Thursday, June 18, 2009


There is a lot of potential in this story, based on the life of a real person, Joaquin Murietta, and the folklore that grew up around him, but weak writing and acting don’t allow the film to come to life like it should, and it winds up being a routine B-western. At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, an uneasy relationship exists between the local Mexican population and the ruling Anglos. Farmer Murietta (Warner Baxter, pictured below) is getting married to Rosita (Margo), and at the wedding feast, old friend Tomas expresses his hatred of the Anglos by throwing a knife at an American, but Baxter takes the blame to defuse the situation. Later, Tomas pulls the same stunt, this time firing at a wagon with two Americans (Bruce Cabot and Eric Linden), but Baxter can’t save him and he is shot and killed by Cabot. Baxter takes the wounded Cabot home for mending and the two become friendly. When Cabot finds out that some Gold Rush scoundrels are trying to force Baxter off his land, he agrees to get some legal help, but that night, the scoundrels come back to Baxter's home, beat him unconscious, and rape his wife, leaving her to die in Baxter's arms. He leaves his home to hunt down the men responsible and succeeds, at the same time attracting the attention of the law who put his name on wanted posters. Baxter winds up involved with the notorious outlaw Three-Fingered Jack (J. Carroll Naish), terrorizing all of California, even his own people, with robbery and cattle rustling. Cabot winds up leading the posse that finally catches up to Baxter, who, mortally wounded, still manages to drag himself to his wife’s grave to die.

Among the problems here: 1) the grim narrative has too many jarring moments of humor and merrymaking; 2) Baxter, at 50, is way too old for the part of a man who in real life was only in his mid-20s when he died; 3) if there's a Robin Hood aspect to this, with any of the ill-gotten gains going to the poor, it's not shown here; on a related note, the element of Baxter exploiting his own people is ripe for dramatic exploration, but remains a surface element; 4) the somewhat odd-couplish friendship between Baxter and Cabot, also potentially interesting, is never developed. Cabot, looking and even sounding like a young Harrison Ford, is the best actor in the movie, and might well have been a better match for the title role. Naish is OK but is unable to make his character stand out from the average B-western baddie. Despite the compelling storyline, I can't recommend this one. [TCM]

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