The movie was made in 1956 by John Wayne’s production company, Batjac. A few years earlier Wayne had produced Bullfighter and the Lady which gave Boetticher his major break as a director. Wayne was unavailable to play the lead in 7 Men From Now (he was doing The Searchers for John Ford at the time) but suggested Randolph Scott. It was a momentous suggestion for the careers of both Boetticher and Scott.
Boetticher was not a man who could have worked easily within the strict confines of the studio system but making a modestly budgeted production for Batjac gave him the artistic freedom he craved.
We are plunged straight into the action. The backstory will be sketched in later with remarkable economy. A man (we will later learn he is Ben Stride, played by Randolph Scott ) takes shelter from the elements in a cave, with two men. He mentions he’s from Silver Springs, one of the two men remarks that there was a killing there, and the two men are shot.
On the journey they encounter Masters (Lee Marvin). While Stride wants to find the robbers for motives of revenge Masters wants to find them to get the $20,000 they stole. They become temporary allies but it’s an uneasy and unstable alliance. Sooner or later they will face a showdown. Further complications arise over Annie Greer. Both Stride and Masters are interested in her while she’s obviously interested in Ben Stride.
It’s a classic western tale cut down to basics but the starkness of the plot gives it a gravity that makes it almost elemental. The subtle characterisations and the quality of the acting make it especially powerful.
The actual killers are more straightforward villains but they’re not the real focus of the film. In fact they could almost be seen as a McGuffin - their actions drive the actions of both Stride and Masters but they are unimportant in themselves. John and Annie Greer are more important and Walter Reed and Gail Russell give fine performances.
The DVD comes with a host of extras including a quite lengthy documentary. The movie is beautifully restored. John Wayne’s son Michael who has overseen the release of the Batjac movies on DVD insisted that if the movie was going to be released the restoration had to be done properly. The result is a fitting tribute not only to Budd Boetticher but also to the underrated achievements of John Wayne as a producer.
A great western and essential viewing.