The Tall T

(Catch my previous Western film review here: Seven Men from Now)

The Tall T, released in 1957, is the second Western in actor Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher’s late-fifties Ranown Cycle. The film was the second collaboration in the projected series with screenwriter Burt Kennedy, as well as the first film collaboration in the cycle with producer Harry Joe Brown who would continue on to produce three more of the films. The Tall T is probably also the most well-known of the film’s in the Ranown Cycle today as it was discussed by popular American auteur filmmaker Martin Scorsese in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, specifically in his Western subsection of Part 1 The director as storyteller. 

In this fifteen minute segment of Scorsese’s sprawling send-up to the films that inspired him as a young man and a budding filmmaker, he discusses how the changing of the times in American society in the mid-twentieth century can be registered and understood merely by watching three different Westerns starring John Wayne and directed by John Fordeach separated by a production window of about a decade each. The winsome, roguish Wayne of Stagecoach evolves into the middle-aged, morally commanding general of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon before finally evolving into the Misfit of 1957’s The Searchers. This figure is nihilistic, hardened by his times and more of a comment on post-WWII sensibilities in the new moral vacuum of our world’s wasteland than anything truly reminiscent of the figures of the Old West.

Scorsese recounts how the same trend toward nihilism, toward moral relativism, and toward absurdity in the Western, and by consequence in the artistic and cultural landscape of American life, became more obvious than ever before in the 1950s. He points to the example of Anthony Mann’s sparse Freudian Westerns like The Furies and works like The Naked Spur in which even the usually-jovial and father-like James Stewart becomes an unrepentant immoralist, as a bounty hunter who has lost all sense of honor and dignity, as a man who would track down an innocent man, a framed man, with a bounty on his head, kill him, and then haul his body into town merely to claim a reward.

Likewise, through the example of The Tall T as a stand-in for the entire Ranown Cycle, Scorsese explains that the nihilistic and amoral culture fomented by the rock and roll revolution of the late 40s and early 50s was reflected almost solely in one cinematic genre, the Western, which would premeditate the American New Wave by more than fifteen years. Auteurs like Budd Boetticher worked at this time within the uniquely American cinematic genre of the Western, and those auteurs amongst the studio ranks brought to bear upon it a feeling of moral vacuity in a world wherein scientific advances had increasingly chiseled away at any sense of human moral, ontological, spiritual, or cosmological superiority. A world wherein religious men and women could commit genocide against their brothers en masse in concentration camps. Wherein Christian nations warred against Christian nations and scientists at the beck and call of their military superiors created tools and weapons to harness the very power of the gods themselves.

Boetticher’s lone gunman, always played by Randolph Scott in the Ranown Cycle, is a moral figure with a code of honor, a code of right action. In this sense, he is a classical Western protagonist, a force of good and a stand-in for the bringer of salvation. However, his antagonists are never as morally simplistic, never totally evil figures in any sense. In Seven Men from Now, Lee Marvin played opposite Scott as a roguish figure out to help the lone gunman in his quest to decommission those who killed his wife in a hold-up at the bank back in his hometown. But Marvin’s only condition is that he must get the money at the end of the mission, which runs counter to Scott’s plan to vindicate himself by returning it to the bank, becoming a hero in his town, and once again being named Sheriff. Marvin’s aim is not immoral as he did not kill anyone to get the many except for murderers, but he nonetheless runs up against Scott for personal reasons, which eventually forces the two men to shoot it out, and honorably so I might add.

In The Tall T, Scott plays Pat Brennan, an ageing ranch owner who is unmarried and thereby without an heir to his vast holdings. After a visit to a neighboring ranch on which he makes a bet for his horse that he can ride a particularly aggressive bull, and loses, he is forced to walk the twenty or so miles back to his ranch. Along the way, his friend Rintoon, a local stagecoach driver picks him up and allows him to ride with the newlyweds therein, Willard and Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan), as they just happen to be passing by Brennan’s ranch on the way back into town. Unfortunately, at the first stagecoach station along the way, they find that the entire place has been taken over a trio of outlaws who have also killed everyone within and placed their bodies out back in the well. The group is more brutal than most outlaws portrayed by this point in time in Western films, and the gruesome nature of their actions is more closely akin in its depravity to the inscrutable actions of outlaws from the Western fictions of Cormac McCarthy more than two decades later, or to the antagonists, like The Misfit, in Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic works being published contemporaneously in the mid-1950s.

Brennan’s pal Rintoon is gunned down, as would be his three passengers if not for the fact that Mrs. Mims’ father is a big copper mine businessman in the region and may potentially be able to pay a handsome ransom for her safe return. The money-hungry Willard Mims is the one to originally propose such an option to the bandits, which unveils his character as corrupted, and will ultimately lead to the much more honorable leader of the bandits, Frank Usher (Richard Boone), to gun the man down.

Usher takes a liking to Brennan over the course of their days waiting for the ransom money to turn up out in the desert, and he reveals that his two misogynistic, drunken pals are kept around for their skill with pistols and other firearms. Usher has tired of their presence and seems to be intimating that Brennan could live if he helped him to take out the two goons, turned his back on his ranch, and decided to join Usher. But Brennan will have none of this talk, he is a plain spoken man who understands that life is hard, but that crime is no way to build one’s fortune, and that Usher’s past crimes will dog him till the day he dies, preventing him thereby from ever attaining a ranch like Brennan’s, and the sense of home, of security, and belonging it brings.

In one of the greatest scenes in the film, Usher responds merely that he has no choice but to live his life of crime, no choice but to continue falling in with this crowd. Brennan merely responds, ‘Don’t you?’ The tensions are palpable and Usher becomes heated, almost reveals his scorpion nature beneath the jovial exterior, and then decides to suppress it when he hears his companions approach from below the ridge.

Ultimately, the two men must face off in mortal combat with one another, something which could have been avoided if not for the animistic tendencies of Usher’s very being. And we all know who the victor turns out to be, though neither man is diminished in heroic stature by the end of the conflict.


Cody Ward

[Next up: Decision at Sundown)


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