I was kind of pissed at myself a few weeks back when I missed what I thought was the last Budd Boetticher Western screening at the Cinematheque, Ride Lonesome
(the series actually concludes with Boetticher’s 1951 film, The Lady and the Bullfighter
, but that is at the beginning of May). I was lucky to have checked my Cinematheque schedule the other day, because I noticed that the series was continuing this weekend with a screening of Boetticher’s Western Comanche Station
. This 1960 film, scripted by Burt Kennedy, was the last film of the Ranown Cycle, and Boetticher’s last collaboration with his star, Randolph Scott. It was also Scott’s last collaboration with producer Harry Joe Brown, thus ending the Ranown Company. It’s a fitting end to the cycle, and is probably the second best of the Ranown Westerns that I have seen (with the caveat that I missed Westbound
, which was not screened, in addition to Ride Lonesome
); it’s also fitting how the last film in the Ranown Cycle echoes the first film, Seven Men From Now
. The program notes for this film called Comanche Station
Boetticher’s most austere film, and I have to agree; Boetticher uses relatively long takes and simple camera movements, really utilizing the widescreen frame, with a minimum of cutting (most transitions are done via dissolves). Comanche Station
is a distillation, both stylistically and thematically, of the cycle.
The film begins with a long shot of a lone horse bound rider in the distance, guiding a mule on a narrow path through some rocky outcroppings (the man generally moves screen left in this instance). The man is Jefferson Cody (Randolph Scott), another of Scott’s iconic loners (iconic to me at least). Wordlessly, he rides through the wilderness, until he hears the yaps of coyotes in the distance, which to anyone who has watched a lot of Westerns means one thing, Indians. Cody unsheathes a Winchester rifle, but is soon surrounded on all sides by a band of wary Indians. Cautiously, Cody holsters his rife and dismounts from his horse, walking wordlessly and purposefully to his mule, all the while keeping eyes focused on the Indian leader, but with his face betraying no emotion or thought. He takes a bundle off the mule’s back and spreads his goods on a blanket, and with a few silent, strong hand gestures begins to trade with the leader of the Comanches. They offer him two horses for his goods, but he swiftly refuses, making a series of hand gestures and then placing his hand on the patch of white on his horse’s head. The Indians implicitly understand, and they escort Cody back to their encampment, where he meets the Comanche chief. Another series of cryptic hand gestures, the chief seems to balk at what Cody is offering, so Cody gets one of his Winchester rifles and throws it down on the blanket with his other trade goods. The chief examines the fine rifle and smiles, motions to his warriors, who go into a tent to retrieve a white woman, covered in dirt and blood, and wearing ragged clothes. Cody curtly tells the woman to get on the mule, and the two of them ride off slowly, as the assembled Comanche start examining their prizes.
We soon learn that the woman is Mrs. Nancy Lowe, a young woman from Lordsburg, who was taken captive when the Comanche raided a stagecoach she was traveling on a month ago. Cody, though ever polite, seems a bit disappointed, as if he was half expecting someone else to have been a captive of the Comanche, though he tells her that he should have figured that the captive would have been Mrs. Lowe, since news of her capture is all over the territories. The first night, as the two of them sit by the embers of a dying fire, Nancy implies that she was raped while in captivity, and asks Cody if he would take back such a woman, he replies simply with that if he loved her, he would. Cody promises to take Mrs. Lowe back to her husband in Lordsburg.
The next day, the two of them ride into Comanche Station, a waystop on the Lordsburg Stage route. The station is deserted and locked-up, the station master having left for town. Cody prepares to water and feed the animals, when three men gallop furiously towards the station, firing their guns wildly behind them at the large band of Comanche pursuing them. Cody picks up Nancy and drops her into the water trough (in a bit of comedy, whenever Nancy comes up for air, she finds herself in a pitched battle, and immediately dives underneath the water), and takes cover next to the trough, while the three men ride into the station and take cover also. Though they outnumber the men at the station, the Indian’s spears and arrows are no match for revolvers, and after a while, the Indians ride off. The three men reveal themselves, one of them is Ben Lane (Claude Akins), a bounty hunter and semi-outlaw; the other two, Frank (Skip Homeier, who played the role of Billy Jack in The Tall T
) and Dobie, are his much younger, dimwitted cohorts. Cody is immediately suspicious of Lane, openly accusing them of bringing the Indian attack on themselves (we later learn that the Comanche are on the warpath because two men from a town called Casa Verde rode into an encampment and slaughtered all the women and children); Cody and Lane have a past, as they were officers in the Army together. Lane’s negligence caused Cody’s command to be wiped out, something that Cody never forgave Lane for (indeed, Cody had Lane court-martialed and would have hanged him, if he was given his way).
