(Catch my previous Western film review out here: Buchanan Rides Alone)
The fifth installment of director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott’s Ranown Cycle of Westerns, Ride Lonesome, is a return to form after two relatively low quality dramas immediately preceding it: Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone. Although the film was scripted by Burt Kennedy (who scripted five out of seven of the films in the cycle) and was executive produced by Harry Joe Brown (who served in this role on a total of four out of the seven pictures), Ride Lonesome was the first move toward a producer credit for director Budd Boetticher who took this aforementioned credit presumably because he offered up some money toward the film’s budget or sacrificed some of his director’s fee to create it to his own artistic specifications. On future productions, Boetticher would realize he could retain more creative control in such a position and as such, Harry Joe Brown’s involvement would later be discarded in lieu of Boetticher producing and directing the remaining films in the cycle himself.
The film is also notable for the first reoccurring actor in the series besides the Ranown lead Randolph Scott. This actor was one Karen Steele who had previously played the character of damsel in distress and heroine Lucy Summerton in Decision at Sundown. Steele would later appear in one more film of the cycle, Westbound, before appearing in Budd Boetticher’s 1960 gangster film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.
Ride Lonesome begins as a bounty hunter named Ben Brigade (Scott) sulks through a deep rocky gorge looking for his quarry: a man named Billy John who killed someone in cold blood back in Santa Cruz. Billy John and his ilk represent unrepentant evil throughout the film and threaten, at the film’s opening coda, to make the picture into another stale classical Western exercise in form. Brigade tracks the young man down, but is surrounded immediately by Billy John’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) and posse who threaten to kill the ageing bounty hunter if he tries to take the youth in. Brigade is crazed, however, now a man seemingly with nothing left to lose. He tells the posse that if they shoot at him, Billy John will die immediately as well, and aims his rifle toward the boy’s head. They relent and Brigade’s long trip toward Santa Cruz begins.
Along the way, Brigade runs into a woman named Carrie Lane (Steele) whose husband has been missing for some time. As there are roving Mescalero Apache Indians about and out for blood in the territory, Brigade believes her husband has been killed, and his gut reactions are later vindicated when a group of Mescalero approach and try to trade a couple of horses to Brigade for the young woman, one of which belonged to her late husband.
In addition to angry Mescalero Indians and the nihilistic evils of Frank’s posse trying to kill Brigade and get their hands on Billy John, there is the duo of Sam Boone and Whit (James Coburn) who are old friends of Brigade’s, but are found in an abandoned stagecoach stop where they seemed to have set themselves up to rob the next unsuspecting passerby. Instead, they latch onto Brigade’s crew and offer their help in warding off Frank’s gang, with the implicit knowledge between the two parties that Sam and Whit will rebel and take Billy John for themselves when the opportunity comes. Sam and Whit own a large ranch out in the Western territories and wish to work the soil and live upright moral lives, but they both have committed crimes in their pasts and therefore must turn in a criminal of Billy John’s caliber to receive absolution in the name of the law, clear their names, and once again build their reputations as upstanding members of society.
By the film’s denouement, we learn the true reasoning behind Brigade’s quarrel with Billy John. We learn of the untimely, unnatural death of his late wife at the hands of Frank who killed her out of purely psychotic reasoning. But the two have their day in the sun, and the our hero barely scrapes by once again. Brigade’s methods are extra-judicial, and as a bounty hunter he is a figure both outside of civil society and necessary for its continuation in the Old West’s social system. He is a heroic figure who represents the forces of moral law whilst often breaking with the strict rules of legal dictum, and thereby he is an antihero. His foils are the unrepentant totally evil Frank who hung Brigade’s wife only to wound Brigade’s pride and emotional stability, as well as the upstanding and moral Sam Boone who is loyal to his friends and wishes to live a life of good moral virtue but has a dark past that he is always running away from: a dark past he may only be able to escape through one final, fatal confrontation with his friend Brigade. A confrontation against the basic tenets of Sam’s nature. But hell, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Ride Lonesome is a classic Revisionist Western before the term became vogue, and a refined Classical Western at a time when the genre was becoming stultified and stagnant. It is a very basic tale of one man’s justifications up against the justifications of numerous other actors, all with their ‘own reasons’ (to borrow a Jean Renoir-ian comment on the banality of evil and human action). It is a story told a hundred times made all the more potent and powerful through its broaching of postmodern morality, or anti-morality as it were, attendant within the post-World War II world wherein the bountiful fruits of human rationality gave way to the wasteland:
‘A heap of broken images, where the sun beats. And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.’
A West with no moral sentiments recognized as anything greater than human invention. An innocence lost, squandered, needlessly slaughtered at the sacrificial table under the knife of a father working the miracles of man, for the sake of man, but in the name of his God. And only to one end: to leave the world ignoble, stripped of all honor, dignity, and fellow feeling. To leave behind a realm wherein there is surely no revelation at hand.