Today I’m happy to be part of a blogathon sponsored by FiftyWesterns.com celebrating the birth of one of America’s greatest western actors, Randolph Scott. Over the next few days (Jan. 23-Jan. 25, each of the blogs will focus on one of Scott’s films. You can read the other blogs at this link. My blog today discusses what I consider to be Scott’s greatest film, and perhaps one of the greatest westerns ever made: “Comanche Station.”
A man on horseback leads a pack mule through mountainous terrain and has a rendezvous with a party of Comanches, seemingly to do some trading. The man unfolds a blanket with some goods wrapped in it. When he throws a Springfield rifle into the pile, the Comanche chief offer a horse in exchange, but the man refuses. Through sign language he indicates what he really is looking for. The Comanche brings out a white woman they’ve been holding prisoner and the deal is settled.
The man, Jefferson Cody (Randolph Scott), puts the woman (Nancy Gates) on the pack mule and tells her to ride away with him before they change their minds. In the next scene the woman tells Cody her name is Nancy Lowe and she asks how he knew where to find her. He didn’t know, he says. He’d heard the Comanches had a white woman prisoner and he went on his own to find out about it. She asks why, and all he says is that it seemed like a good idea. He tells her he’ll take her home to her husband in Lordsburg. At this point “Comanche Station” (1960) seems like a standard western adventure about a man rescuing a woman from Indians. But as we’ll soon learn there’s nothing standard about this film, or it’s central character.
The ‘Ranown’ Cycle
“Comanche Station” is the last of five films Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher made at Columbia for producer Joe Brown. “Comanche Station”, “Ride Lonesome,” (1959) and “The Tall T” (1957) were the best of what has become known as “The Ranown Cycle, and all three were scripted by Burt Kennedy. All three re-use story elements and even bits of dialog from each other, and from the first film that Scott and Boetticher and Kennedy worked on together, “Seven Men From Now” (1956).
All of these films tell the story of a man alone, a man with a painful past, usually a past that involves the loss of someone that he loved, and whose loss he feels he could have prevented and now feels responsible for. By the time they made “Comanche Station” these ideas had been refined and polished to the point where all the parts come together seamlessly to create nothing less than a western masterpiece.
As in “Ride Lonesome,” and “Seven Men from Now,” Boetticher and Kennedy keep the viewer guessing at first about what is really going on and what is actually motivating the hero. After the rescue scene, Cody and Mrs. Lowe camp for the night and she asks him if he had a wife would it matter to him if she’d been captured by Indians. “Not if I loved her,” Cody says. It’s a key line of dialogue that hints at the kind of man Cody is and why he rescued her in the first place.
The Turning Point
After the campfire scene, Boetticher’s cinematographer Charles Lawton dazzles us with a gorgeous daylight shot of Cody and Mrs. Lowe riding on a desert landscape with the beautiful, snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains pf Lone Pine, California, in the background. They ride past the camera, and Scott, looking into the distance ahead says, “Comanche Station.” Somehow those words seem to signal that we’ve reached a turning point and that we’re about to leave the familiar world behind and enter into the realm of something mythic and heroic.
It is here at the station that the story quickly changes. Three men ride in hell-bent for leather, chased by a Comanche war party. After a quick skirmish in which Cody and the three men fight the Indians off, Cody gets a closer look at one of the men and it’s obvious they know each other and aren’t happy about running into each other again. The men are Ben Lane (Claude Akins), Frank (Skip Homeier) and Dobie (Richard Rust). We learn later that Lane and Cody had trouble in the past that resulted in a court martial for Lane. Now Cody thinks he and his partners are running from the Indians because they’re scalphunters.
But a more serious complication arrives when Lane reveals that Mrs. Lane’s husband is offering $5,000 for her return. “Might have known you’d beat me to it, Cody,” Lane says. His words shock Nancy Lowe who suddenly thinks Cody lied about why he’d rescued her. “You’re one of those Comancheros,” she says. She tells him she’d rather take the stage to Lordsburg when it arrives rather than ride with him. “I’ll be sure my husband pays you your bounty money,” she tells him.
The conflict deepens when Ben threatens to take the woman from Cody and collect the reward himself. A showdown is imminent but when the station manager arrives nearly dead and tells them the Comanches are closing in, Cody and Lane and his two sidekicks decide for now it would be safer for all of them to make the journey to Lordsburg together.
Focus Is On Relationships of the Characters
Tensions build along the way, when Lane tells Dobie that the only way they can get the $5,000 reward is to kill Cody. But if they do that they’ll have to kill the woman too, otherwise she’d be a witness to murder. Mrs. Lowe’s husband made a mistake, Ben says, offering $5,000 for her return dead or alive.
There are only five characters in this film, but nevertheless, it’s a complex story. And the main reason for the complexity is because this film, like the other Boetticher-Scott-Kennedy films, focuses on the interrelations between the characters. In all the films it’s the relationships that matter the most. It’s how the characters feel about each other and, perhaps more importantly, what they they think of themselves that is always the main subtext of the story.
Mrs. Lowe worries how her husband will feel about her when she gets home, and is encouraged when Cody tells her it wouldn’t matter if he loved her. She sees Cody as a hero, her savior until she learns there’s a bounty on her. She suspects Cody of ulterior motives and her opinion of him changes.
When Cody first sees Lane he thinks he’s a scalphunter. Later he learns he isn’t and when the chance arises, Ben actually saves Cody from being killed by a Comanche. When Cody asks why, he says, “I couldn’t enjoy that $5,000 if I did you that way.” Like Cody, Lane has certain lines he won’t cross. Both men begin to have a begrudging respect for one another, which strangely deepens as the story moves forward. In a way the two men are mirrors of each other.
Dobie on the other hand looks up to Lane as a father figure, but when he learns what Lane plans to do to Cody and the woman he decides he can no longer ride with him. In all these scenes we see the characters all evaluating each other, with their relationships changing the more they learn about each other.
The need for each of them to maintain a sense of pride is another important element. In one key scene between Frank and Dobie, Dobie talks about his father and he tells Frank: “Pa always believed it was important to amount to something.” That’s important to Dobie who has to admit it was funny that his pa never amounted to anything.
A Man Must Have Stature.
These ideas echo through almost all of Budd Boetticher’s work. Going back to “The Bullfighter and the Lady,” (1951) perhaps the best movie about bullfighting ever made, Boetticher, who was an afficianado and amateur toreador himself, has Gilbert Roland explain to Robert Stack how important it is that a man have “stature,” if he is to consider himself a man.
Of the five people in “Comanche Station” Jefferson Cody is the only one with any real stature. Despite Mrs. Lowe’s misgivings, despite Ben Lane’s taunts, Cody never bothers to explain himself. He knows who he is and obviously feels no need to provide explanations to others. It isn’t until 52 minutes into this 73-minute movie that we finally learn what motivates Cody. Dobie tells Mrs. Lowe Cody’s story and it’s not what she, or we, thought at all.
Only Randolph Scott, at age 62 when this film was released, could have played Cody. The deep lines in his weathered face, the tall, thin ,still hard-looking body, his erect posture and dignified bearing perfectly embodied the character in the story. His every word, his every gesture are just right. He’s the embodiment of Boetticher’s Man of Stature, and gives a performance that may be the best in his long career. Indeed, he would make only one more film after this, Sam Peckinpah’s classic “Ride the High Country” (1962), in which he plays a man who temporarily loses his stature but in the end gains it back.
I was so impressed with this film that I used the basic plot as the first chapter for my spacewestern novel “Jack Brand.” The book went out of print but is available again under the title “The Big Shutdown.”