30 Great Westerns
Ride Lonesome

Randolph Scott and Karen Steele in Ride Lonesome.

As the 1960s arrived, Western filmmakers increasingly turned to mammoth-sized, all-star epics. In 1960, John Sturges made The Magnificent Seven (138 minutes), Anthony Mann made Cimarron (147 minutes), and John Wayne made The Alamo (192 minutes). And in 1962, Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall created a Western-epic-to-end-all-Western-epics, How the West Was Won--filmed in the super-widescreen format Cinerama. However, during this time, director Budd Boetticher continued making short, unassuming Westerns, just as he did in the '50s. His Comanche Station, released in 1960, was just 73 minutes long.

Boetticher had discovered a fruitful partnership with actor Randolph Scott, screenwriter Burt Kennedy, and producer Harry Joe Brown. Together they produced a series of modest-but-magnificent Westerns starting with Seven Men From Now in 1956 and continuing through Comanche Station in 1960. (Brown did not produce Seven Men From Now.) The best films in the series are the ones scripted by Burt Kennedy; indeed, these films--Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station--are among the best Westerns ever made. Critic Robin Wood respected these films for their "unassuming" tone: "The genre is always respected: we never feel a self-conscious straining after 'significance,' or any sense that the artists feel superior to their raw material and are bent on transforming it." Meanwhile, French critic Andre Bazin was impressed with how Boetticher "made remarkable use of the landscape, and the varying textures of the soil and rocks." Writing about Seven Men From Now, Bazin said, "it is indeed the most intelligent Western I know, while being at the same time the least intellectual, the most subtle and least aestheticizing, the simplest and finest example of the form."

Ride Lonesome (1959) is one of Boetticher's finest Westerns. It focuses on a bounty hunter named Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott). In the film's first few minutes, he captures a no-good drifter named Billy John (James Best) who shot a man from behind and left him for dead on the streets of Santa Cruz.

"I don't know how much they're paying you to bring me in, but it ain't enough. Not near enough," sneers Billy John.

"I'd hunt you [for] free," says Brigade.

This exchange establishes the movie's moral tone. Brigade is a man of few words and great moral character. Billy John says once his brother Frank hears what has happened Frank will come to rescue him. So in the movie's initial moments, the script seems to give us a conventional race-to-the-jail story. Can Brigade get Billy John to the Santa Cruz jail before Frank catches up with him? But Burt Kennedy's script (created in collaboration with Boetticher, who is uncredited as co-writer) has a surprise in wait: Brigade actually wants Frank to catch them, for it's Frank that Brigade really wants. Billy John becomes the bait. In lieu of urgency in getting Billy John to Santa Cruz, Boetticher builds tension around the arrival of Frank--much like the arrival of Frank Miller on the noon train in High Noon.

While Ben Brigade is ostensibly the hero, Kennedy adds Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts of Bonanza fame) as a charismatic and opportunistic foil. He and his companion, Whit (James Coburn), show up as two-bit outlaws who are tired of being wanted men. They are aware that amnesty will be offered to any wanted men who bring in Billy John. So when they see Billy John in Ben Brigade's custody, they see their future--and they aren't above murder in order to realize their plans. Boone, in particular, has visions of settling down on a small ranch.

"Man gets halfway, he oughta have somethin' of his own," says Boone, "something to belong to, be proud of."

"They say that," says the typically laconic Brigade.

"I got me a place. Gonna run beef, work the ground, be able to walk down the street like anybody. All I need is Billy."

"I set out to take him to Santa Cruz. I full intend to do it."

"Well, I just wanted you to know how it was. Way I look at it, ain't near as hard for a man if he knows why he's gonna die."

Boone and Whit stick close to Brigade and even work together with him when Indians threaten, but Boone's plans are always clear: "There's only one man between me and starting life over," he says. This creates a strong sense of tension as Brigade, Boone, Whit, and Mrs. Lane (Karen Steele, as a woman they encounter at a stagecoach station) must rely upon each other in order to survive--but knowing fully well that if they survive the Indians--and if Brigade survives Frank's arrival--Boone and Whit will attempt to kill Brigade.

