Monday, August 12, 2013

"The Violent Men" (1955) -- Initial Thoughts

Well, no wonder I found Glenn Ford so compelling and attractive in this!  It was released the same year as my beloved Blackboard Jungle.

Okay, so anyway... this is not a great western.  But it's a reasonably good one.  The plot is your standard "rich guy trying to force the poor ranchers and farmers to sell their homes so he can have all the land, bwahahahahahaha!"  It actually reminded me a great deal of Gunfight in Abilene in that respect, and also because the hero is very reluctant to strap on a gun and be the hero.

John Parrish (Glenn Ford) came west a few years ago for his health after getting shot through the lungs while a cavalry captain during the Civil War.  Now he's ready to marry an annoying brunette named Caroline (May Wynn), sell his ranch, and move back east to start his life over again.

But this rich guy named Lew Wilkison (Edward G. Robinson) is trying to acquire all the land in the whole valley by any means necessary.  He promised his wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) years ago that he would give her the whole valley, and for twelve years he's been stymied by farmers and small ranchers like Parrish.  During the initial range war years ago, Wilkison got shot and has been crippled ever since.  His wife persuaded his brother Cole (Brian Keith) to come help run the ranch.  His daughter Judith (Dianne Foster) is convinced that her mother and uncle are plotting against her father, but Wilkison won't listen.

Judith arguing with Parrish

The first twenty minutes consist of Caroline and her parents insisting Parrish sell his ranch and go back east, while every one else in the territory is trying to convince him not to.  Guess which he decides?

The title is really accurate -- once the violence starts, it's nothing but beatings and shootings and burnings for quite some time.  I'm pretty sure only about three pieces of the set remained standing by the end.

Okay, so much for the story.  What I really want to talk about here are the characters and acting, and this is going to get spoily, so skip down to under the picture of the four Wilkisons if you think you want to see this and don't want to know lots of details and how things go.

First, Glenn Ford as John Parrish.  Yowza!  He is looking prime in this movie, all square shoulders and jaw, lean and sharp and dangerous, but with that yummy Glenn Ford sweetness too.  Also, he spends a lot of time on a horse, and while he rides in that older style with his arms up in front of him (which can't be comfortable), he also spends a lot of time mounting and dismounting, which is a joy to watch.  Especially the one scene where he dismounts before his horse has quite stopped, so he swings his right leg over, kicks his left foot free of the stirrup and slides down, all in one smooth motion.  Also some wonderful instances of him swinging up onto his horse without using the stirrups, which... okay, honestly, it's one of the sexiest things a guy can do, in my opinion.  It swoonifies me instantly.  To be that good a horseman, to be in that kind of shape... yeah.

Also, he has this really lovely horse.

Sorry.  Digressing, I know.  I really liked Parrish as a character, because he was full of integrity -- he stayed by his decision to sell and leave until the Wilkison's lied to him and tried to bully him, and only then did he decide to stay and fight.  And once he'd made that decision, he stuck by it even though his fiancee tried everything in her (inconsiderable) power to change his mind and make him take her back east.  When he wouldn't, she gave back his ring and left in a huff, and good riddance.

I think my favorite moment in the whole movie was when Parrish warned the Wilkisons that if they pushed him into fighting them, they wouldn't like his style of war at all.  Ford played it perfectly, quiet and calm and deadly serious.  Mmmmm.

No, my favorite moment is when Parrish finally picks up a gun and goes off to avenge the murder of one of his ranch hands.  He squares off, slyly and smoothly, against a hired gunman (Richard Jaeckel), and you feel through the whole scene that he's just playing with his opponent.  It's beautiful -- I may end up buying this mostly on account of that scene (and all that horsemanship).

A cat toying with a mouse that thinks it's the cat.

But let's not neglect Barbara Stanwyck!  Not that she'd let us.  Her Martha Wilkison is like a negative image of her Victoria Barkley from The Big Valley.  Both are strong-willed, determined, wealthy women who have helped their husbands build an empire in the west through hard work and shrewd business savvy.  But while Victoria Barkley is also strong morally and ethically, Martha Wilkison seems to have no morals at all.  She's willing to do absolutely anything to get what she wants.  And by anything, I mean sleep with her brother-in-law, try to murder her husband, manipulate her daughter, lie to everyone about everything... yeah.

In fact, the whole Wilkison household reminds me a lot of Hamlet.  Martha is an evil version of Gertrude, trying to get Cole to be her Claudius and help her get rid of Lew-as-King-Hamlet so the two of them can rule the kingdom.  Judith is young Hamlet, all suspicious of her mother and uncle's actions.  Only in this version, it's Martha/Gertrude who does the murdering, while Cole/Claudius sees her for what she is and tries to leave... but then comes back when Lew/King Hamlet is out of the way so he can usurp the ranch/throne.  Very nicely done.

Brian Keith, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Dianne Foster

Okay, so, yeah.  Not a great movie, but an enjoyable one with some intriguing themes and characters.  Would I recommend it?  Only if you're a fan of westerns, Glenn Ford, or Barbara Stanwyck.  Don't see it just for Brian Keith, cuz he spends all his time slumping and leering and being kind of cartoonishly villainous.  Except for the scene where he tells Barbara Stanwyck off for loving the ranch more than him, that was quite good.

Is this movie family friendly?  Well, good triumphs over all the evil, there's no bad language and no graphic violence, though there's an implied extra-marital affair and a good bit of pawing and smooching.  But overall, it's about as family friendly as a movie called The Violent Men can get.

He has two guns, one for each of you.  And a coat and hat I covet.


  1. If I happen to catch this on TV sometime I will probably give it a try, but other than that, I will most likely skip it. Good review and very detailed.


    1. By "very detailed" you meant, "Good grief, woman, you spent a whole paragraph discussing how this Glenn Ford guy gets on and off horses! A large paragraph!" ;-)

  2. This is one that has been in my DVR for MONTHS. I thought it sounded interesting, and I LOVE Barbara Stanwyck and also enjoy Glenn Ford, so I figured I would record it. One of these days, I will get a chance to watch it!

    Barbara Stanwyck really could play the gamut of roles, couldn't she? She's equally believable as a "nasty" as she is as an upstanding gal. She really had a broad range.

    1. It's definitely worth seeing! And only about an hour and a half.

      Barbara Stanwyck was just so talented -- I can think of few others who can convey within instants of her first appearance that she is devious and cold, but all she's doing is politely inviting someone to come into her house. Wow. And like you said, she could also do warm-hearted and sweet, or naive and a little foolish... wow.

  3. I remember loving Glenn Ford in this one, but it's been a few years now since my Glenn Ford fling... and I don't remember much else about it, other than Barbara was hard as nails and quite determined to get what she wanted. I do love your Hamlet comparison. That alone makes me want to see this again. Glenn Ford getting on/off horses is the icing!

    1. Yeah, Glenn Ford = shiny awesome in this. Yum yum yum. And Barbara is just cold and serpentine. And I think I'll end up buying a copy.


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