The Man from Colorado (1948)

When it’s on: Thursday, 8 September (4.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The Man from Colorado is set at the close of the American Civil War. Glenn Ford plays Owen Devereaux, a Union Colonel who is appointed Judge for his region in Colorado. His right hand man in the army, Del Stewart (William Holden), becomes Marshal and his second in command. Justice under Judge Devereaux is swift and brutal. He orders hangings on the flimsiest of evidence. Death is pronounced as a matter of course and with a straight, unscrupulous face, but Stewart knows better. He remembers an episode shortly before the war ended, when Devereaux’s detachment trapped a Confederate force into offering terms of surrender and, despite waving the white flag, the Colonel gunned them down. Devereaux gives instances of insight into his own condition, writing after the slaughter that he has no idea what’s happening to him, but the rough justice continues and drives an irreconcilable wedge between Stewart and himself.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has existed for as long as human beings. Since ancient times there have been investigations taken into the psychological effects of war, clearly one of the most stress-inducing human experiences, and as long ago as the Civil War formal medical studies into the condition were undertaken. PTSD as a consequence of World War One, especially the experience of living for weeks in trenches, was known as ‘shell shock’, a term redefined as ‘battle fatigue’ in the global war that followed. The shattered mental states of soldiers returning from Germany and Japan in 1945 spilled over into popular culture, notably in Film Noir, in which PTSD became a prominent player in attempting to explain the rationale of its damaged heroes and their struggles to adjust to civilian living. Westerns too chose contemporary issues for storylines transposed into the Old West, and in The Man from Colorado Devereaux is an obvious sufferer. One of the film’s neater themes is that lack of understanding from other people to his psychological state. Stewart recognises his friend’s ‘sickness’ and urges him to take a break from his duties, but his is a lone voice and otherwise everyone is unaware of the particulars of Devereaux’s malaise. You can imagine it really being like that, a PTSD sufferer resorting to almost psychopathic levels of violence without the realisation from him or anyone else of the reasons for his behaviour.

The best thing about Ford in his performance is that Devereaux’s countenance is precisely the same as in his heroic roles – resolute, fixed, always with that undercurrent of violence behind the eyes but maintaining a sense of control. It’s terrifying at times, the sense that to some degree Devereaux thinks he’s dong the right thing, the part of his personality that caused him to question himself eradicated and leaving those around him to challenge his behaviour. The real-life friendship between Ford and Holden spills over into their acting, their ease in each other’s company and the latter’s air of disillusionment as he finds Devereaux taking a path he can’t follow. The clash and split between these two veterans who we are led to believe have been through the horrors of war together and survived should be devastating enough, yet the film adds an unnecessary extra dimension in Ellen Drew’s Caroline, the love interest for both men. Drew’s fine in the part, but the plotline seems thrown in to add a conventional layer of romantic added tension, which isn’t needed. The exploration of PTSD and its effects is enough.

A cool $1 million was lavished on The Man from Colorado, the sum showing in the film’s sprawling township set, part of which was destroyed in the climactic fire scene. Production problems were reflected in the recycling of directors, Charles Vidor being replaced by Henry Levin, which caused the shoot to be extended and costs escalating as a consequence. Whereas the former carried the more celebrated body of work, turning out the classic thriller Gilda two years earlier (which also starred Ford), the latter was a sure hand and developed the film as a Western with Noir themes, helping to show the genre as a format for reflecting prevalent issues within contemporary America. The result is a fine, tense drama, perhaps not quite all it could have been yet well paced and certainly entertaining.

The Man from Colorado: ***

6 Replies to “The Man from Colorado (1948)”

  1. Great review Mike (and is you back on a more regular basis now?) Saw this one on Colin’s say so and my Dad and I really enjoyed it (especially in the ‘original;’ Italian 🙂 )

    1. Thanks Sergio. Work picked up in spring and summer, and then I just found myself out of the blogging groove for a time – glad to be back and hoping to become more regular again 🙂

  2. Welcome back, Mike.
    I’m pleased that you seem to have enjoyed this film. The theme is a solid one and worthy of a bit of attention, not least in the years when this was made. It gets very close to film noir in this respect and keep the attention.

    Ford got right into his character but I think he could have used a bit more ambiguity, a bit more shading. You can argue Holden provides that, but having two separate characters portray two sides of human nature is never quite as satisfying as seeing one guy struggling internally.

    1. Thanks Colin – good to be back 🙂

      I of course read your very comprehensive piece before writing my own, and I spotted the difference in our feelings about Glenn Ford’s performance. Personally I really enjoyed the inscrutability, not so dissimilar to how he played his heroes, and that for me made it quite a terrifying piece of work. And Holden is good value as the film’s conscience. I wish the film had been braver about sticking to the consequences of PTSD rather than throw in a conventional romantic sub-plot, but then again it was made in 1948. I do like the film noir comment and think it shows the scope of what film makers could do with the Western, something I know you’ve argued for all along.

      1. Cheers. I guess I simply feel Ford had the ability to coax a little more from the role, a little more shading, which I think always works especially well in westerns. For example, he plays the villain in 3:10 to Yuma but it’s with a much stronger level of ambivalence than what we get here. I don’t believe his work here is poor by any means, just not as subtle as he could be capable of.

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