Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: The Last of the Wild Horses (1948)

I've seen a huge number of movies on MST3K over the years, but few of these were westerns. I've often wondered if it's because the western genre is harder to screw up than others. This late '40s b-western from MST3K Volume XXIII isn't as excruciating as other movies that Joel/Mike and the 'bots have covered, but it has its problems.

As a stagecoach approaches Jacksonville, Oregon, a man wearing his black bandana as a mask watches from a hill. Before the masked man (who we'll later find out is named Duke Barnum) can try to rob the stagecoach, another individual rushes past with several (presumably stolen) horses and three armed ranch hands hot on his trail. Thinking that three against one is unsporting, Duke stops the ranch hands at gunpoint and forces them to turn back. When Duke's horse throws a shoe shortly thereafter, a passing young woman named Jane tells him that he can get his horse shoed at the nearby Double C Ranch. (Jane just so happens to be the daughter of the ranch's wheelchair-bound owner, Charlie Cooper.) When Duke ends up at the Double C, he finds trouble in the form of the three men he encountered earlier, as well as the Sheriff, who's looking for a would-be stagecoach robber. Duke, who is still wearing his black bandana around his neck, is arrested on the spot.

Before the Sheriff can even throw Duke in jail, a man by the name of "Remedy" (who has a passing knowledge of dentistry, medicine, etc. thanks to having taken numerous correspondence courses) and a young girl named Terry (I'm not sure whether Remedy is supposed to be her father or simply her guardian) claim that Duke is their new ranch hand and that he was nowhere near the stagecoach. The Sheriff doesn't fully believe them, but having little evidence either way, he releases Duke into Remedy's custody.

Duke soon learns of the tension between small ranchers like Remedy and the Double C; the region is home to a herd of wild horses from which all the local ranches acquire the necessary animals. However, the Double C Ranch has been raiding the herd more than anyone else and has been taking too many of the mares for the herd to thrive. As an outsider with little involvement in the dispute, Duke thinks that he can work something out with Cooper. When his daughter sides with Duke, Cooper reluctantly agrees to leave the herd alone for a year. This doesn't sit well with the owner's right hand man, Riley Morgan, who has been trying to start a fight with the other ranchers so that he can take over the Double C in the chaos. Morgan sends the other hands to round up "the last of the wild horses" and to leave behind evidence in the form of a Double C branding iron to accelerate his plans.

With the wild horses gone, the other ranchers are ready to take action. Morgan convinces the Sheriff (who is in office thanks to Cooper's influence) to deputize the Double C ranch hands to prevent any violence. Of course this only makes matters worse, since the new deputies begin planting evidence in ranchers' corrals in the form of Double C marked horses. When this practice leads to the death of one of the ranchers, the others form an angry mob. Duke is able to disperse the mob when he promises to talk to Cooper one more time. Cooper, unaware of the actions of his men, denies any involvement and orders Duke to leave his property. Angry at her father's stubbornness, Jane walks Duke to the edge of the ranch's land. As he leaves the ranch house, Duke unknowingly drops his trademark black bandana.

When Cooper overhears Morgan and Morgan's head goon, Rocky, discussing their plot, Cooper realizes that Duke was telling the truth. The Double C's owner confronts his assistant, but with Jane and Duke gone, he is immediately disarmed and strangled to death with Duke's bandana. The "evidence" is taken to the Sheriff and Duke is immediately put on trial for Cooper's murder. Remedy, the Jack of all trades but master of none, is pressed into service as Duke's attorney. The trial is quick and, if the movie's brief excerpts from it are to be believed, no evidence in Duke's favor is presented. When a guilty verdict is given, Terry hands Duke a gun. While Remedy's associates distract the deputies, Duke sticks the gun into the Sheriff's back and makes his getaway.

Duke decides to remain in the region to clear his name and is eventually wounded by Jane when he tries to convince her of his innocence (I don't think a rifle bullet would produce as little damage as it does here). He gets away and holes up in the hay loft of the Double C barn to recover (he reasons that nobody would think of looking for him there) while Terry and Remedy tend to him. Later on, Remedy leaves Duke to pick up his mail and is accidentally handed an incriminating letter meant for Morgan. Morgan and Rocky are only a short distance behind Remedy when he discards the envelope and reads the letter. The return address on the envelope is enough to panic Morgan and, after a long horse chase, Remedy is shot in the back while trying to cross a stream. Of course, since this is a b-western and since there are only a few minutes left, the wounded and waterlogged Remedy is able to crawl back to the barn and present the evidence. While the letter is rushed to the Sheriff, Duke returns to town and confronts Morgan and Rocky. Rocky is shot (and is actually killed since he's a bad guy) and Duke pursues Morgan into a hay loft. The villain is disarmed and Duke, being a stereotypical western hero, puts his gun away and finishes the fight with his fists. Of course Duke wins the fight, his name is cleared, and all is well.

For a low budget b-western The Last of the Wild Horses isn't too bad. The characters are likeable enough and the source of the conflict seems realistic. And I have to admit that the women in the cast, Jane Frazee (Jane) and Mary Beth Hughes (Terry), are rather attractive. It's with a little bit of reflection that the film's weaknesses become obvious, though. The worst flaw is its reliance on coincidence to advance the plot: Duke just happens to be the only one in the area with a black bandana, the ranchers just happen to find the Double C branding iron after the wild horses disappear, Duke just happens to leave his bandana nearby when Morgan needs a murder weapon, Remedy just happens to be handed the letter that incriminates Morgan, and then he just happens to leave its envelope behind where a nearby Morgan can find it.

Another major problem is the fact that Duke is never given any real background or motivation. When we first meet him, he's planning on robbing a stagecoach, but he's quickly presented as a decent and laid back guy. Right after being placed in their custody, Duke admits to Remedy and Terry that he had never robbed a stagecoach before. We're never told what drove an otherwise honest man to consider such a crime nor does Duke appear to be desperate for money. The only reason for including the interrupted robbery seems to be to cause the town and the Sheriff to remain perpetually suspicious of him.

The movie's title doesn't make much sense, either. The focus of the first half of the film is on the dispute over the wild herd and on convincing Cooper to leave it alone for at least a year. But the herd is never mentioned again once the Double C ranch hands have rounded up the rest of it and driven the horses out of the region (at least I think that's what happens; it doesn't seem like they're added to the Double C's stock). Once the conflict turns violent at about the halfway point, the film loses interest in the wild horses and never mentions them again. In fact, the audience isn't even told if the horses are returned. Given it's role in the plot, Mike and the 'bots suggest the alternate title Coincidence: The Movie.

Next time: a movie so bad that Joel and the 'bots spend most of the host segments crying...

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