In the 1950s, Budd Boetticher directed seven Westerns starring Randolph Scott, often referred to as the Ranown cycle. The first of these was 7 Men from Now (1956), in which seven men rob Wells Fargo, steal a lot of gold, and kill the wife of Randolph Scott in the process. He sets out to avenge her death, and while he is at it, he retrieves the gold as well. Justice is served. But there is another injustice that has to be addressed in this movie.
When Scott first happens across Walter Reed and his wife, played by Gail Russell, we can see right off that this guy is a wimp, and we wonder how he ever got himself a wife like Russell. Even when she falls in the mud, she oozes sex appeal. In fact, that may even make it better. Some men would love to just get down and wallow in the mud with her. Later, when they are joined by Lee Marvin and his partner, Marvin says to his friend, “It just don’t seem right to me…., why a full woman like that would settle for half a man.” He is right. Reed just does not deserve Russell.
A man like Marvin is the sort who cannot help stepping on something little, so one night while Scott, Reed, Russell, and Marvin are inside the covered wagon, Marvin starts talking about how deliciously desirable Russell is, practically ravishing her with his words, while her husband, who is being verbally cuckolded, just sits there and takes it. Marvin also talks about how he once knew another woman like Russell, who eventually ran off with a real man, suggesting that she has a thing for Scott. And apparently she does, because later, when Scott says goodbye to her, she moves in to be kissed, although he does not avail himself of the opportunity. For one thing, he is a recent widower, and for another, he is too upright to take another man’s wife.
We know that Scott will eventually kill all the men who stole the gold and caused his wife’s death, because that is routine for a Western. It is the injustice of Reed’s being married to Russell that worries us, for there is no standard convention for handling that situation. In The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), there is a similar injustice of Lana Turner being married to Cecil Kellaway, and so she and John Garfield kill him. But that is simply one form of injustice being corrected at the expense of creating another. As a result, Turner and Garfield never really get to enjoy the love they deserve, because they must be punished for committing a murder. What is needed is a way of bringing about the sexual justice we want without having it undone with the criminal injustice of murder.
When Scott discovers that Reed had been hired by the robbers to transport the gold, he takes the box of gold away from Reed and tells him and Russell to go west. We get a sinking feeling. The sexual wrong will never be righted. Fortunately, Reed decides to go south to inform the sheriff of Scott’s situation.
Before Reed can get to the sheriff’s office, the leader of the men who hired him to transport the gold shoots him down in the street. Because Reed knowingly risked his life and lost it trying to help Scott, Marvin says he was wrong, that Reed was a man after all. Well, it is nice of Marvin to say that, being generous about the husband now that he is dead, but we know better. After all, Reed was not wearing a gun, and in a Western, that is the mark of a weakling. And thus it is that when Reed is shot in the back unarmed as he walks to the sheriff’s office, we breathe a sigh of relief. Though Russell says she loves her husband, yet we know that this is for the best.
Later, after Scott has returned the gold, he tells Russell where he will be working as a deputy and indicates that he would be glad to see her, if ever she should be passing by that way. She quickly decides that after a decent interval (both have recently murdered spouses), she will take him up on that offer. This makes us feel good, because Scott is the man she has needed all along. When they finally get married, and he gives it to her the way her first husband never could, justice will finally be restored.
Boetticher was obsessed with what it meant to be a real man. Men in his movies often explain their actions by saying a man does this or a man does that. Not only had Boetticher been an athlete in college, but he had a lifelong fascination with bullfighting as well. And didn’t we learn from Hemingway that bullfighting is a most manly endeavor? As a result, he had a thing about beautiful women being married to men lacking in the proper amount of manhood, and this form of injustice is a recurring theme in most of the movies he made with Randolph Scott. One can almost imagine Boetticher in college, wondering why a pretty coed would date some nerd when she could have a big, strapping man like himself. Perhaps he expressed his frustration on this score through the movies he made.
Before moving on the the other movies in the Ranown cycle, let us look at four of the critical features of sexual injustice in the movie just considered:
The Dead Wife: Randolph Scott’s wife has been killed by bandits.
The Unworthy Husband: Gail Russell is a pretty woman that is married to a man that doesn’t deserve her.
The Perceptive Outlaw: Lee Marvin is an outlaw that talks to Scott about how desirable Russell is and how she deserves better than the man she has.
The Worthy Replacement: Russell is freed of her husband and will eventually marry Scott, a man that is appropriate for her.
Not every movie in the Ranown cycle has all these features. In some cases, there are minor variations. And there is one movie that has none of the elements listed above.