From Lane, we learn that Mr. Lowe is offering a reward of $5000 dollars for his wife’s return, of course, Lane leaves out the information that the award was for her return alive or dead; the reward has prompted countless bounty hunters to brave the wilderness, but it was Cody who succeeded (we also learn that Cody has brought out more white captives than any other man in the territories). Mrs. Lowe jumps to conclusions, a thinks that Cody came after her for the money (though he looks as surprised as her about the news of the reward), and indignantly storms off, telling Cody that she no longer wishes his escort to Lordsburg, and that she will take the next stage. Almost immediately, the amoral Lane begins to plot to his advantage, he wants the reward. His plan is simple, the three of them will kill Cody, and then they will take advantage of Mr. Lowe’s “alive or dead” provision by killing Mrs. Lowe. With no witnesses, everyone will assume that the Comanche killed them, and then the three of them will be $5000 richer.
That night, everyone waits for the stage’s arrival, but it gets later and later, and the stage still has not arrived. The still fuming Mrs. Lowe sits alone waiting for the stage. First, Lane comes over to her, and tells her that he doesn’t expect the stage to arrive, and then begins to talk about her husband, barely hiding his disdain for him since he apparently isn’t man enough to come looking for his own wife, having to pay other men to do so. He walks off, and is then followed by Cody, who tells Mrs. Lowe that he didn’t know about the reward; she scoffs at him, telling him that she “doesn’t believe you.” He replies simply “I didn’t think you would,” and then turns and walks off into the darkness. As Cody and Lane walk off, Boetticher switches focus to Lane’s two younger cohorts, who are trying to sleep under a tree. Dobie, the youngest and most talkative of the two can not sleep; in the ensuing conversation, we learn that the two of them are basically decent young men, albeit a bit dimwitted, who fell in with Lane basically because they had no other options. And now they are having seconds thoughts about murdering Cody and, especially, Mrs. Lowe. Dobie talks about his father’s wishes for his son to “amount to something,” and reveals his admiration for Cody, who has accomplished a lot of things, pointing to his stint in the army. Frank replies that was long ago, but Dobie points out that a man needs to do only one thing to make something of himself, before ruefully pointing out that his own father, despite his talk, never amounted to anything. This is a nice, intimate scene and reveals a lot more about the henchman than usual in a Boetticher Western; their relationships is complex, a mixture of friendship and brotherly love, and maybe a bit more (I’ll get to that later).
The next day, everyone is alarmed by smoke rising in the distance: smoke signals. Soon thereafter a man gallops wildly into the station. It’s the station manager, his body pierced by an arrow; the stage to Lordsburg has been attacked by Comanche and turned back, he pressed on so he could take care of his animals. It’s not long before he dies. Cody quickly makes a decision, he will take Mrs. Lowe back to Lordsburg, riding along the river, instead of through open country, which will add days onto the trip; Lane is insistent on riding along, even though he is quite open about his ultimate intentions, smiling all the while as he basically tells Cody he’s going to kill him (this comes after Cody apologizes to Lane for accusing him of trading in Comanche scalps, the dying station manager revealing the true cause of the Comanche anger).
Ben Lane is the character who reminds me the most of the character Bill Masters, played by Lee Marvin, in Seven Men From Now
, who is something of the prototype for these types of characters who continually reoccur in the Ranown Westerns (other examples include Usher in The Tall T
; Tate Kimbrough in Decision at Sundown
, though to a lesser extent, probably reflecting Burt Kennedy’s lack of participation in the screenplay; and Abe Carbo in Buchanan Rides Alone
). I should qualify, that Lane reminds me much more in terms of function, not characterization or performance (Lee Marvin is much more off a hardass, while Claude Akins plays his character with a genial menace). Lane, like Masters, represents the Randolph Scott character’s dark side or id. It is Lane who openly remarks about Mrs. Lowe’s attractiveness, who acknowledges the growing attraction between Cody and Mrs. Lowe, and who openly shares his disdain for Mr. Lowe’s lack of manhood (you can tell by the flicker of disgust that crosses Cody’s stoic face, that he shares Lane’s disdain for Mr. Lowe; something similar to how Ben Stride and Bill Masters share disdain for the character of John Greer).
