The Westerns of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott: A Film Primer

The Tall TI’m almost embarrassed to admit that I am a latecomer to the six Westerns that make-up the collaboration between Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott. (There is a seventh, but I’ll do them the courtesy of pretending it doesn’t exist). These six films, released over the course of just five years between 1956 and 1960, mark the beginnings of a seismic shift in the genre’s landscape.

But before we look at Boetticher, it’s worth briefly looking at the Western prior to his films. In its earliest years, through to the beginnings of WWII, the genre was comprised of an American myth centred on ideas of progress and the civilising power of simple pilgrims moving into unconquered lands (populated by supposedly savage Native Americans). Sitting outside this binary of civilisation versus nature, was often the protective figure of the single man who could traverse these two worlds. However, following the Second World War, the Westerns that followed reveal a growing pessimism about this myth. Movies like Red River (1948) and Broken Arrow (1950) exposed the beginnings of a deeper dialogue about the nature of America’s foundations that neither entirely accepted nor refuted the old ideals. Sometimes these concerns were overt, as in the representations of a genocidal impulse in Broken Arrow, and sometimes they lay more discretely within the genre’s shift away from pure binaries.

In many ways, Boetticher’s Westerns sit defiantly within the schism of the Classical and the new Westerns of the period. The protagonist, always played by Randolph Scott, sits silently within each film’s centre, usually filling the archetypal space of righteous man so common in the Classical Western. Indeed, even when Scott’s characters step away from righteousness from time to time, we are made to understand that this is an act of deliberately uncomfortable generic subversion. Conversely, the bad guy is almost always positioned as philosophically in tune with the protagonist. Boetticher’s bad guys wish to befriend the righteous man and move away from their own corrupt actions. These are complex villains who wish to leave behind their corrupt existence, but they can’t. Why? Because these characters are compulsively propelled by generic conventions towards an inevitable conclusion – they must confront the protagonist. In this sense, Boetticher’s Westerns are comprised of contemporary and conflicted characters ensnared within the singular destiny that the old code of the Classical Western affords them.

The effect is awesome, and across the six films, which function more like musical variations on a single theme than individual works, Boetticher (with the massive help of screenwriter Burt Kennedy) manages to contort and stretch the tight limitations of the conventions he has confined himself to, as if the spirits of Randolph Scott and his various nemeses were trying to escape the fabric of the film. In some ways, they occasionally do.

Seven Men From Now (1956)

This was originally intended to be a John Wayne film, but when John Ford offered the Duke the opportunity to star in The Searchers, he walked, leaving the role to Randolph Scott. And it’s a lucky thing too, as Wayne’s decision resulted in one of the best performances of his career and launched the seven-film collaboration between Scott and Boetticher.

Scott plays Ben Stride, a gruff former-sheriff haunted by the murder of his wife in a robbery gone wrong. Intent on hunting down and killing each of the seven men involved in the robbery, Stride finds himself coming to the aid of a married couple from the East (Gail Russell & Walter Reed). The couple are clumsily making their way from Kansas City to California, and Stride is torn between his desire to focus on revenge and an ethical obligation to assist the couple. Things escalate as Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) enters the picture, an old acquaintance of Stride’s who is far more interested in the $20,000 the thieves stole than in justice.

Boetticher directs the film with a typically light touch, reducing the Western to its simplest elements and finding the poetry in all of them. Burt Kennedy’s script is crisp, clean, and generous to all of the key players, especially Lee Marvin who manages to extract every ounce of potential from the screenplay. Gail Russell does a solid job as the married woman drawn to Scott, one of Russell’s last significant roles before passing away at the age of 36 from complications due to alcoholism. And Scott, well he sits sternly in the middle of things, waiting for the action to come to him. And it does.

The Tall T (1957)

The Tall T, the second collaboration between Boetticher and Scott, is probably also their best. The simple narrative sees a ranch-hand (Scott) held hostage, along with the daughter of a wealthy businessman, by a gang of outlaws led by a rather ponderous villain named Frank (Richard Boone). The story is almost as plain as that, as is the minimalist way in which the film is shot and edited in order to convey a sense of simmering violence and subtext in each and every moment. Boetticher uses all of this to create a space for the distillation of the conventions of the Western down to its barest essentials, hanging a lifetime’s worth of Western mythology off of every spoken word.

