Four Guns to the Border

fourgunsposWhen a B-movie is bad, it can be really bad as its smallish budget and production value takes a toll. When it’s good though? You feel like you’ve stumbled into a hidden gem. That’s the case with 1954’s Four Guns to the Border, a snappy, fun little western based off a Louis L’Amour novel.

After a botched robbery results in nothing more than an empty safe that was supposed to be packed to the seams, a bandit named Cully (Rory Calhoun) and his gang ride out into the desert to plan their next move. Cully has an idea, but it is a desperate one. He’ll ride into the town of Cholla, a town he used to live in before he was run out of town by his friend-turned-marshal, Jim Flannery (Charles Drake). While he causes a distraction, his men will take advantage and rob the bank. That’s the plan at least. Cully and his gang come across an aging gunslinger (Walter Brennan) and his beautiful young daughter, Lolly (Colleen Miller), who has eyes for Cully. With an Apache war party in the area, everything is up for grabs.

There are hundreds and thousands of westerns out there in Movie Land just waiting to be found. Long story short? I’ll give any western a try. Flicks like this from actor-turned-director Richard Carlson are a welcome find. It’s the perfect example of a quality B-western. Small scale and small budget with a manageable cast, a straightforward story, some lovey-dovey for the ladies, and enough action to keep things moving. At just 83 minutes, ‘Guns’ drifts a little bit in the third act, but it’s fun from beginning to end. It never overstays its welcome and is a western I can highly recommend. Definitely track this one down.

I grew up reading Louis L’Amour westerns, and I still circle back every so often and give one a read. They’re like comfort food; familiar, always good and you always come back for more. There’s a formula too, one which ‘Guns’ follows along with. L’Amour’s anti-heroes — bandits, cowboys, drifters — were never that bad. When push comes to shove, they almost always made the right decisions — their bad guy-ness be damned. Throw in a gang of an old guy, a young firebrand and typically a minority, a pretty girl who has no business being on her own, some nameless, easily dispatched villains, and you’ve got a good mix!

Calhoun is an underrated gem in a variety of tough guy genres, especially the western. He was never a huge star, but he was always a welcome presence when I see his name pop up in a cast. I like his Cully, a tough, quiet, no-nonsense outlaw trying to outrun his past (and eventually get even). His gang is pure L’Amour, including Dutch (John McIntire), the old-timer looking for some $ to start a ranch, Bronco (George Nader), the young, fun-loving fast draw, and Yaqui (Jay Silverheels), the Indian tracker. These aren’t the dark, blood-lust bandits of so many later westerns. This is a likable bunch who I found myself rooting for. And let’s be honest…it’s cool to see Lone Ranger sidekick Tonto in a quasi-bad guy part!

Now for the interesting almost pornographic portion of our review! I’d never seen the very lovely Colleen Miller before in a movie, but….well, let’s say this is a pretty memorable turn. She’s a pretty decent actress, miles ahead of many pretty faces cast in B-movies! Carlson and the script call for some…I’ll say “Interesting” situations. Knocked out with a hit to the head, she gets a bucket of water poured on her, but Brennan misses her head and gets her shirt (a lot). She also flashes some leg getting into a dress, has a candy cane while the men ogle her, and runs out to the barn in a rainstorm while wearing a white nightgown. Not a complaint — she’s gorgeous — but the studio was clearly appealing to its male audience.

Also look for Nina Foch as Flannery’s wife, a woman who clearly has some history with Cully (uh-oh, unspoken love triangle!), and Nestor Paiva as Greasy, the owner of a saloon/store in the desert with some ties to our almost heroic outlaws.

I give ‘Guns’ credit. It’s pretty straightforward stuff, but it is also pretty unique. There’s some good twists and turns along the way in a story that doesn’t seem too familiar. I especially liked the twist about an hour into the movie as the gang makes a heroic decision. The ending itself could have been a whopper of a downer if Carlson wanted…but it’s 1954 America, not 1968 Italy in a spaghetti western. Still, it’s an excellent, generally little-known western. Well worth tracking down.

Four Guns to the Border (1954): ***/****

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The Deadly Trackers (1973)

the_deadly_trackersTwo actors who were stars but never quite superstars, Richard Harris and Rod Taylor are two of my favorites. Both did a wide variety of films, but they always seemed most at home in good, old-fashioned guy’s guys movies, westerns, war movies, science fiction stories. A pairing of the duo has to be worthwhile, right? Let’s see with 1973’s The Deadly Trackers.

