The Proud Ones (1956), directed by Robert D. Webb and starring Robert Ryan, Jeffrey Hunter and Virginia Mayo in lead roles, is a solid Western dealing with the archetypal theme of an upright marshal cleaning up a corrupt old west town.
“Pride can kill a man faster than a bullet”
As the title and the above quote from the film suggests, Twentieth Century-Fox’s 1956 Cinemascope DeLuxe Western, “The Proud Ones,” tells the story of a couple of proud lawmen in the old West. As opposed to its more negative implications, like superiority and arrogance, the word “Proud” here is used in its most positive form: a person of dignity and self-respect who jealously preserves these qualities and refuse to compromise or sell out under any circumstances. First of the ‘proud ones’ is Cass Silver (Robert Ryan), a hard-as-nails marshal of the booming town, Flat Rocks, in Kansas. He is supported in his peacekeeping efforts by his deputy Jim Dexter (Arthur O’Connell), who is nervously awaiting the birth of his first child, and crusty old jailer Jake (Walter Brennan). The railroad has reached this one-horse town, turning it into a boom town of cattle herds, cowboys and saloons. The first of the cattle herds are showing up in town and the merchants are taking advantage of their future customers by raising prices on everything, including haircuts. So, it’s getting difficult for Cass to marshal the town. Adding to Cass’s woes is the fact that his old nemesis ‘Honest John’ Barrett (Robert Middleton) has newly opened a saloon/gambling house in town. Barrett has brought along with him his floor manager Dillon (George Matthews) and his two gun fighter pals, Pike (Ken Clark) and Chico (Rodolfo Acosta). Complications arise when Cass has to blast one of Barrett’s quick-tempered men in a saloon gunfight and a bullet nicks him on the left temple so that his vision blurs at the worst moments. Well, if blurry sight wasn’t enough of a problem for our seething hero to contend with, a cowpoke, Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter), rides into town with a cattle herd and keeps two guns buckled across his hips. Thad is the second of the ‘proud Ones.’ He and Cass has some history: Thad’s no-good father worked as a hired gun for Barrett in another town and Cass had to kill him in self-defense. But Barrett has generated a persuasive rumor that Cass gunned down Thad’s father in cold blood and now Thad wants to know the truth. Cass sits the kid down and tells him that his father was a low-life gunman and Cass had indeed killed him in a ‘him or me’ situation. Thad does not like hearing this but seeing how well respected Cass is around town, Thad starts believing him; he even comes to Cass’s rescue during that unfortunate shootout in Barrett’s saloon. Cass gradually wins the confidence of Thad, hiring him as a relief jailer. But when Cass is forced to shoot Chico, Thad believes that Cass gunned down an unarmed man and renews his hatred of Cass. When Dexter resigns as deputy, Cass offers the job to Thad who accepts. Gradually, Thad learns the truth about his father and Chico’s deaths and becomes allied with Cass in his efforts to rid the town of Barrett. Cass’s longtime fiancée, Sally (Virginia Mayo) wants to take Cass and leave town and get help for his vision problems. But then three of Barrett’s men that Cass had arrested are broken out of jail, and Cass and Thad pursue them into a barn; and in the middle of this final shootout, Cass experiences a blind spell. But Thad comes through at this critical juncture: he not only saves Cass’s life but also gets rid of Barrett, thus allowing Cass to leave town, keeping his pride and dignity intact.
As it is obvious from the above synopsis, the film, though broadly a town-Western, comprises of two or three standard Western themes. First, of course, it tells the story of an upright Marshal obsessed about cleaning up a lawless town, even to the point of becoming unpopular among the townsfolk. Second, an older gunfighter taking a young upstart under his wing and training him to be his successor. Third, a lawman battling a physical disability that’s going to prove fatal in discharging his duties. 1950s were the golden age of the Western; and with color and widescreen filmmaking becoming standard by this time, we could see the old West in all its glory. Though widescreen was considered more suitable for biblical\historical epics, I always felt it was best suited for the Western genre; and in color, the reds, yellows, browns and greens of the Western landscape truly comes alive on the screen. “The Proud Ones” is no different, the cinemascope widescreen is very effectively used in conveying both space and claustrophobia as well as conveying relationship dynamics, with characters facing each other from the opposite ends of the screen or placed together right in the center. But the film does suffer for one problem that was common for all these early cinemascope color films, especially from Twentieth Century-Fox: they are too brightly and uniformly lit, giving the visuals a ‘flat’ feeling; there is no mood or texture to the visuals; every inch of the screen is lit exactly the same way, creating very little contrast and very little ‘separation’ between background and foreground. The night scenes are much better, with good use of chiaroscuro, but they are few and far between. Lucien Ballard, who photographed the film, is one of the greatest cinematographers ever to crank a camera, but i feel the studio interfered too much during this time regarding the visual pattern of these films, and didn’t give the cinematographers the leeway to light the films depending upon the subject matter. This film definitely required a more textured, dark palette. The sets and costumes complement the cinematography and the film looks very glossy and is pleasing to the eyes, but sometimes the emotions just doesn’t register and the film depends too much on the writing and acting to whip up the required emotions.