The quintet ride as quickly as possible through the lush wilderness as they follow the river. After fording the river, they stop to rest, and to give a chance for Mrs. Lowe to change clothes and bathe. Lane sends Frank upstream to see if the Indians have crossed the river ahead of them. Some time elapses, and Lane expresses his dismay to Cody; Dobie is on watch, and Mrs. Lowe continues to wash her clothes in the river, but she begins to start as she hears animal cries in the distance. She’ framed on the banks of the river, with the river itself flowing diagonally into the background (throughout the film, Boetticher makes great uses of diagonal recessionals and angles in his compositions), something, a body is floating down the river, and she screams. Everyone runs to her, but Dobie arrives first, sees the body, realizes who it probably is, and dives in, swimming to the body. It is Frank, killed by an arrow. Dobie cradles the body of his friend very tenderly, giving rise to homoerotic overtones to their relationship. It’s a sad scene, giving an extra dimension and depth to the Frank-Dobie relationship. Despite both Dobie and Mrs. Lowe’s protests, Cody orders them to leave the body, they must ride on to safety as fast as possible. Dobie regretfully places his friends body back into the water, and the four of them ride off.
Later, Cody attempts to console the still distraught Dobie (it’s also a tactical maneuver on Cody’s part, trying to sow dissension between Lane and Dobie); realizing that Dobie is basically a good kid, Cody begins to question him why he rides with Lane, telling Dobie that it if he continues to follow Lane, he’ll end up in a noose. Dobie pretty much agrees, but protests that he really has no other choice; then Cody offers Dobie the opportunity to ride with him after they reach Lordsburg, if he breaks with Lane, expressing the sentiment that it is bad for a man to be alone, similar sentiments to those expressed by Randolph Scott’s characters in The Tall T
and Buchanan Rides Alone
(of course, every male character he seems to ask also dies soon thereafter, hmmm). The question of Dobie’s loyalties is left open as the scene ends.
It’s really amazing the amount of tension that Boetticher wrings out of the film, essentially it is basically a series of conversations at encampments or on horseback; there is only a couple of action scenes, and we already know the intentions of both parties. It’s somewhat due to how the character of Ben Lane continues to needle Cody. For example, later in the film, as the group has encamped for the night, Lane begins to tell a story to Mrs. Lowe as Cody looks on, and the story obviously parallels their current predicament. It seems that a long time ago, another white woman was taken captive, and her husband had issued a bounty on her too, which sent all sorts of men looking for her. Well, this one fellow (and of course, Lane is all but implying it was Cody) found her, but the husband never did get his wife delivered back to him. Cody angrily confronts Lane, hitting him; Mrs. Lowe thinks he is doing it for her benefit, but he corrects her and storms off. She goes to Dobie for more information about Cody, and he tells her, and us, Cody’s real story; about 10 years ago, his wife was taken captive by Comanche (or I guess, more properly, she was retaken), and ever since, whenever, Cody hears about a white captive, he loads up a mule and goes looking for her (in many ways, Comanche Station
resembles, at least in terms of general plot, John Ford’s The Searchers
, but with a completely different emotional tenor).
