Cattle Empire

The trail drive, like the wagon train, is a regular feature of westerns. Long treks across hard, unforgiving territory where adversity must be challenged and overcome play a significant role in the romance of the old west. Such stories provide ample scope for a wide range of dramatic situations, typically involving hostile elements and/or natives. However, I’d argue that tensions resulting from the group dynamic in these kinds of stories is more compelling than any threat arising from without. The forced interdependence of those on the journey, paradoxically limited in their ability to act alone despite the apparent freedom afforded by the vast space around them, is what generates the drama. This dramatic potential is further heightened if the travelers already have some history of conflict prior to setting off. That’s the basic concept behind Cattle Empire (1958), a taut and edgy tale of a group of people asked, out of economic necessity, to put their mistrust and hatred of each other behind them in order to achieve something that will ultimately benefit them all. The layers of the plot are cleverly revealed in stages, drawing the viewer into the story in the process, and contain enough twists to keep one guessing.

When a film has a relatively short running time, it’s vital to grab the attention as early and as effectively as possible. Cattle Empire hits that target right from the opening shot. The residents of the town of Hamilton, hard-faced and embittered, are ranged in a circle on the main street. Lying in the centre of this circle of resentment is the figure of a man, hands bound by a rope that’s attached to the saddle of a horse. At a signal, the rider spurs his mount and the hapless victim is dragged over the rough ground. The punishment continues, the friction shredding the man’s clothes and slicing his flesh mercilessly. However, intervention arrives in the shape of a buckboard carrying three passengers. Ralph Hamilton (Don Haggerty), the man who gave the town its name, demands that the torture end before the victim is killed outright. It’s only with the greatest reluctance that the townspeople abandon their sport and the bloodied figure gains some respite. This half-dead man is John Cord (Joel McCrea), a former trail boss returning to town after spending five years in prison. But for the good citizens of Hamilton, five years of incarceration isn’t enough to repay Cord’s debt. When Cord was last in town the cowboys working under him went on a drunken rampage that left the both the place and its people deeply scarred. That damage is still visible: a business burned to the ground, a man who lost his child, another who lost an arm, and Ralph Hamilton who was robbed of his sight. Given all that had happened, why would John Cord come back to a town with plenty of reason to hate him. Well the reason is he was invited back, by Ralph Hamilton no less. Hamilton, and many of the townspeople, has everything tied up in a herd of cattle and faces financial ruin unless he can get his stock to sale ahead of a rival. And that’s his proposition for Cord, a trail boss of some considerable renown – get the herd to market first and, in so doing, wipe the slate clean. In this, we already have an interesting premise, but it grows ever more complex as the drive gets underway. In addition to the fact that Hamilton’s wife (Phyllis Coates) was once Cord’s girl, there’s the question of what the real motivations of these men are. And perhaps most important of all – whose side is Cord actually on?

Cattle Empire is very much concerned with the mystery of Cord and Hamilton’s past; right from the outset it’s clear that whatever happened in the town five years previously has effected these two deeply, to the point of leading both to objectively odd behaviour. The townspeople are forthright in their desire for vengeance, while Cord keeps us unsure as to how he plans to act and Hamilton initially seems positively sainted. That oddness suggests that there’s something lurking beneath the surface, and the script wisely keeps the viewer guessing for as long as possible. Ultimately, everything boils down to that staple of the western, and particularly those made in the 50s – the quest for a form of spiritual salvation. Virtually everyone in the movie is seeking atonement for their sins of the past, the shadows of a half-concealed guilt looming large in the hearts of all.

Charles Marquis Warren may not be a familiar name to many these days. However, his contribution to the western on both the big and small screen is significant. While his directing credits are modest in number, his work as a writer and producer does stand out, especially Gunsmoke and Rawhide on television. As the director of Cattle Empire, he did a fine job in my opinion. The film is well paced and packs plenty of incident into its tight running time. The action scenes have a strong sense of urgency about them, and Warren controls the camera carefully to ensure they have as much impact as possible. Generally, he handled the wide, scope lens effectively throughout. The early sequence in the town features some fine composition and placement, and the exteriors and location work that follow make the most of the wide open spaces. The climactic shootout among the boulders of Lone Pine is excellently staged and exciting.

