Buchanan Rides Alone

(Catch my previous Western film review here: Decision at Sundown)

Unless the film I’m reviewing has a really novel plot or rare characters or an interesting subtext I’ve yet to fully reflect upon, I often opt for an essay on the placement of the film within its cinematic and historical context. In this case, Buchanan Rides Alone, the fourth of seven films in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown Cycle of Westerns is a relatively simple story. A lone gunman named Tom Buchanan (Randolph Scott) enters a small Texas-Mexico border town, and although unusually jovial and easy to get along with compared to figures like Clint Eastwood’s (Sergio Leone’s) Man With No Name, Buchanan still ends up provoking the ire of the Agry Family who own and operate the town, which is even named Agry.

Over the remainder of the film, a young man named Roy Agry comes galloping into town with a young Mexican bandit named Esteban Gomez following closely on his heels. The young man kills Roy Agry, and somehow Buchanan becomes caught up in the entire scandal, and is taken for an accomplice by the Agry Family. Buchanan narrowly avoids being killed by a duo of hired guns by the Agry Family, ostensibly to send the old gunman on his way out of town, when Pecos Hill (played by the great character actor and Sam Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones) warms to the old man and double crosses his fellow gunman to free Buchanan. The remainder of the film is something of a comedy of errors in which Pecos is killed and Buchanan is returned to jail, escapes jail and saves Juan Gomez, is returned to jail, and eventually has a final confrontation with the Agry Family Sheriff.

Like all three previous films in the Ranown Cycle, Buchanan Rides Alone displays revisionist tendencies within its subtext. First off, Juan Gomez is a criminal who killed Roy Agry while he was unarmed, and thereby, from the perspective of the townsfolk, Tom Buchanan is an anti-hero. His alliance with Juan Gomez, a convicted criminal, promises to upend the Agry Dynasty and make the territory a better place for its non-Agry inhabitants. As such, on the very face of it, the film is a Revisionist Western in which the rich and the entitled are murdered for political reasons of making the plight of the average person better. However, only Buchanan learns of Juan Gomez’ reasoning for killing Roy Agry: the young man raped and killed Gomez’ sister and was running from Juan when he entered what he thought to be the safe haven of Agry Town. This means that Buchanan is a bit more morally conventional, though the prospect of a young white man (Roy) being the villain and of a young gunman of color (Juan) being a moral hero is still revisionist as it steers clear and subverts the typical Western racial characterology.

Buchanan Rides Alone was the second film nominally scripted by Charles Lang. However, his initial edit was not up to snuff, not up to the standard at which Randolph Scott or Budd Boetticher were accustomed, and as such, they hired on Burt Kennedy to shape the script into a workable form. When the film was released, Land retained billing as the screenwriter, despite the bulk of the work being actually completed by Kennedy, and purportedly because Lang was falling on hard times and really needed the money. All in all, Kennedy would be the go-to screenwriter for the Ranown Cycle, eventually penning five out of seven of the film’s in the series (the other two being Lang’s sole true script, as well as a script by Boetticher himself). The film also continued the Boetticher-Scott partnership with producer Harry Joe Brown who produced the majority of the films in the cycle.

Another notable figure involved in the production of Buchanan Rides Alone is the cinematographer Lucien Ballard who was then just beginning the most prestigious period of his career. In 1956, two years prior to Buchanan, Ballard scripted the classic Stanley Kubrick film noir The Killing. A year prior to that, he began his long career alongside Budd Boetticher as cinematographer on The Magnificent Matador. Ballard would later collaborate with Boetticher on The Killer is Loose in 1956, episodes of the TV show Maverick in 1957, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond in 1960, and Boetticher’s final films in the late sixties, early seventies, and mid-eighties: A Time for Dying (’69), Arruzi (’72), and My Kingdom For… (’85)

Two years after the completion of the Ranown Cycle, in 1962, Lucien Ballard would provide cinematography for Randolph Scott’s final film: Ride the High Country. A fitting end to a great, esteemed career, the movie was also the first real critical triumph of Sam Peckinpah’s directorial career. Together, he and Ballard would continue to work together on a number of important films including The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getawayand Junior Bonner. 

Martin Scorsese once spoke of the Ranown Cycle as a series of Westerns in which a lone gunman encounters trouble and meets an outlaw who shares a moral code and a sense of honor with himself. The outlaw in these films is supposed to be something like a shadow, like the dark eternal opposite, of the the protagonist (always Randolph Scott) who has merely been unlucky in life and has fallen into ruin, into disrepute, and into a life on the run. Scott and Richard Boone, or Scott and Lee Marvin, are the examples par excellence in the four films I’ve reviewed thus far. These men are charismatic and seemingly good, and thereby their proclivity toward evil serves as a reminder of the evil dwelling within all men, just waiting for the opportune moment to escape.

They are foils for Scott that reveal that he is only noble, his is only morally upright because of his social predicament, and that if something were to change in that society, he could easily become like The Misfit of John Ford’s The Searchers or in the fictions of Flannery O’Conner. That at a moments notice, the animal side of his nature might make itself apparent, and through it the absurdity of life with all of its banality and lack of ontological grounding for morals, for the belief in higher powers, or for even common human feeling toward one another. And the weakest element of Buchanan Rides Alone is that this foil for our protagonist is not present, and thereby the whole exercise seems for naught. Beyond the basic commercial qualification of providing audiences with an easily understood piece of media to consume, this particular saga in the Ranown Cycle is of little merit. Especially when measured up to the power of The Tall T or Seven Men From Now.

 

Cody Ward

[Next Up: Ride Lonesome]

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