog, this IMDb page & Emmanuel Levy’s entry on his website

(4)       For commentary on the films of “the Ranown cycle”, click on 

Seven Men from Now


The Tall T


Decision at Sundown


          Buchanan Rides Alone


Ride Lonesome


Comanche Station

(5)       Nott, op. cit., p. 210

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