In terms of performances, Cattle Empire is well and truly dominated by Joel McCrea. One of the film’s great strengths is the way the character of John Cord is introduced as a villainous figure, the subject of scorn and hatred. The ill-treatment he endures stoically and his subsequent actions indicate that he’s not an entirely bad man, perhaps even one that the viewer can sympathize with. Yet he remains somewhat ambiguous until the climax, and it’s hard to be sure of his real intentions. At every point though, McCrea exudes a kind of wounded nobility, a belief in himself which has you rooting for him even if you can’t completely dismiss the doubts. He also handles the romance angle well; it would be unseemly to lust too openly for the wife of a man you have blinded, even if that woman was once your own. McCrea conveyed the internal struggle that such a situation would be bound to provoke quite deftly, all the while coping with the growing affections of the young girl (Gloria Talbott) who has hero worshiped him all her life. Of the two women, Talbott has the smaller role but manages to create the more endearing and lovable character. In contrast, Phyllis Coates comes across as slightly cold and calculating in her dealings with both Cord and her husband. Of course, for Coates and Talbott, the script pretty much dictates how their respective roles had to be played. The other notable part is that of the blind cattleman played by Don Haggerty, and it’s an important one. If McCrea was to hold onto that air of suspicion that surrounded him, it was necessary to have him faced off against a man whose situation immediately drew sympathy. Without wishing to present any spoilers, I’ll just say that Haggerty’s performance was as considered and subtle as McCrea’s, and thus ensured that the suspense was maintained for as long as possible.

To date, Cattle Empire has not received a DVD release in either the US or the UK. However, there is a particularly fine edition available in Spain from Fox/Impulso. The film has been given an excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer which boasts fine colour. The print used was evidently in especially good condition, there’s no damage of any consequence to be seen and it’s consistently sharp. The disc allows subtitles to be disabled on the original English soundtrack, and extras are a short gallery and some text screens on the cast and crew. I don’t expect this is a particularly well-known film, but it is a very satisfying and entertaining one. It takes a fairly standard western situation, the trail drive, and puts an interesting spin on it. Contrived romances can drag a movie down, but Cattle Empire avoids that by artfully weaving its variation into the story in a convincing manner. However, the main attraction is the theme of a suppressed desire for revenge coming up against the search for redemption, and the presence of dark secrets bubbling just below the surface. Overall, this is a most interesting movie.


38 thoughts on “Cattle Empire

  1. You’ve really got me wanting to see this one again! You make it sound a lot better than I remember it being.

    I’m a big fan of Westerns that concern themselves with sin and redemption — it’s a theme they wear very well.

    • I get the impression a lot of people – those who remember it at all that is – don’t rate it as more than a so-so effort. I like it a good deal Toby, and the themes work very well for me too. I’ll also add that the DVD presentation helps the movie as it looks very nice, and it really needs to be seen in its proper aspect ratio.

  2. I remembered seeing this at the tail end of Joel McCrea’s career and was not impressed. In view of the above, I would find . an opportunity to view it again.. Frankly , I would prefer The Tall Stranger , made about that time, if given a choice. Best regards.

    • Chris, I’m happy to watch any of McCrea’s westerns to be honest. I won’t argue that he made better ones than Cattle Empire, but there’s enough good stuff in there to provide satisfying viewing.
      If I wanted to be more critical, then I could say that the script does seem to rush certain plot points that might have been expanded on a little. However, it wasn’t something that I felt was very damaging overall.

  3. Haven’t seen this one in a long time and your review makes me want to seek it out again. A memorable opening to the film.
    Thanks for info on Spanish DVD release.

    • Yes, the opening is incredibly strong and really pitches you into the story immediately. When a movie starts off like that, it has you hooked right away and leaves you wanting to know how all this came about.
      I have no hesitation recommending that Spanish DVD either – those Fox/Impulso titles can be variable but Cattle Empire is one of the best in the range.

  4. Sounds great (and that Spanish DVD provided the image grabs I take it? Looks fab too). Wht I’ve seen if Charles Marquis Warren’s work I liked but never seen this one Colin – thanks for the education, as always.

