Four Guns to the Border (1954)

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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Apache Uprising (1965)

220px-apache_uprising_posterIs the name A.C. Lyles familiar, western fans? It might ring a bell if you watch enough of the genre. A producer who dealt with typically low budget B-westerns, Lyle isn’t exactly a household name. Some of those efforts — there’s 12 by my count — are pretty decent, like 1965’s Black Spurs, and then…well there’s the not so good efforts, like 1965’s Apache Uprising.

Riding to the town of Lordsburg, drifter Jim Walker (Rory Calhoun) and frontiersman Bill Gibson (Arthur Hunnicutt) barely make it out of a gun battle with Apache warriors. They join up with a cavalry patrol in the area and make it to Lordsburg with the news of the Apache uprising. No one quite believes them, leaving the duo high and dry. They find themselves on an outgoing stagecoach headed for Apache Wells. If Apache warriors are on the warpath, they will no doubt run into some trouble along the way. Jim, Bill and Co. can’t know what’s coming though as a gentlemanly gambler, Vance Buckner (John Russell), intends to rob the stage of its hidden, important treasure.

Seems innocent enough, right? These A.C. Lyles-produced westerns used the same sets, familiar storylines (some would say copied) and the same cast members popping up in multiple movies. Nothing wrong with low budget B-movies, but this was simply not very good. At 90ish minutes, it creaks along without any real regard for the script that was supposedly out there. The high point unfortunately was actually the musical score from composer Jimmie Haskell which seems really familiar, but I can’t place from where.

Well, the cast has some fun with it. Calhoun does a part he could do with his eyes closed, a roguish anti-hero who actually isn’t such a bad guy. His partnership/friendship with Hunnicutt’s Bill, a hard-drinking frontiersman who’s lived with Indians for years, is also pretty solid in typical buddy dynamics. Russell (TV’s Lawman) is also having some fun as Vance, the duded-up gentleman gambler with a mean streak who has a plan to rob the coach. His henchmen are Star Trek’s DeForest Kelly as the unhinged gunhand, Toby Joe (a bad guy because his name is Toby Joe), and dimwitted horndog, Jesse (Gene Evans).

Also look for horror fixture Lon Chaney Jr. as another hard-drinking stagecoach driver, Corinne Calvet for a scandalous woman with a past –an overdone, monologue-driven past — who just might have feelings for Walker, Richard Arlen and Roy Jenson as cavalry troopers, and Robert H. Harris as the director of the stagecoach line who’s got a bug up his butt.

Just too disjointed to be good. Touches of countless westerns — most noticeably Stagecoach — are on display, but never in an interesting or even unique way. The story bounces from scene to scene with little to no unifying link. As for the action, what’s there is okay, but there isn’t enough. The ending limps to the finish, wrapping up a disappointing western.

Apache Uprising (1965): */****

The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955)

trpanvilposThe western genre loves to revisit some historical eras and periods over and over. One of my favorites? The Mexican Revolution where it seems via the movies that countless American cowboys, bandits and gunfighters rode south to join the fighting. Released in 1954, Vera Cruz was ahead of its time in that portrayal of Americans involved in the fighting. Just a year later, 1955’s The Treasure of Pancho Villa tackled similar topics with a similar story. It’s not as good, but it’s still an enjoyable watch.

It’s 1915 in Mexico and the Revolution is raging. An American mercenary working for whoever pays him, Tom Bryan (Rory Calhoun) is sick of his chosen profession and looking for one last job that will allow him to retire. He finds that job — potentially — through an old friend, Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland), an officer in Pancho Villa‘s army. An immense shipment of gold is being shipped via train and Castro knows when and where. With a small company of revolutionaries, Castro and Bryan pull off a successful robbery but now comes the hard part. They’ve got to transport the gold via mule train to safety and with the Mexican army chasing after them. Can they? Can they avoid treachery among their ranks?

Following in the footsteps of the previous year’s Vera Cruz, ‘Treasure’ is a lot of fun. It had been years since I’d seen it, but once it popped up on Turner Classic Movie’s schedule, I had to set a recording on the old DVR. Too often 1950’s westerns are either too polished and clean or too much like a soap opera with big EMOTIONS and FEELS! ‘Treasure’ goes for more action, more betrayals, more cynicism, and overall, just a much darker story. Like Vera Cruz, it reflects more where the western genre will go than where it came from. These are stories that seem perfectly fitted to the spaghetti western and all the crazy violence and unhinged bandits and in-your-face violence. A fun, little B-western from director George Sherman.

Stepping in for Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, we get Rory Calhoun and Gilbert Roland. Neither actor was a huge star, but they’re perfectly cast as quasi-partners who don’t quite trust the other one. Their chemistry is easy-going and full of snappy dialogue, two tough guys who can always get the job done, however nasty. Calhoun played roles like this with ease, anti-heroes who were not always sure of their intentions. He also lugs around a Lewis gun — dubbed the Cucaracha — as his weapon of choice too, another spaghetti western precursor. Roland gets to ham it up some as Castro in bandito-mode, bandoleers across his chest, well-kept mustache, leather chaps, stylish hat and always smooth, always suave mentality. Nothing rattles this guy.

There’s not much of a cast here with Calhoun and Roland dominating the screen (that’s a good thing). The biggest weakness here is Shelley Winters as the daughter of an American miner forced to travel with Castro’s gold train. A schoolteacher, she talks a ton with Calhoun’s Bryan about principles, ideologies and motivations for fighting in the Revolution in scenes that lack any real punch and slow things down in a big way. Joseph Calleia is very solid as Pablo Morales, the mule driver who’s got some greedy plans for the gold if he gets a chance. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos has a small uncredited part as a representative of Pancho Villa working with Bryan.

I don’t know if my memory played tricks on me or what, but I remembered liking the movie a lot more than I did this time. A tad slow in portions in a 93-minute movie that should pop a little more. The action when it’s there is pretty solid, especially the train robbery and the finale with a sandbag fort of gold coins helping to hold off an advancing company of cavalry. Most of the movie is an extended chase, but it doesn’t always have a ton of energy.

Still a fun western but not quite as fun as I last remembered. Plenty to recommend though. Some great location shooting in Mexico add a whole layer to the story, a great feeling of realism as we watch things develop. We’re watching a story happen on the land it probably did happen so that’s pretty cool! Give it a shot. Not a classic but very entertaining.

The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955): ** 1/2 /****