That complaint aside, I think “The Proud Ones” is a solid Western. Though made in Cinemascope, it is a medium budget film, and there is some tackiness on account of that. But the film has a very good script by veteran screenwriter Edmund H. North (who won an Oscar for co-writing “Patton”). North’s ability in constructing well plotted dramas filled with multiple, well rounded characters is on ample display here. Robert D. Webb’s direction is tight and pacey, with every frame densely filled. He is very good at shooting action sequences and a gunfight between Cass and Barret’s henchman that takes place at night is well shot. He also manages to extract good performances out of the actors. The film is obviously inspired by “High Noon (1952)”- one of the greatest and seminal town-Westerns ever made. Of course, this film does not have that tense countdown to the final gunfight, but it still packs enough suspense in its plot. The film follows the main theme of “High Noon” to a T: like Will Kane, Cass Silver is itching to quit his job and settle down with his woman; but he wants to see the present job through even it means he may end up dead. When the town council asks him to resign, as his violent ways are interfering with their profitable business, the marshal insists that he will resign only after he had delivered the prisoners to the judge. This is what precipitates the jailbreak and the final shootout. Just like Grace Kelly in “High Noon,” here we have Virginia Mayo trying desperately to convince her man that it’s time to leave town and start a new life elsewhere. The addition of the ‘oedipal’ theme of a young cowboy who wants to avenge the death of his father, but then stays on to becomes his father’s killer’s chief ally adds extra dimensions to the film. I have to say that this theme is not fully exploited for its dramatic tension and Jeffrey Hunter is not an actor good enough to play this complex character, but still, this conflict between the young cowpoke and the veteran gunslinger, who takes the former under his wing, trains him, and finally names him his successor, is the most interesting part of the film and what manages to distinguish the film from “High Noon.” We can see this theme repeated in many films of the time, like “The Tin Star,” “Man without a Star,” “The Man who shot Liberty Valance” and so on.
Robert Ryan usually plays macho bad guys in Westerns and crime movies. So, it’s quite a unique experience seeing him play the morally upright hero, though the character still has some dark traits. Ryan is most famous for his dark performances in Noirs like “Crossfire” and just before this film, he had starred in the Westerns, “The Naked Spur” and “Bad Day at Black Rock” as very cunning and menacing bad guys. In his later years, Ryan played more sympathetic supporting roles in Westerns like “The Professionals” and “Lawman,” both starring Burt Lancaster. Ryan’s role in this film is very similar to the town sheriff he played in “Lawman.” But unlike the sheriff there who knew the difference between right and wrong, but was willing to compromise in favor of the local town boss, here he is proud and uncompressing. Ryan has always been a great actor and he gives a terrific performance as the physically and emotionally vulnerable lawman. His interactions with his fellow actors, especially Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Middleton, his coming to terms with his blind spells and his various confrontations with friends and bad guys are all well played. The town-council scene where he berates the townsfolk for selling out to capitalist interests is the film’s highlight. Ryan also gets to deliver some sardonic lines that goes well with his performance. Ultimately, it’s his performance that drives the film and makes the film much better than what it actually is. Virginia Mayo does her best with the standard ‘girl in a Western’ role, while Jeffrey Hunter, as I already mentioned, is not bad but is not very good either. A truly accomplished actor would have worked wonders with such a complex, conflicted character; Hunter’s performance simply comes across as confusing. I was quite shocked to see Walter Brennan in such a brief role and the film didn’t bother to use the actor’s comedic skills. On the other hand, Robert Middleton gets to play a meaty role and he gives one of his best villainous performances. Apart from the performances of the actors, the evocative score by Lionel Newman (that includes a whistling motif) helps immensely in setting the mood of the film.
Now, coming back to the film’s themes and influences, particularly the theme of a lawman suffering form a physical disability, in this case blindness, there is a plethora of Western\adventure movies that came out based on it. Westerns like “Minnesota Clay” and “Blindman (starring Ringo Starr).” There were crime\action dramas like “Blind Justice” and “Blind Fury” etc. I am not saying any of these films were directly influenced by “The Proud Ones,” but I think this is the first film to feature a lawman\action-hero protagonist with blindness as a disability. I also noticed that the film focuses too much on characters’ afflictions and weaknesses. Usually in Westerns, we see that heroes get shot and in the next scene they are as fit as before. But here, it’s not the case: we see the logical progression of Cass’s head wound to the blind spells he experiences; Thad walks around with a limp throughout the film after he is shot; Ken Clark’s Pike carries a conspicuous scar on his face; Arthur O’Connell’s nervous deputy succumbs to his cowardice and resigns from the job; there is also a town drunk who’s featured prominently in the film. I was also intrigued by how many people gets shot in their head\face- in the films of those times, we hardly see where a bullet enters a victim; and shots to the head were non-existent. Here everyone from Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan and Ken Clark are shot in their head. There are also a lot of ‘pocket pistols’ (not Derringers) used in the film. The bad guys seems to be pulling them out at will. Also, based on all this, two films that I am certain was influenced by this film is Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” and “El Dorado.” While “Rio Bravo” is considered a ‘conservative’ version of “High Noon” and “El Dorado” is considered a remake of “Rio Bravo,” I think Hawks lifted a lot of stuff for these two films from “The Proud Ones.” Starting with the ‘affliction’ part: Ryan’s ‘blind spells’ become Dean Martin’s drunkenness in “Rio Bravo” and John Wayne’s temporary paralysis in “El Dorado.” Walter Brennan’s crusty jailer is as it is replicated in “Rio Bravo,” while Jeffrey Hunter’s character seems to have inspired Ricky Nelson and James Caan’s characters respectively in those films. The (sub) plot dealing with Ryan imprisoning the villain’s henchmen and keeping them in jail until he can hand them over to a federal judge becomes the main plot point of “Rio Bravo.” It’s ironic that, today, “Rio Bravo” is one of the most popular films ever and very few people may have even heard of “The Proud Ones.” Of Course, there is a marked difference in tone between these films, while Hawks films are mainly ‘comedies’ dealing with his pet themes of male camaraderie and professionalism, “The Proud Ones” is a very serious and straight film that deals with more complex and gray subject matter. All this to say that “The Proud Ones” is one of the most underrated and under seen Westerns from the ’50s that need to be appreciated a lot more. Apparently, this was one of Akira Kurosawa’s favorite movies, so somebody did take notice of this this well made and consistently entertaining film.