In The Tall T (1957), Maureen O’Sullivan plays a middle-aged, supposedly homely woman, although we know she is better looking than some of the characters in this movie seem to think. She was on the verge of becoming an old maid when a man married her for her money, because her father is rich. The husband turns out to be a spineless heel. Just as Marvin, in 7 Men from Now, was an outlaw that got into a discussion with Scott about Russell, so too is Richard Boone in this movie an outlaw that gets into a discussion with Scott about O’Sullivan. He says O’Sullivan would be more attractive if she fixed herself up, and he refers to her husband as “low grade.” So, it is clear that it is a form of sexual injustice that she is married to that man. That husband is killed by Henry Silva, one of the outlaws in Boone’s gang, before the marriage is consummated. But she never loved her husband anyway, so she let’s Scott kiss her passionately. After the bad guys are killed off, Scott and O’Sullivan go off together with his arm around her. He’ll give her the love she needs. Sexual justice has been restored.
In this movie, the first feature is missing: Scott does not have a wife that died for the simple reason that he has never been married.
In Decision at Sundown (1957), Scott plays a man who had been cuckolded by various men while he was off fighting the Civil War. After his wife’s last affair with a sleazy character played by John Carroll, she committed suicide. Scott blames Carroll for that and tracks him down, determined to get revenge. When he finally catches up with him, Carroll is about to get married to Karen Steele. We are suspicious of Carroll because he is a dandy. We get the sense that he is marrying Steele, not because he loves her, but because he is a social climber, something a real man would never do. As she learns more about him, she refuses to marry him. This is similar to the way the marriage was never consummated in The Tall T. Carroll ends up leaving with the town whore, the one he is suited for, while Steele seems to be pairing up with the local doctor, a more suitable match.
There is a minor variation on the second feature: the woman is not yet married to the man that is unworthy of her. The third feature is absent: there is no perceptive outlaw to talk about Steele with Scott.
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) is an outlier. None of the features listed above are present. There are maybe three women in this movie, two of whom have speaking parts, but neither is of much significance. What little we can discern of their relationships with men, there appears to be no sexual injustice.
In Westbound (1959), Andrew Duggan, a secret agent of the Confederacy, has married the woman Scott used to love, Virginia Mayo. Scott is a captain in the Union Army. On the stagecoach, he meets a Union soldier played by Michael Dante, who lost his left arm in the Civil War from gangrene. He is married to Karen Steele. This is the first of these movies in which the husband of the leading lady has a physical handicap instead of a character flaw. Dante keeps referring to himself as being “half a man,” the same expression Marvin used in reference to Russell’s husband in 7 Men from Now.
Now, we were fine with the way three of the previous movies depicted sexual injustice by pairing a beautiful woman with a man that was not worthy of her because he was weak or effeminate. And we were glad when these marriages were stopped or broken up. But do we really feel it is an injustice for a man that is physically impaired to be married to a beautiful woman? Well, maybe we don’t, but apparently that’s the way Boetticher must have felt, because he has Dante is killed off.
Somewhat later, Duggan, Mayo’s husband, is killed in a gunfight. Mayo seems to still be in love with Scott and would like to have him back, but we see Scott saying goodbye to her as she leaves on the stage. Then, in a manner similar to the ending of 7 Men from Now, we get the impression that Scott and Steele will end up getting married as soon as the decent interval of mourning has passed. When that happens, she will get a whole man and not just half of one.
In this movie, there is a variation on the first feature: Scott’s wife has not been killed for the simple reason that the woman he loved married someone else instead. This is similar to Decision at Sundown, where an unfaithful wife committed suicide while Scott was off fighting the Civil War. Here, the woman he loved was unfaithful and married someone else while he was off fighting the Civil War, depriving Scott of a wife in a different manner. The third feature is absent: there is no perceptive outlaw that talks to Scott about how desirable the woman is that is married to a man that is unworthy of her.
In Ride Lonesome (1959), Scott is a bounty hunter, bringing in a prisoner. Pernell Roberts and James Coburn are two outlaws that want to be the ones to bring the prisoner in themselves. If they do, they will receive an amnesty for their past crimes, allowing them to go straight and become partners running a farm on a piece of land Roberts owns but cannot return to while he is wanted by the law. When we first meet Karen Steele, she has just been made a widow by some Indians. She and her husband had been managing a staging post out in the middle of nowhere. Scott makes some derogatory remarks about her deceased husband, saying he should never have brought her to that isolated place, and having done so, he should never have left her alone to go chase after some horses. So, even though we never meet the husband, we know from Scott’s assessment that he was unworthy of Steele. We get the feeling that, sorry as she is that her husband has been killed, the love in that marriage had long since died. Roberts, like Marvin and Boone in two of the previous movies, gets into a discussion with Scott about how nice it would be to have a woman like Steele for a wife.
