One of the most bankable stars of the 1930s and 1940s, Errol Flynn had seen his star fade a bit by 1950. His partying lifestyle had started to catch up to him, and his films weren’t a sure thing anymore at the box office. That said…he was still the absolute coolest. In 1950, he starred in a western that’s been generally forgotten in the years since. Why is that? I’m drawing a blank. It’s one of my favorites. Here’s 1950’s Rocky Mountain.
It’s March 1865 and the last days of the Confederacy are on the horizon. Riding west for California, Captain Rafe Barlow (Flynn) and a small 7-man patrol have been tasked with a desperate mission, an almost suicidal objective of starting a new front in California. His plan takes a hit though when Barstow’s squad fights off a Shoshone attack and rescues a beautiful young woman, Johanna (Patrice Wymore), from a wrecked stagecoach. On their way to meet the hopeful leader of the uprising, Cole Smith (Howard Petrie), Barstow must now make a decision. Johanna’s fiance is a Union officer and will no doubt come looking for her. Barlow’s squad is stuck in the middle, forced to continue the mission or save Johanna, worrying about Shoshone war parties and Union patrols all around them and closing in.
I stumbled across this western from director William Keighley (and a story by Alan LeMay, who also wrote The Searchers) years ago via Netflix, then rewatching it recently off of Turner Classic Movies. I loved it both times, maybe even more so the second time around. ‘Rocky’ clocks in at just 83 minutes and pretty seamlessly blends the Civil War and western story.
The coolest part here is the filming locations. It’s filmed in black and white. Would it have been an interesting movie to watch in color? Yeah, you bet, 1948’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon coming to mind. But the rocky, barren desert is aided by the black and white filming, giving a starkness to the setting that color might have canceled out. He films on location in New Mexico, using some familiar locations including some that fans of John Ford’s Fort Apache will notice (more on that later). Also, ‘Rocky’ borrows an instantly recognizable musical score from composer Max Steiner, using his They Died With Their Boots On theme. Give it a listen HERE starting at a :49.
What impressed me here was ‘Rocky’s’ ability to get ahead of the curve with westerns of the time. The late 1940s and early 1950s were an important transition for the genre. It wasn’t so much the white-hat good guys vs. the black-hat bad guys. Most characters had flaws, even inner demons they had to deal with. ‘Rocky’ isn’t quite there….but it’s getting there. The Union and Confederacy teaming up was used several times after (Escape from Fort Bravo, Major Dundee), but this is one of the first I can come up with. It’s the little things here. The men have beards, stubble, and look like they’ve been sweating in the desert heat. At least some effort was made to make it seem authentic. I give points just for the attempt. When that attempt works? Win-win for the viewer.
Starring in his last western, Flynn makes the most of it. He just looks comfortable in the part. His Capt. Barstow is a strong leader, liked and respected by his men, but he also has a moral compass that won’t let him turn his back on what’s right and wrong. The only slow moments here are his not-so-surprising romance with Wymore’s Johanna. She’s engaged to Union cavalry officer, Lt. Rickey (Scott Forbes), but can’t help be drawn to the very attractive Capt. Barstow. Playing the sneaky, sniveling Cole Smith, Petrie is a background player, but his character plays a key role late. Also look for western vet and character actor Chubby Johnson as Craigie, the stagecoach driver with no allegiances to North or South, just himself, bringing some homespun charm to this small but funny part.
What drew me to the movie — right up there with Errol Flynn — was the story that sounded like such an obvious forerunner to movies like Escape from Fort Bravo and Major Dundee. Nowhere was that more evident than Flynn’s small squad of Confederate misfits. Not any huge names here, but western fans will get a kick out of the group. It includes Guinn Williams as Pap, the old man of the group, Dickie Jones as Jimmy, the soft-spoken youngster who fights like mad while also looking out for his dog, Slim Pickens (in his first credited role) as Plank, a plainsman who served time in prison, Robert Henry as Kip, a young man and heir to a plantation back home, Sheb Wooley as Rawlins, the steamboat man with a mean streak, Peter Coe as Pierre, the Frenchman from Louisiana, and Rush Williams as Jonas, the plainsman and dead shot with a rifle. Not a weak link in the bunch, but Jones especially stands out, including one scene he has with Wymore discussing his brief encounter with Robert E. Lee before Gettysburg. Just seven solid supporting parts for Flynn.
It’s the rare western I can’t find something positive to talk about. And about an hour into ‘Rocky’ I was liking it a lot if not loving it. And then there’s the last 25 minutes. Somewhat short on action to this point (not a huge issue), the finale has Barstow and his squad making a dangerous decision separate from the mission. No spoilers here, but my goodness, the ending certainly resonates, catching me off-guard on both viewings. Flynn addresses his men after a chase, stating ‘They’ve seen our backs, let’s show them our fronts.’ It’s a line that could sound cheesy, but with Flynn delivering the line, it works in a big way. The finale was even filmed in the same canyon as the ending to John Ford’s Fort Apache. I loved the honesty of the ending. LOVED it. It takes a pretty good western and makes it a near classic.
Can’t recommend this one enough. Definitely worth tracking down.
Rocky Mountain (1950): *** 1/2 /****