The next day, the quartet come across the most dangerous portion of their journey; they must either cross an open valley, or circle around, which will add much more time to their trip. Cody decides to attempt the crossing first, to test the waters so to speak, telling them to circle around if he doesn’t make it. Of course, he makes it half way across when the Comanche warriors suddenly appear from behind some rock outcroppings. Seeing this, Lane takes out his rifle and rides to Cody’s rescue. Boetticher shoots much of this sequence in extreme long shots, emphasizing the small figures in the vast space converging together at a central point. Cody is thrown from his horse, and manages to knock a Comanche off his horse, and uses the Indian’s body as a shield against arrows, before Lane rides in guns blazing. The two of them manage to fight the Comanche warriors off in a quick battle. Cody wonders why Lane just didn’t let him die, and Lane slyly tells him he couldn’t let him die like that (of course, reserving the pleasure of killing Cody for himself). The end of the battle offers a brief respite, and a bit of humor (which is somewhat lacking in this film, though there are occasional dollops of cynical humor, it’s nothing approaching the absurdism of Buchanan Rides Alone
) as they pour disinfectant (probably Iodine) on Cody’s leg (Scott’s reactions are priceless). Lane, who followed the Comanche, reports that they are going back into the hills, their thirst for vengeance apparently sated. But this also means that neither Cody or Lane really need each other anymore.
Cody acts first. Later that night, as Lane and Dobie sleep, he sneaks up on them, and throws Lane’s rifle away. The noise awakens them, and they wake up to find Cody hovering over them, with his revolver drawn. He orders them to disarm and ride off. They comply, but the scheming Lane has other plans. He rides ahead of them, with Dobie, and produces a hidden rifle from his saddle bags; his plan is to ambush them on the only route into Lordsburg, which is through a small pass between some rocky outcroppings, similar in appearance to the spot of the final showdown in Seven Men From Now
. Lane is just in time, he gets into position just as Cody and Mrs. Lowe begin to ride into the valley.
The good-natured Dobie is having second thoughts about all of this, and first tries to talk Lane out of killing Cody and Mrs. Lowe; when Lane refuses to stop, Dobie mounts his horse and attempts to leave. With a mixture of anger (at Dobie’s disloyalty) and panic, Lane shoots Dobie in the back. I think clearly this scene refers back to the earlier conversation at Comanche Station between Frank and Dobie; with this one moral choice, probably the first time that Dobie did not take the easy way out of anything, Dobie has amounted to something, and he pays with his life (in many ways, this is similar to John Greer’s redemption and subsequent death in Seven Men From Now
The sound of the rifle shot echoes through the canyons, alerting Cody that something is amiss, which is confirmed when Dobie’s horse gallops through the canyon, dragging Dobie’s corpse along the ground, his foot twisted in the stirrups. Cody draws his rifle and the two of them catch up with Dobie’s horse, cutting his body loose; examining the wound, Cody knows exactly what happened, and they rush to take cover as Lane begins to fire upon them. Cody gives Mrs. Lowe his revolver and tells her take cover in a small cave, telling her to shoot at Lane if she sees him, while he circles around in the labyrinth of rocks. Lane advances toward Mrs. Lowe’s hiding place and she begins shooting wildly, one bullet after another, even after Lane takes cover behind a rock. Mrs. Lowe expends all the bullets in her gun, and when Lane hears the click of the hammer, he exposes himself, only to find Cody behind him, gun aimed squarely at his back. Cody demands that Lane drop his gun, but Lane refuses, saying he’s gone too far now. He spins around and fires his rifle, but he’s too slow; Cody fires his own rifle and dispassionately shoots Lane, who’s body slumps against a rock as he dies.
The danger from Lane and the Comanche’s gone, Cody and Mrs. Lowe ride safely to Mr. Lowe’s ranch. An ecstatic young boy rushes out of the farmhouse to greet his happy mother, as Cody looks on with a smile on his face. Mr. Lowe walks out from the darkness of the farmhouse door, tapping the ground in front of him with a stick. Mr. Lowe is blind, and Cody is taken aback, shocked, his entire mental picture of Mr. Lowe destroyed in one fell swoop. He looks down from his horse at Mrs. Lowe and says “You never told me.” Mrs. Lowe embraces her happy husband; with her child clinging to her leg, it appears the happy family is reconstituted, but their is some tension. As Cody wheels his horse around and rides off (without his reward), Mrs. Lowe turns her head, looking forlorn she watches sadly as Cody rides off alone, an interesting counterpoint to the happiness of her husband and son. The end of the film mirrors the beginning of the film, with Cody riding on his horse, guiding a mule through some rocks, but this time it is in an opposite screen direction. Cody must continue his futile quest, his search, as an exile in the wilderness.