This has been one of my favorite movies for about thirty years. It's one of the first "grown up" feature-length westerns I can remember seeing -- my dad rented it and John Wayne's North to Alaska (1960) both one weekend for some reason, when I was ten or eleven. And I fell in love with both of them. This is probably the first movie I ever saw Maureen O'Hara in, so I thought it was the perfect thing to review for her birthday!
Yes! Today would have been Maureen O'Hara's 100th birthday! Isn't that just spectacular? Happy birthday to my favorite actress! ::throws confetti and hands around cake::
And now, time to talk about this movie. It opens with a big parade/party, which a handy banner across the street tells us is the National Stockmen's Exposition of 1884. What the banner doesn't tell us is that the balloons you see everywhere in this opening sequence, including right here, must have been imported from Europe especially for this occasion, since rubber balloons for parties weren't manufactured in the US until 1907, though in 1873, the New York Times talked about them being a fun addition at "popular gatherings," so clearly we were getting them from Europe already then.
(This digression comes to you courtesy of me seeing all the balloons and being really curious as to whether they actually were a thing in 1884. Turns out they were.)
Here we get introduced to Martha Price (Maureen O'Hara) and her daughter Hilary (Juliet Mills). Quick digression -- Juliet Mills is Hayley Mills' older sister. This is the only thing I've seen her in, but I love her in it. She also did voice work for the audiobook version of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schafer and Annie Barrows, and she's just wonderful as a voice artist too.
Anyway, Martha and Hilary here get their first glimpse of Sam "Bulldog" Burnett (James Stewart), as he "bulldogs" a steer to show off for the crowd. Which means just sort of throwing himself on it and forcing its head and shoulders to the ground, which is also called "steer wrestling." It's a thing, you can look it up. Anyway, Sam sees these lovely ladies in the crowd and tips his hat to them.
This amuses Martha. She and Hilary came here from Britain to sell some Hereford cattle. Her husband died in an accident aboard ship on the way there, but she is determined to see his dream of bringing Hereford stock to America a reality.
Western cattlemen are unimpressed by the Hereford cows.
Their bull, Vindicator, gets a lot more attention. It has no horns! Everyone calls it "muley," which deeply offends Hilary. She raised Vindicator from a calf and is very attached to him. She trained him to obey her commands whenever she whistles "God Save Our Gracious Queen," which we in America rewrote to be "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
A stockman named Ellsworth (David Brian) offers to buy the bull on behalf of his Texas partner, Alexander Bowen. Another cattleman, Taylor (Alan Caillou) is interested too, but Ellsworth outbids him.
Meanwhile, Sam Burnett meets up with his old pal (Ben Johnson) and his pal's girlfriend (Barbara Werle -- who was also in Gunfight in Abilene a year later, if you're thinking she looks familiar.) His friend got hurt working cattle for Taylor a year ago, and Taylor gave him $40 and told him to get lost. Sam's not happy about this.
He's also not happy with a jerk named Simons (Jack Elam) shows up and starts insulting everyone in sight.
Naturally, they get in a fight, which sparks a giant brawl. The brawl mostly happens right inside Vindicator's pen because of reasons.
Martha is most disturbed by this and whacks miscreants with her parasol whenever she has a chance.
Anyway, after the fight, Taylor gives Sam $500 to steal Vindicator for him, basically. He wants the bull to improve his stock, but he's convinced that Ellsworth only bought him to get close to the lovely widow.
Which is totally correct. Ellsworth has less-than-honorable intentions toward Martha, as he quickly shows when she comes to get her money from him.
Martha is not a woman you can trifle with, though. She gets her money, and Ellsworth gets nothing but a good tongue-lashing.
Sam slips the money Taylor paid him to his friends to help them get by since Taylor refused to help them get back on their feet, literally and metaphorically. Then Sam loads Vindicator on the train for Texas. To his surprise and consternation, Martha and Hilary show up too, ready to guard Vindicator all the way to his new home in Texas because Mr. Ellsworth threatened to butcher him if Martha didn't give in to his advances.