As the sheriff of the border town of Santa Rosa, Sean Kilpatrick (Harris) goes about his job in unique fashion. Never wearing a gun, he insists on bringing prisoners in for justice, not just shooting them on the spot. That strategy works when a gang led by murdering outlaw Frank Brand (Taylor) tries to rob the bank only to get cornered by the townspeople. Brand desperately threatens to kill a little boy, Kilpatrick’s son. In the ensuing chaos, both the boy and Kilpatrick’s wife are killed as Brand his gang escape. Vowing revenge on the men, Kilpatrick pursues the gang into Mexico, ignoring his beliefs of law and order. Always close behind Brand and his men, the revenge-seeking sheriff keeps running across a Mexican federale, Gutierrez (Al Letierri), who insists on bringing Brand in the right way, the lawful way. Kilpatrick obviously has other plans…

This little-known western was apparently beset by an avalanche of production issues. Based off a short story from Samuel Fuller, it originally had Fuller as a director with Harris and Bo Hopkins co-starring. Production started but was quickly halted to revamp…well, everything. The studio basically half-assed it from there, even borrowing portions of the musical score from 1969’s The Wild Bunch. To show you how bizarre things got, the opening credits are still frames with voiceover narration, but they look like the camera shot through a thick blanket. What happened to the footage? Apparently there was a mishap sometime after filming but before editing. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Ultimately, the production issues aren’t deal-breakers. Instead, it’s just the general tone of ‘Trackers’ that provides its undoing. Far from a bad movie, this is just too morbidly, cynically brutal and dark. Like so many revisionist westerns of the 1970’s, ‘Trackers’ is interested in a more honest look at the wild west. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty and death never seems far away. There are no sympathetic characters, and it is only a matter of time before our cast of characters starts getting knocked off in gruesome fashion — scalping, trampled by horses, shot in the face, quicksand, gunned down by a flurry of shots, both blasts of a shotgun, stabbing…you get the idea — in this blood-soaked revenge western. It’s a movie in the vein of The Hunting Party, Soldier Blue, Lawman (actually pretty good), Ulzana’s Raid (also very good) and Chato’s Land but a little too uneven to be considered genuinely good.

The two leads deliver interesting performances, easily the highlight of the movie. Harris’ Kilpatrick has quite the character arc from law-and-order lawman to revenge-seeking, unhinged killer. It’s a physical performance, an intimidating performance. Not a ton of lines, just a man obsessed with the thought of brutally bringing his family’s killers to justice. Taylor plays against type in a big way — easily his most villainous, disturbing part — as Frank Brand, an outlaw and murderer who doesn’t think twice before shooting someone. Similarly unhinged, he’s an ex-Confederate soldier and a racist to boot! A villain you definitely love to hate.

In a supporting part, Lettieri gives one of his best performances, a subdued part as Gutierrez, a law-abiding peace officer who stands by his convictions through thick and thin. His conversations with Harris to provide some of the movie’s best-written scenes. As for Brand’s gang, look for Neville Brand as Choo-Choo, a bandit with part of a railroad rail for a hand (it’s kinda explained), Paul Benjamin as Jacob, a soft-spoken, educated gambler, and William Smith as Schoolboy, a mentally challenged killer with the mind of a child. Also look for Isela Vega as Brand’s former lover, Pedro Armendariz Jr. as a well-meaning blacksmith and William Bryant as one of Kilpatrick’s deputies.

Revenge stories are a staple of the western genre. A couple of those revisionist westerns I listed above are based solely on the revenge factor. Though I loved the cast here, I didn’t fall hard for the movie. You’re rooting more to see who gets killed and in what gruesome fashion. There’s not a ton of energy in the process in a rather slow-moving 110-minute movie. It’s never a good sign when horrific amounts of violence — oh, look! He’s getting scalped! — breaks up the relative monotony.

One of the most redeeming qualities in ‘Trackers’ is the filming locations in Mexico. Any western fans will see some familiar sites, including locations you would have seen in Major Dundee, The Wrath of God, Vera Cruz and (I think) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some of the ruins, the dusty villages, the rocky vistas, it all adds a very cool feeling of realism and authenticity. You believe the sweat you see pop up on foreheads. A mixed bag in the end. Worth a watch but keep expectations measured. The cast alone is enough to bring many viewers in.

The Deadly Trackers (1973): ** 1/2 /****