  5. I totally agree that the high quality Spanish DVD really does enhance this film.
    If I were to fault the film I would say that it promises a lot more than it delivers
    but as a latter-day McCrea its pretty good.Far better I feel,than TROOPER HOOK
    which is one of my least favorite of McCreas pictures.I have stated several times on Tobys
    blog that TROOPER HOOK should have been directed by Jacques Tourneur;the material
    would have been right up his street. (woman alienated from her own people,small-town
    gossipy locals,racist rednecks and so on) Its such a shame McCrea and Tourneur never
    worked together again after WICHITA.
    With CATTLE EMPIRE I feel Warren did a pretty good job;many feel this was the template for
    RAWHIDE. Three regulars of that classic TV series are in the cast,anyway: Paul Brinegar,
    Rocky Shahan and Steve Raines.
    Its great Colin,that you continue to spotlight these not so well known films.
    Trivia note: cast member Bing Russell is the father of Kurt.

    • If I were to fault the film I would say that it promises a lot more than it delivers

      I can see where you’re coming from John, but I liked the way the movie developed generally. Perhaps the build-up does deserve a bigger payoff – it still works for me though.
      I know Trooper Hook hasn’t the greatest reputation but I’m going to have to check it out.

  6. I was inspired by your review to watch the Spanish Impulso disc today. I bought it last year but hadn’t got around to watching it. I fully agree that it’s a fine represntation of the film. Incidentally, for those in the UK, Channel 4/Film 4 also occasionally show a good quality print of the film (in its correct ratio) although not quite as good as this Spanish release.
    I think CATTLE EMPIRE is a fine 50s western; well-written and well-acted… and when you have an actor like McCrea in the lead, well, it can’t really go too far wrong in my view! I agree that Warren has done a great job as director here. In references to his other westerns above, I note that no one has yet mentioned a firm favourite of mine..TENSION AT TABLE ROCK. Another very under-rated western.

    • I’m glad to hear I encouraged you to give the disc a spin Dafydd. It’s a terrific transfer of the movie and the colours really pop.
      I really need to see more of Warren’s films, especially the mid-late 50s stuff. Has Tension at Table Rock ever been released anywhere?

  7. Well, there is a release of TENSION AT TABLE ROCK in Spain (where else?!) under the title “Ansiedad Tragica”. I haven’t bought it yet so I have no idea as to its quality. If anyone else has picked it up it would be interesting to hear.

    • Thanks for that Dafydd. This is the Amazon Spain listing for the movie.
      On the subject of Spanish DVDs, I see two Audie Murphy pictures – Tumbleweed and Gunpoint – are about to be released.

  8. I am avoiding these Sidonis French releases because of their horrid “forced” subtitles
    but I REALLY want THE NAKED DAWN and THE KID FROM TEXAS which so far Llamentol in
    Spain have not announced.Also I do hope Llamentol release A DAY OF FURY which Sidonis
    also have announced.Someone sent me a de-subtitled clone of GUNPOINT and its a fine looking
    transfer.Koch in Germany in May will release CAVE OF THE OUTLAWS. I sure wish Koch
    would release more Westerns;their transfers are second to none.
    Koch are also releasing WESTERN UNION which I presume will be from the same master as
    used on the Sidonis release. The Sidonis release “smokes” all other versions of this film,
    just about the best transfer I have ever seen of a Forties Technicolor film.
    Regarding CATTLE EMPIRE what I do not like about the film is there is no urgency to the
    film;its very slackly paced.The film lacks a good heavy;instead of say Lee Van Cleef or
    Leo Gordon we get Richard Shannon……….who?….my point exactly. Shannon was a bit part
    contract player at Paramount.And what a dull cattle drive,no Indians;no punch ups,very little
    of promised action given to the viewer.
    I DO like films where a person is in command of a crew of whingers who hate his guts.
    In SEVENTH CAVALRY Randolph Scott has to contend with the likes of J C Flippen,
    Leo Gordon,Frank Faylen and Denver Pyle.In the wonderful FORT MASSACRE Joel McCrea
    has to contend with Forrest Tucker,John Russell,Tony Caruso and Denver Pyle.
    In CATTLE EMPIRE all we get is Don Haggerty who actually is very good in the film.
    You probably get the impression that I hate this film;I certainly do not. The film has good
    production values and is offbeat and interesting. If nothing else it demonstrates McCreas
    ability to carry a film single handed.With TROOPER HOOK Warren had a good script and
    a crackerjack supporting cast and he blows it. With CATTLE EMPIRE he has a middling
    script,and a less than stellar cast;but still he manages to make a quiet watchable film.
    I am a huge Joel McCrea fan and tend to be maybe a tad too critical of some of his
    Fifties Westerns. Its kinda sad that in the Thirties and Forties McCrea worked with such
    greats as Wyler,Hawks,Hitchcock,Sturges,Walsh and Wellman. By the late Fifties he
    was reduced to working with the likes of Warren and Francis D Lyon.
    Still,Colin its great to have a place to air our views on these obscure films even though I
    am a late-comer to this blog.This new kid on the block Vienna also has a most interesting
    blog that champions obscure films;I will watch future developments with great interest.