The train trip involves some thrilling heroics on the top of the train because what IS the point of having people take a train in a western if someone's not going to walk around on top of it and get involved in Almost Deadly Peril?
Everyone gets safely to Texas, where Simons and another of Taylor's men named Mabry (Harry Carey Jr.) show up to take Vindicator to Taylor. Sam explains that's not going to work because the women came along, and they insist on taking Vindicator all the way to Bowen's ranch.
Another big brawl ensues, which Martha and Hilary watch because who doesn't enjoy watching a brawl from behind the safety of swinging saloon doors?
Sam makes a deal with Mabry to let Vindicator go sometime while they're on Taylor's land, which they have to cross to get to Bowen's ranch. And then he and the two women and the bull set off.
Sam and Martha spend a lot of time racing around on horses and flirting while Hilary drives the wagon with their supplies.
But sometimes Hilary gets to take a nap on Vindicator, which is the cutest thing in the movie.
One night on the trail, Hilary gets fed up with Sam's flirting with her newly widowed mother and announces that she overheard him making plans with Mabry and Simons to steal Vindicator. Sam denies it. Martha is very upset with Hilary for making wild accusations.
The next day, Sam cuts a gap in a barbed wire fence for them to pass through. Hilary says she assumes this means they've reached Taylor's land. Nope, Sam says, they're leaving it. This convinces Martha that Sam's on the level.
Also, this is my dad's favorite scene to quote when he's doing his James Stewart impression. "Wire! They'll wire the whole world! Barbed wire, telegraph wire..."
Anyway, they approach a canyon. Sam hears cattle somewhere ahead and rides out to see who it is. Turns out, it's Jamie Bowen (Don Galloway, who was also in Gunfight in Abilene). He's tired of his dad Alexander alternately bossing him around and ignoring him, and he's setting off on his own to start his own life.
The women keep entering the canyon from the other end.
And a lone rider appears above them. It's Simons. He's dead set on getting his hands on either that bull or the cash Martha was paid for it, or both. So he causes a stampede.
The women's wagon is upset, and they and Sam take shelter under it while the cattle run right over them. I tell you, that is one sturdy wagon!
Jamie is not so lucky. Thrown by his horse, he tries to scale the walls before the herd gets to him. He fails.
Simons shows up, demanding money and outing Sam for his part in Taylor's scheme.
Sam's too concerned about keeping Jamie alive to talk about it.
Martha is Very Disappointed in Sam.
When he and Simons duke it out over her money and Vindicator, she grabs a rifle and threatens to shoot them both. Which is something I love about Martha -- she might be a little too trusting sometimes, but then, she IS a freshly widowed stranger to this wild west. She's going to have to trust people sometimes, and if they turn out to be untrustworthy, she is not afraid of admitting she was wrong about them and calling them out for being duplicitous. She is also not afraid to stand up for herself and her daughter, stop people from doing wrong things, and make her own decisions. Wonderful woman.
Eventually, Sam, Martha, Hilary, and the almost-dying Jamie head to the Bowen ranch. Vindicator too.
And we finally get to meet Alex Bowen (Brian Keith).
Um, yes, the wig and beard are pretty bad. Keith just owns it, though, and his extreme Scottish accent distracts viewers pretty well from the fake hair. I also get distracted by the giant haunch of beef he's eating. With a knife. Because why not. Forks are for sissies.
Alex is not exactly an involved father, and he leaves Jamie's care to the newcomers. He's got broken ribs and a broken arm and internal bleeding and who knows what else.
But he's young and handsome, so of course he recovers.
While he does, he and Hilary get to know each other. They're one of my favorite western movie couples. Just so you know.
Alex Bowen is convinced that Vindicator can never breed with a wild longhorn cow. Hilary insists he can. She ends up taking her beloved bull out onto the range and setting him free to prove him wrong.
Jame thinks that was very brave, but he knows it also means now Hilary might leave. She and her mother have now accomplished what they came to America to do, after all.
Jamie is not okay with the idea of them leaving.
Martha happens to see Jamie and Hilary kissing, and she realizes that Texas could be a new home for both her and her daughter. She switches her wedding ring from her left to her right hand, but clearly feels uncertain whether she's truly prepared to say goodbye to her husband's dream about raising Hereford crossbreeds.
