Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Ramrod (1947)

Ramrod is a 1947 western directed by André De Toth and starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. It’s a range war movie.

Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) runs the valley. He runs it by intimidation and violence. He aims to control the whole valley. He also aims to marry Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake). Connie had hoped to marry another man, until Frank Ivey scared him off. Connie doesn’t intimidate easily. Not only does she have no intention of marrying Ivey, she intends to challenge his control of the valley. When her intended husband ran away he left her something - his ranch, the Circle 66.

The issue at stake is public grazing land. Connie has a legal right to graze her cattle on that land. Frank Ivey has no intention of letting Connie or anyone else have that land. He intends to have the whole valley.

Connie has an ally, of possibly dubious reliability. Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) is a good cattleman but he’s a drunk, or at least he was a drunk. Now he claims to have sobered up. Connie persuades him to work for her, as her ranch boss or ramrod.

There’s also Dave’s buddy Bill Schell (Don DeFore). He’s a good ranch hand and pretty tough although perhaps a bit of a loose cannon.

Connie will need tough ranch hands. Frank Ivey intends to destroy her and he starts by burning out her ranch house. The level of violence will increase. There will be shootings. Whether they’re murder or shooting in self-defence is debatable.

It’s a classic but conventional setup for a western but the real interest in this movie is the complex characterisations and the intricate web of romantic and sexual intrigues.

Dave has a girlfriend, Rose (Arleen Whelan). Their relationship is not yet really serious. She likes Dave but she likes Bill as well. Dave is sweet on Rose but he finds Connie sexy and fascinating. Connie is attracted to both Dave and Bill. Bill is attracted to both Connie and Rose.

Most of the characters turn out not to be straightforward. Rose seems to be the classic good girl and mostly she is, but she is stringing two men along. Bill is a nice guy but unpredictable and impetuous and he’s prepared to kill if he thinks it’s necessary. Dave is a decent man but he’s a flawed hero. He’s a bit of a loser. He’s a drifter and he has a reputation as a drunk.

The most intriguing character is Connie. She appears to be the femme fatale but while she is dangerous and she can be manipulative and ruthless she isn’t really evil. She’s strong-willed and determined but she is a woman and she has a woman’s motivations and she uses a woman’s weapons.

The key to understanding Connie is the prologue in which she sees her man, Walt Shipley, metaphorically castrated before her eyes. At which point her love for him dies instantly. Connie now realises that she cannot rely on a half-man like Walt. She needs to find a man upon whom she can rely, which means a man who possesses genuine masculinity. Masculinity is a major theme in this movie.

Modern critics and film academics are, by and large, incapable of understanding the movies of the past because they insist on viewing those movies through a 21st century ideological lens. As a result they can easily fall for the temptation to see Ramrod in feminist terms. We get a good example of this in the audio commentary here - an attempt to view this movie as Connie vs the patriarchy.

This is utter nonsense. This is a movie packed with powerless emasculated men. Walt Shipley very obviously. Connie’s father very obviously. The well-meaning but ineffectual sheriff. Dave, very obviously. Dave is a man who has been emasculated by grief, booze and an unwillingness to stand up for himself. This even applies to Bill, whose willingness to resort to violence is a sign of his essential powerlessness. The only man to whom this does not apply is Frank Ivey and his power is based on money and a willingness to act ruthlessly without regard to morality.

Connie has no interest in overthrowing the patriarchy. She has figured out that if you don’t have power and money you are a victim. It makes no difference whether you’re male or female. Connie has no desire to be a victim, which means she needs power and money. To achieve that she needs a strong masculine man by her side. She has a woman’s strength but she is no kickass action heroine. She needs a man whose masculine strength will complement her feminine strength. She just has to decide whether Dave or Bill would be the better choice.

There are power dynamics in this movie but they have nothing to do with 21st century gender politics. To the extent that there’s an ideological subtext it’s about 1950s ideological concerns, not those of today.

The standout performance here comes from Veronica Lake. Connie seems to be changeable but she isn’t. She simply plays different roles as the need arises - she can be the tough cookie, or the helpless damsel in distress or the seductive sex kitten. These varying masks that she assumes are entirely consistent with her character. She intends to survive. Lake always makes Connie believable. Connie is a complex character and Lake gives a complex performance.

Joel McCrea is extremely good. Dave has plenty of depth as well - he is a flawed hero trying to regain his masculinity and his self-respect.

Ramrod is a complex grown-up western filled with characters who are morally grey rather than good or evil which means you can’t make assumptions about how the story will end. A great western. Highly recommend.

The Arrow Academy Blu-Ray looks great.

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