When it’s on: Monday, 2 February (11.00 am)
I’m somewhat chastened to learn that, in nearly 200 entries for this site, I am yet to cover a film directed by Raoul Walsh. The man was a movie making machine, his career beginning in the earliest days of American cinema and extended into the 1960s. By the time he helmed The Tall Men, Walsh brought to the table a lengthy history and about as much experience within the industry as it was possible to have, and was probably the ideal choice for an expensive, Cinemascope production for Twentieth Century Fox.
The film I kept returning to whilst watching it was Red River, Howard Hawks’s epic about a cattle trail making its lengthy journey across North America. In truth, Red River is the superior picture, but whereas the focus there was on star John Wayne’s increasingly fractious relationship with his protege, Montgomery Clift, here it’s a love triangle. Clark Gable rescues Jane Russell from a Native American attack and, for a short time, it seems that they will go from being lovers to living together, but his dreams are too small for her and she winds up partnering ambitious Robert Ryan instead, though it’s clear who she really wants. The smouldering chemistry between Gable and Russell really makes The Tall Men tick. Without this, it’s another trail flick, a very handsome looking affair if thousands of cattle roaming across the wild American landscape is your sort of thing, but with little else to recommend it.
Gable plays Ben Allison, a veteran Colonel from the Civil War who turns up in Montana with his younger brother Clint (Cameron Mitchell) in search of gold. What they find is businessman Nathan Stark (Ryan), who they subsequently kidnap for his money belt. On their journey through a stormy winter, Stark makes the brothers an offer – join him in a cattle drive venture from Texas back to Montana and they can split the profits three ways. They agree, but not before coming across Nella (Russell), who is rescued from a Sioux attack by Ben. While they make their way back to join the others, Ben and Nella find shelter in a cabin as the blizzards move in and have a fling, but fall out when he tells her his vision is of saving up enough to own a little ranch of his own in Prairie Dog Creek, Texas, which turns out to be far too limiting for a girl of her scope. Reuniting with Clint and Stark and beginning the drive, Nella falls quickly for the latter’s grander scheme of owning Montana and joins them, continually attempting to belittle Ben along the way. The trail comes across numerous perils, including a group of jayhawkers who try to extort $5,000 from them for crossing the Kansas border, and later the hostile Sioux kingdom, but Ben is equal to all challenges and commands the instant respect of the Mexican wranglers who work for them. Stark and Ben have clear mutual trust issues, their relationship made more difficult with the presence of Nella. And then there’s Clint, the hot-headed drinker with a tendency to draw his gun after making it into his cups.
The Tall Men tops the two hour mark, and in the second half has a tendency to sag with all those scenes of the trail making its progress, no doubt ‘money shots’ as the production costs escalated, though visually the sight of all those men and beasts moving in unison are very impressively staged. The running times makes its action scenes seem few and far between, and these range from the brilliant (the Sioux attack) to the wranglers’ efforts in driving off the Jayhawkers, which is over far too quickly. I also found myself having problems with the Clint character; his motivations for disliking Stark just feel too arbitrary, like they’re serving the plot rather than having any real basis. Similarly, whilst Ryan is absolutely fine as Stark, there’s something underwritten about his character. Just how are we supposed to feel about a ruthless businessman who enters into a contract with the very people who kidnapped him? What does he see in Nella, and why, having chosen her, does he appear to be so disinterested in helping her?
Fortunately, the two main stars make up for it. Jane Russell comes across as one of those perennially undervalued actresses, perhaps rooted in her screen debut, Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw, which was heavily marketed on the strength of her bounteous figure. Clearly, she was more than a pretty face and curvaceous assets, as evidenced in her fiery gold digger in The Tall Men. Sparring verbally with Gable, she commands much of the screen and obviously relishes doing so, her blousey attitude as prominent as the smouldering looks and body for which she was famous. Gable too looks like he’s cutting loose on the screen, bringing all his natural charisma to bear in what could have been a one-note heroic role. Well into his fifties by this stage and enjoying a career Renaissance, Gable is every inch the western man with experience and an unruffled, ‘seen it all before’ demeanour. He’s the best thing in The Tall Men. Russell is a close second.
The Tall Men: ***