As in all other Kennedy-Boetticher scripts, a villain becomes a central character. In Seven Men From Now, Lee Marvin played this role. In Tall T, Richard Boone. And in Comanche Station, Claude Akins. Ride Lonesome is somewhat surprising because the true villain, Frank, doesn't actually show up until the movie is almost over. So the script offers Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) as an alternative. Lee Marvin's character is semi-psychotic in Seven Men From Now. He's truly evil. As a result, the characterization is somewhat simplistic (and thus Seven Men from Now is possibly the least satisfying of the Boetticher-Kennedy Westerns). Richard Boone in Tall T represents a more carefully considered version of this same character. He plays a sadist who cackles in delight when Randolph Scott picks up a hot coffee pot and burns himself. But he's also intelligent. He sees Scott as another version of himself, if he'd taken another road in this life. Their discussions form the basis of the movie. By necessity, Ride Lonesome splits this character in two. Lee Van Cleef plays the outlaw Frank, who comes to rescue his no-good brother Billy John, while Pernell Roberts plays the outlaw who questions the road he once took in life and now looks to change his ways. While Brigade's laconic nature makes him difficult to know and understand, the villains steal the spotlight. In Horizons West, Jim Kitses says about the typical Boetticher villain, "We understand him in a way we cannot the hero--and the films stand finally as celebrations of this character who attempts to create action in a way that Scott cannot."

Interestingly, in Ride Lonesome, Van Cleef's villain isn't simply an evil gunslinger; Frank's face is marked by the frustration of being called by Brigade to atone for a crime he committed many years ago--the murder of Brigade's wife. Frank is older and wiser now, but Brigade is on a revenge mission, regardless of the years or miles involved.

About his own situation, Sam Boone says, "There are some things a man just can't ride around." These same words function as the mantra of Kennedy and Boetticher's scripts. Life is filled with obstacles, and while some of these obstacles can be simply avoided by taking different paths, some obstacles must be confronted head-on. As a result, Kennedy and Boetticher's Western world is a world of isolation, a world where men must grapple with these obstacles in relative isolation--for they are both physical and moral obstacles--and then live with the consequences. As Jim Kitses says of Boetticher's world, life is "a tough, amusing game which can never be won but must be played."

The isolation for Ben Brigade that comes at the end of the movie is typical of Boetticher's movies. After taking revenge upon Frank, Brigade's mission is nearly complete. He surrenders Billy John to Boone and Whit, who ride off together toward Santa Cruz, with Mrs. Lane in tow as a possible partner for Boone. But Brigade stands alone. He had lured Frank to the site of his wife's death--a hanging tree. Now, Brigades watches as the tree burns. With the symbol of his quest now destroyed, Brigade is free. But Boetticher doesn't allow Brigade to be part of the happy ending. He remains in isolation.

While John Ford made rituals part of civilization's encroachment upon wilderness--parties, dances, funerals, weddings, etc.--Boetticher uses rituals for personal significance. The ritualistic burning of the tree takes place just for Brigade's benefit. This underscores the difference between the world of Ford and Boetticher. Ford's world grapples with the role of society and its effects upon the men we call heroes. Boetticher's world discards these notions altogether. Life is a personal struggle--to be faced fundamentally alone.

After Ride Lonesome, Boetticher made one more movie with Kennedy, Scott, and producer Harry Joe Brown, Comanche Station. He spent most of the rest of the '60s attempting to complete a movie about bullfighting, Arruza, and encountering numerous obstacles of his own--including divorce, bankruptcy, jail, illness, and even insanity. Eventually he completed the movie in 1968. After teaming with Audie Murphy, he made one last Western, A Time for Dying in 1969 (also producer Harry Joe Brown's final movie).

Burt Kennedy's career was still young when he worked with Boetticher. After Comanche Station, Kennedy would move to the director's chair, but none of his own Westerns are as compelling as the ones he made with Boetticher and Scott. Meanwhile, Randolph Scott was very near the end his career. During these films with Boetticher, Scott's face (so debonair in his youth) had hardened like leather. With director Sam Peckinpah and follow actor Joel McCrea, he would make Ride the High Country in 1962, a mournful saga about the passing of the Old West. And then Scott retired. An era had come to an end.

--by Gary Johnson