I searched all over but I could not find a trailer for this movie. There was not even a trailer on the DVD. This seems odd to me for one major reason, this is one of the few films directed by the great Kirk Douglas. From an historical and cinematic point of view, you would think that in some archive, somewhere, there is the promotional material for this movie. Maybe the studio doesn’t control it since it was Produced by Douglas as well. I hate to say it but when he is no longer with us, you can bet there will be a slew of films that finally get the treatment on home video that they deserve.
Today’s film is one of the few westerns on the list for A Movie A Day, that does not feature Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. The great movie icon Kirk Douglas, produced and directed this 1975 film, set in Texas during the western period. It may star an old school cowboy, but it has that seventies vibe all over it. There are echos of The Wild Bunch and High Plains Drifter here. It is not as violent or odd as either of those movies, what it is mostly is political. I remember reading reviews at the time that drew parallels to the Watergate scandal at the time. That is a bunch of hyperbole. There is a political theme, and there may be some issues of corruption, but the connection is a stretch. The focus is really about how actions are guided by political image rather than necessity.
The point is made in a somewhat heavy handed way. Douglas is a famous lawman, trying to run down a notorious criminal, for the glory it will cast over him as he stands for the Senate. We are not really given much background on the political situation or the competing interests. It seems like the movie is criticizing law and order candidates as being motivated by votes rather than what is fair or needed. If that is the case, they undercut the idea a bit by showing us that the bad guy really is a bad guy. After escaping the posse at an ambush where his men are killed and burned, he ends up in a nearby town where he kills the guy who betrayed the gang. By the way, he does it Han Solo style, shooting first and through the bottom of the table in front of him. He then kills the local sheriff right on the street when he is confronted. If there was just hype in this campaign, it would not get far. The citizens are outraged and they are powerless. When the Marshall comes into town with his posse, they are thrilled that he is there, and when he returns with the killer as his captive, they rejoice and it seems that he will clearly be their choice for Senator.
Things are not always as they seem however. When your bad guy is played by Bruce Dern, you can expect something special. Dern is one of those guys that was a pretty solid star in the seventies but never broke out to the big time as a leading man. Part of that may be the baggage he carried as the prairie scum in the movie The Cowboys, where his character shoots John Wayne in the back. Here he is not a sniveling bully like in the Wayne picture, he is a cunning and manipulative gang boss. He has a lot of charm for a guy that everyone knows should hang, but it plays friendly, disguising his plan, and waiting for a chance to turn the tables.
There is some standard western material here. There is a chase, gunfights and horses doing some dangerous stunt work. There are some very distinct moments as well. There is a long sequence of escape from the Marshall’s special train, that turns the roles around on the posse. Visually, the image of a flaming box car traveling backwards across the mountains, through the tunnels and back into the town, is terrifically inventive. We have seen the train incidents in other movies; The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and a host of others. This movie follows the train after the explosions not just up to them. While the pace of the movie seems a little clunky in other spots, Douglas and his stunt coordinator, along with the cinematographer, did a great job capturing the events as they unfold in this section.
Ultimately, the false image of the Posse as dedicated lawmen is undermined by practical economic issues. Loyalty is not a trait of the candidate and it foments the ultimate problem he faces. Everybody is corruptible according to this film, and the Marshall is corrupted by manipulating his image. There is a lot of license taken with how things play out. The local citizens are not always depicted as real people, they change their attitudes and behaviors capriciously. The posse is not given enough screen time to say if their actions really fit in with the circumstances. The bi-play between the two leads is really what makes the movie work and both Kirk Douglas and Bruce Dern sell their parts here. This is a western with a message, it is an interesting but largely forgotten picture. It deserves to be seen by more people, but it is not quite as sharp and incisive as it wants to be.