Indeed, Burt Kennedy’s screenplay, an adaptation of a short story by Elmore Leonard, is probably the greatest triumph here. From the moment they meet, Scott and Boone’s characters speak as though they have known each other for a hundred years, yearning for each other’s friendship at the same time that they know they’re bound by the fatalism of Western conventions… the two men must fight to the death. If this sounds similar to the self-reflexive and codified nature of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, such feelings are validated by Leone’s self-introduction to Boetticher at the Milan Film Festival decades later: “Budd! I stole everything from you.”

Decision at Sundown (1957)

If The Tall T is the Boetticher/Scott film that most blatantly celebrates the conventions of the Western, Decision at Sundown is the film that most subverts them. Scott plays Bart Allison, a man bent on revenge against the villian who slept with his wife, ultimately causing her guilt-ridden suicide. He arrives in the town of Sundown to find that his enemy, Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), has taken over and become the local alpha. Quite inappropriately attempting to murder Kimbrough at his own wedding, Allison winds up hauled up in a stable with his only remaining friend while the townsfolk look for opportunities to break in. As things develop, it becomes clear that the bad guy isn’t so bad, the good guy isn’t so good, the townsfolk aren’t that morally bankrupt, and that Mrs. Allison might have fallen off the wedding-wagon more than once (or twice). By the time the final duel comes about, Boetticher has run just about every Western convention through a generic meat-grinder.

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

Probably the most conventional Western in the series, here Scott plays a man just riding through the town of Agry when he gets caught up in local affairs. Mistaken for an accomplice in the murder of one of the Agry family by a Mexican bandit, Scott is nearly executed before a last minute reprieve. During the arrest however, a large sum of money is stolen from him by the local sheriff (also a member of the Agry family). Scott is dragged into the internal politics of said family, and soon enough a lot of people get shot.

Ride Lonesome (1959)

This time around things kick off with Scott capturing a notorious killer named Billy John (James Best), and beginning a long desert journey to hand him over to authorities in Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, Billy’s older brother and Scott’s arch nemesis, Frank (Lee Van Cleef), is in hot pursuit. Oh, and if Scott’s character seems to be in no big rush to avoid a confrontation with Frank, it’s probably because Frank is the man who murdered his wife (it doesn’t pay to be the wife of a Randolph Scott character). Meanwhile, Scott is joined on the trail by a woman whose husband has been recently killed in a clash with a Native American tribe (Karen Steele), and two men who quietly plan to murder Scott in order to collect the reward on Billy’s head (Pernell Roberts, and James Coburn in his first role).

Once again, Burt Kennedy’s wonderful screenplay allows Boetticher to condense a huge amount of depth into the film’s very short running time (less than 80 minutes), fleshing out each of the key characters just enough to develop them beyond caricature. Coburn is particularly loveable as the simple-minded criminal with a heart of gold (or maybe bronze), and Lee Van Cleef manages to confuse everything by coming across as a relatively reasonable human being with an unfortunate past. By the time we arrive at the film’s final duel, Boetticher has found a way in which to have his cake and eat it too, granting the viewer the catharsis they need whilst thoroughly subverting expectations.

Comanche Station (1960)

This time Scott plays a bounty hunter, and the film opens with him buying a young woman named Nancy (Nancy Gates) off of a Native American tribe in order to collect a bounty for her rescue that’s been posted by her husband. It’s almost embarrassing at this point to bring up the fact that – as it turns out – Scott’s wife was killed under similar circumstances many years earlier.

Meanwhile, Scott is joined by three men who – you guessed it – secretly plan to kill him in order to collect the bounty for themselves (Claude Akins, Skip Homeier, Richard Rust). And guess what – for the third time in six films, one of the bad guys is named Frank. Unfortunately for Nancy, the bounty posted by her husband was listed as “Dead or Alive”, and the three men plot to kill her along with Scott. As this rag-tag bunch travel through the desert attempting to outrun the Comanche Tribe on their tail, the film is comprised largely of the interactions between each of them. And for the sixth and final time, we are treated to the incredible dynamic between Scott and his nemesis, played by Akins. Once again, they are almost friends. Once again, the bad guy seems to ache to take the moral high ground, despite his own actions. And once again, there is only one possible outcome.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

15 thoughts on “The Westerns of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott: A Film Primer

  1. Ride Lonesome is one of my all time fave films. Excellent characters and actors. Terrific dialogue. Nailed the soundtrack. Hardly a false note.