Meanwhile, Sam Burnett has decided that Hereford-longhorn crossbreeds are the best idea he's ever heard. When an early snowstorm hits, he asks Bowen to let him go out and find Vindicator and bring him back to shelter. Vindicator isn't used to harsh Texas winters, and Sam is afraid he'll die without passing on his genes.
Bowen spends this entire scene drinking whisky while taking a bath in a horse trough in the middle of his house. Once again, Brian Keith just makes it work. Anyway, he says go ahead, Sam, waste your time and risk your life, whatever. Bowen's happy about the snowstorm because it means Martha and Hilary can't leave, and he's got matrimonial designs on Martha himself.
Jamie offers to go with Sam. But Sam turns him down. This is his mission. (This picture is just here because I like how guys look when they have their collars flipped up. And because 11-yr-old me had a crush on Jamie.)
Alex and Jamie barely talk for most of the movie, and Jamie is quick to tell his father off for his treatment of Vindicator.
Also, that's such a good hat on him.
And then Alex Bowen invites Martha, Hilary, and Jamie to tea one day. They are shocked to find a genuine silver tea service laid out for them.
Even more shocking? Alex comes downstairs wearing his Highland Officer uniform and playing the bagpipes!
And he shaved! Shock after shock! He says this was the first time he'd shaved since he left his regiment when Jamie was a baby. This picture is mostly here because how often do you get to see Brian Keith in a Highland uniform playing the bagpipes? In a western? I knew you wouldn't want to miss it.
Alex has called them all together because he has something important to ask Martha. Everyone can see what it is, including us.
But before he can really get down to The Question of the Hour, he's interrupted by one of his ranch hands come with bad news.
This is Juan. He's played by Perry Lopez, who pops up in SO many sixties films, and for whom I cherish a great deal of affection because he's almost always playing these sweet, sincere characters. Not always, but usually. And I like his voice. He brings me much nostalgia.
Anyway, Juan announces that he and Sam got separated in a blizzard while out searching for Vindicator. There goes the festive mood. Alex and Jamie rush off to head up a rescue party. Since James Stewart's name is first on the poster and there's a third of the movie left yet, we know they'll find him.
And now I'm skipping the rest of winter and heading straight to summer when Sam has built his own little home and a bunch of corrals for when Hereford-longhorn crossbred calves arrive. Bowen told him he can have all of them, he wants nothing to do with them. Why? He's afraid they'll remind Martha of her old life, and he wants her to make a new life with him.
He brings her flowers and asks her to set a date, and she says okay, we can get married in September. Which is months away, as it's only June. He's annoyed at the delay, because he knows she's just hoping Vindicator did father some calves before winter, but he says okay, fine, September it is.
Summer drags on, and Sam about gives up hope of ever finding a calf sired by Vindicator until, one day, he spots a calf on the horizon. And oh boy, it's a white-face!
Sam brings the calf back to the ranch. Much excitement ensues.
Yet another fistfight also ensues because Sam shows the calf to Martha and starts talking about her pursuing that dream of raising crossbreeds with him, and Bowen gets mad and throws a punch at Sam, and yeah. Three fistfights just wasn't enough for one film, it seems.
Martha makes her choice between the two pretty clear when she rushes to Sam's side, concerned he's been seriously injured.
Cut to a year or two later, when there are a whole lot of Hereford-longhorn crossbred cattle. Martha and Sam, plus Hilary and Jamie, rejoice that their plans and efforts have succeeded.
Who knew that a movie about cattle breeding could be so much fun, right?
Anyway, not only is this post my celebration of what would have been Maureen O'Hara's 100th birthday, it's also my first contribution to Legends of Western Cinema Week 2020, hosted by me and Heidi at Along the Brandywine. Click here for my main post, which people will be adding links to all week, and click here to check out my giveaway!
I'll leave you with this picture of Brian Keith scrubbing the bottom of his foot and laughing because I didn't really need it for the review, but it's such a funny shot, I have to share it!