Colorado Territory (1949): High Sierra on Horseback

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For me, it’s fascinating to consider directors who did not simply direct remakes but they actually reworked their earlier films. Prominent examples are, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu, Cecil B. DeMille, and Frank Capra, just to name a few.

The reasons could range from any number of things. Maybe they could command higher production values or harbored a desire to reexamine or improve on themes they had tackled previously. In the case of Howard Hawks, he even amazingly returned to the same basic narrative three times over as Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo respectively. That’s quite the feat even if it initially appears a tad repetitive. However, watch the films and it does feel like you are seeing an altogether different entity each time, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory fits somewhere in there as a western that very much has two feet to stand on and the fact it was based off the director’s earlier work High Sierra, starring Bogart and Ida Lupino, feels nearly inconsequential. It’s not so much that there is no space to begin comparing the two. It’s more so the latter film, given its new cast and a new location, genuinely feels like an entirely different animal. Yes, we still have Walsh at the helm but the canvas and the language being utilized is essentially different. So from thenceforward, I will treat it as such.

Walsh is no slouch when it comes to western scenery capturing the raw majesty of the rock faces as men on horseback make their way across the planes of God’s country. This certainly is no gangster movie. The distinctions are made straightaway.

We meet Jeff McQueen (Joel McCrea) for the first time in a jail cell where he’s been stowed for his notorious exploits as a bank robber. However, an old friend keeps a promise and gets him out of the clink so he can pull one last job.

It feels like an uncharacteristic role for McCrea, in one sense, but he still fills the boots of his character with his typical principled outlook. McQueen, at this point, has had time to think and favors settling down and carving out a new life for himself with a stretch of farmland, a pretty wife, and a life of honest sweat and toil.

On an outgoing stage, he makes the acquaintance of a hopeful fellow from back east (Henry Hull) who’s also looking to make a new life for his daughter (Dorothy Malone) and himself out west. His philosophy is epitomized by the statement, “The sun travels west and so does opportunity.” He’s intent on finding the Promised Land and even as his daughter remains slightly skeptical, their life appeals to McQueen deeply.

What follows is an epic introduction of our antihero’s attributes, single-handedly righting a runaway stagecoach while fending off incoming bandits with an assured fearlessness. Even in these moments, McQueen cannot completely disown what he is or shed the years of experience he has accrued. He’s a hardened and whip-smart man whether it’s on horseback or handling a revolver. He’s a real man’s man.

So when he finally arrives in the rubble of a ghost town, serving as a hideout, he’s quick to cut the two young bucks waiting for him down to size. One’s your prototypical hothead (John Archer) looking to have it out at the drop of a pin and the other (James Mitchell) is strangely eloquent, though no less treacherous.

In his vast history of bank jobs, McQueen’s met many like them and it speaks to something that he’s probably the only one who made it out alive. Everyone else is either dead or rotting in prison. He’s not a man to take chances or make mistakes because if he had, he would have been dead long ago.

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It’s part of the reason, despite his compatriots’ objections, he tells their gal pal Colorado (Virginia Mayo), a fiery former saloon singer, to leave their company. He’s not afraid of her getting in the way. On the contrary, he’s worried the other two outlaws will find reason to quarrel over her. That’s the last complication he needs now.

And yet Colorado impresses him and ultimately convinces McQueen to let her stay. She’s pumped full of a dogged tenacity making her persistently tough. He likes that and, of course, she’s beautiful because Mayo is sweltering even in her earthy, lacquered state.

If the dichotomy is not obvious already, the weathered outlaw has two girls and two lives calling out to him. He must dispense with one for good before he can take up the other for all posterity. At this point, the story is barreling towards the long-awaited bank job. We know what it means.

As the events unfold, he’s always one step ahead of everyone moment after moment. It’s thrilling to watch really because McQueen’s such a savvy, completely pragmatic man. This constant awareness makes him likable. He feels as much of a hero as he’s a villain and that’s as much as a testament to McCrea gritty candor as anything else — a straight arrow as he always is.

No matter, he outwits his two accomplices and flees the posse looking to string them up with the price tag on his head growing steadily bigger. There is a sense that time is running out on his dreams. He also comes to find things were not as good for his stagecoach acquaintances as they expected. For once in his life, he begins to gamble.

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First, on the prospect they will take him in even as a fugitive on the run and then in his own struggles to protect Colorado. What we get is literally Virginia Mayo versus Dorothy Malone as they have it out in a stellar log cabin struggle, the picture beginning to spiral toward imminent doom.

A harrowing finale takes us back inevitably to the Valley of Death with McQueen climbing over cavernous rock faces in a last-ditch effort to flee his pursuers. It’s easy to see the foregone conclusion. We don’t want it to be but it’s hopeless and Colorado Territory gives us that odd sensation only certain stories can effectively manage.

It made us empathize with a purported scourge on society, wishing that he might find love and escape to a life of anonymity as he had always dreamed. But we knew before it ever arrived such a dream was never to be. Does the ending surprise us? Not necessarily. That doesn’t make it any less bitter as two tragic hands clasp each other one final time in a desperate attempt to stay together.

4/5 Stars

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