  2. You captured most of what I have loved about the Scott-Boetticher films all these years. The dynamics repeat, as you say, in variations on a theme, and perhaps they’re best not binge-watched all at once. (For one thing, Kennedy’s repeated use of the same dialogue sticks out more when the films are seen in rapid succession. Incidentally, much of that great dialogue he reuses originated in Elmore Leonard’s story which was the source for The Tall T.)

    I disagree about Scott being wooden. He wasn’t an actor of great range or depth, but he absolutely nails the implacable silent vengefulness at the core of so many of these characters, and he provides the still center that holds strongly, allowing more colorful characters a hub around which to spin. John Wayne is my favorite actor, but I think Seven Men From Now (which he produced) would have been a much different picture had he chosen to star in it, and perhaps not as good a picture. The stoic William S. Hart quality Scott brings to Boetticher’s films is part and parcel of their success and brilliance. It’s what has made Scott one of my very favorite actors even though he is not remotely on my list of great ones.

    As to Westbound, the Scott-Boetticher film you (but not I) choose not to name, well, what a difference a script makes! It’s absolutely as good as most of the other (non-Boetticher) Westerns Scott was making in the 1950s, and probably only seems a bad movie because one expects so much of the pairing of Scott and Boetticher. I’m not fond of it at all. But it’s worst sin is having both their names on it without having a story or script worthy of them.

  3. I am grateful for your essay on the Boetticher/Scott westerns, especially your introductory survey of trends in Hollywood’s westerns. Ah! those wagon train pilgrims: an item of popular history much in need of the revision it finally received. I recall my astonishment, finally reading THE PRAIRIE by James Fenimore Cooper, to find that the would-be settlers Natty Bumpo encounters are not at all nice folks. Cooper, so underestimated today, knew that and wrote that in 1827; but myth and popular culture lost it along the way.

    Your discussion of the Boetticher/Scott films i s sending me back to some of them and sending me to two of them for the first time.

  4. Your love of the Western genre comes across well in this article, James. And your knowledge and enthusiasm makes it a great read too. I have seen them all, and some again recently. (They are shown on TV here, a lot)
    Like Ed, I tend to find Scott a little too wooden, and I feel that he is used to hang the film on, affording the chance for the villains to have the more interesting roles. Boone, Van Cleef, and Marvin are all infinitely better to watch than Scott, in the films where they play opposite him. But that’s just my opinion, and I am not a real Western fan.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  5. Awesome review, James. It makes me want to see them. As an aside, I happened to catch a little of Santa Fe a few days back. I know that’s not really relevant here, except for what impressed me about Scott, which is his stillness. Everything seems to come to him, as you said. He also appears to have so much integrity, which occasionally makes him a little wooden; but there is definitely a gravitas about him.

  6. Budd once suggested that had Seven Men From Now seen a proper release Lee Marvin would have had an Oscar nod a lot sooner.

    All of his films touch on the first lesson he ever taught me on our first meeting. His bad guys needed to be redeemable and his good guys flawed. They both lived in that grey area. They even both wanted the same thing, just decided to go about it differently.

    The second greatest lesson he ever taught me regarded his view on Indecent Proposal, but I’ll leave that for another time.

    Thanks for this article.

  7. Excellent article. The pairing of Boetticher and Scott is one of the most fecund in cinema history – even that seventh film you won’t name has its moments. My personal favorite is 7 Men tied with Comanche Station whose ending is both beautiful and heartbreaking; Tall T is great too and Buchanan Rides Alone… well, let’s face it, they’re all wonderful. Too bad there weren’t more of them.

  8. Boetticher is one of those great discoveries that you make when you move beyond Ford and Hawks and Mann. I don’t know that he was as good as any of them, but then, he never had their budgets to work with. I also am a particular fan of the movies you’re writing about here because — if you recall my previous loud opinions about the auteur theory — it’s clear to me that Bert Kennedy was a crucial factor. The four scripted by Kennedy are all very good while the three scripted by others are significantly weaker. Kennedy reportedly helped rework Buchanon, but apparently no one could save it. In the end, to me anyway, the first two and the last two are excellent movies despite not having the grandeur of Ford, the nuanced female characters or humor of Hawks, or the facility with large crowds of Mann. What they did have in the portrayal of morally ambiguous heroes and villains is a real pleasure.

Leave a Reply