The principal outlaw that Scott must contend with is Lee Van Cleef, the brother of Scott’s prisoner. Toward the end of the movie, we find out that Van Cleef once hanged Scott’s wife for revenge. After Van Cleef has been killed, Scott lets Roberts and Coburn have his prisoner for the amnesty. From the dialogue, we get the sense that, after the usual period of mourning, Steele will end up marrying Roberts. We don’t know what her deceased husband had been like, but Roberts is definitely the real man she needs.
The fourth feature is unusual in that it is the perceptive outlaw that becomes the worthy replacement.
In Comanche Station (1960), Scott’s wife was captured by the Comanches ten years ago. Whenever he hears about a white woman being held by the Comanches, he goes to their camp to barter for the woman, in hopes that it will be his wife. Upon arriving at a Comanche camp for just such a purpose, he ends up trading for Nancy Gates, a more recently captured woman. He tells her he will take her back to Lordsburg, where her husband is. Because all the braves have been having their way with her (we see bruises on her arms), she worries that her husband won’t want her back. At this point, the question seems to be not so much whether her husband is unworthy of her, but whether he will think her unworthy of him. Scott says that if he loves her, it won’t matter, which tells us more about his attitude toward his wife, if he ever finds her, than it tells us about Gates’ husband.
Claude Akins and two other men have been looking for Gates too. Akins knows what Scott and Gates do not, that her husband offered a $5,000 reward for her return, dead or alive. Akins says that the husband will pay even if she is returned dead so that he will know for sure what happened to her. But we can’t help thinking of The Searchers (1956), where John Wayne wants to kill Natalie Wood because she has been raped by the Indians. If it is like that, then the husband is unworthy of Gates. But we don’t know.
Akins is the perceptive outlaw in this movie that talks to Scott about how desirable Gates is. Scott once had Akins court martialed for killing peaceful Indians to get their scalps, for which a bounty was offered. Akins talks about how nice it would be to have a woman like Gates, and how her husband can’t be much of a man, or else he would have gone looking for her himself. He talks about how he knew a man once that set out to find another man’s captive wife. He found her, but before they got back to her husband, they became lovers. This remark is reminiscent of the remark made by Lee Marvin in 7 Men from Now, the one about a woman like Russell running off with a real man, suggesting that Scott would be that man, just as Akins does in this movie. Akins’ assessment of the situation makes us think the husband is unworthy of Gates.
Akins plans to kill Scott so that he can collect the reward. But since Gates would be a witness to the murder, he plans on killing her too, after which he will return her dead body to the husband. Needless to say, Scott kills Akins on the way back to Lordsburg.
There is a scene in which Gates says that she hopes Scott will stay in Lordsburg for a while after they get there, saying it will make things easier, since she is afraid things will never be the same with her husband, now that she has been raped. Scott says she’ll forget. There’s no PTSD in a Boetticher Western. But Gates may be wondering more about whether her husband will forget than whether she will. She points out that Scott hasn’t forgotten about his wife. He says that knowing Gates has made him forget, at least for a little while. All this sounds familiar, like the dialogue in some of the previous movies that suggest that the woman, once freed of her unworthy husband or fiancé, will soon be getting together with a man that deserves her.
But when they arrive at Gates’ home in Lordsburg, a young child comes running out to her, calling her “Mommy!” That changes everything. There never were any children involved in the previous movies, and the presence of a young child confers a movie’s blessing on the marriage that produced that child. Then her husband comes out, and we see that he is blind. Gates and her husband embrace, and we know all will be well, that they truly love each other.
Did Boetticher have a change of heart? Maybe. But we meet this husband and find out about his condition only at the end of the movie. We just barely have a moment for it to register that he is blind before Scott rides away and the movie is over. But suppose we had been introduced to this married couple early on? Suppose, similar to Dante in Westbound, he was a soldier that had been blinded during the war, and we see him reunited with his wife in the first twenty minutes of the movie? And assume there was no child. Would the husband have survived then? I doubt it. I don’t think Boetticher could have stood it. He would have had to kill him off so that Scott and Gates could hint to each other that they will be getting together just as soon as it is socially acceptable for them to do so.
We suspect that the first feature is present in this movie. That is, we figure that Scott’s wife is dead by now. And the third element is present, in that Akins is the perceptive outlaw that talks to Scott about what an attractive woman Gates is, and how he thinks her husband is unworthy of her. But is the second element present? Is Gates’ husband unworthy of her by Boetticher standards, owing to the fact that he is blind? Or has she herself become less worthy on account of having been raped by all those Comanches, in which case, she and her husband are now suited for each other? We may not think that way, but given the movies that have come before, we can’t help but wonder if this was Boetticher’s way of bringing about what for him would be sexual justice