  9. By the way Colin,and slightly off topic,did you see that Universal in France are going to
    release THE WILD AND THE INNOCENT in June I believe. There has been some negative
    feedback about ratio issues regarding Universal France especially with THE PURPLE MASK
    being a Cinemascope film released as pan & scan.I really wanted THE PURPLE MASK but will
    not buy a non-scope version.Lets hope THE WILD AND THE INNOCENT is released in widescreen.
    Universal in France seem to be stepping up their vintage film releases lets hope that they
    nip these quality control issues in the bud!

    • Thanks for all the updates on forthcoming DVDs John – lots of tempting stuff there. Mind you, I don’t particularly like Cave of Outlaws; the setting is interesting and the story has potential but Macdonald Carey is a very dull lead.
      I’d be inclined to wait it out on those Sidonis releases as a lot of them seem to turn up in Spain at some point.

      Going back to one of your points about Cattle Empire, I’m glad in a way there are no Indian skirmishes and such as I like the fact the narrative keeps focused on the tensions within rather than have external distractions cluttering up matters. I’ll grant the villain could be stronger, but he still contributes to a pretty stylish climax.

      And I’m familiar with Vienna’s site – she’s a regular visitor here too.

  10. What a deadly dull world it would be if we all liked the same stuff.
    The problem I have with Warrens films is that I always end up wishing someone else
    had directed them. I find his films turgid, leaden and humorless; I guess that’s just me.
    I have seen your comments on Vienna’s blog and enjoy reading them.
    Recently you both name-dropped Charles Marquis Warrens SEVEN ANGRY MEN.
    This is one of his films that I have never seen, perhaps it is his masterpiece!
    Your comment about Macdonald Carey is echoed by many people that I have spoke to
    but I however rather like him.One of his Westerns STRANGER AT MY DOOR is one I
    have never seen;but would really like to it sounds really interesting and was directed by William Witney, a director I really like!
    Laura on her blog recently championed MAN OR GUN a low budget Western that I also
    really admire, furthermore Carey gives a really interesting performance as a gunfighter
    who tries to avoid violence but of course no-one will let him.
    This old warhorse of a plot is given a refreshing twist in this one.

    • Very true John – there wouldn’t be much to discuss if we all shared exactly the same view. On Macdonald Carey, I haven’t seen a huge number of his films so I may be overly harsh. However, what I have seen just didn’t inspire me.

  11. Hi Colin…..I haven’t spent any real time with McCrea’s Western films but I did want to share with you a text that I came across that you may be interested in/perhaps have already read….it is entitled Last of the Cowboy Heroes: The Westerns of Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and Audie Murphy. It was written by Robert Nott and was published in 2000.

    I actually re-watched a lot of Scott’s Rage at Dawn (1955) last night….it is a powerful film, as we have discussed prior….and it’s a good sign for the work when a person is drawn back to it again.


    • Chad, thanks for recommending Last of the Cowboy Heroes. I haven’t read this but seeing as it deals with three of my favorite western stars I’ll add it to my list.

      McCrea’s westerns are all pretty enjoyable in my opinion, at least the ones I’ve seen. He had a strong western presence and was always interesting to watch. Fortunately, a lot of his work can be sourced these days so it’s easy enough to track down titles.

  12. Thank you again, Colin for linking to my blog. Much appreciated. And thanks to john k too.
    I note you haven’t seen TROOPER HOOK yet. I look forward to hearing what you think of it. I like it, an unusual role for Barbara Stanwyck. And THE TALL STRANGER has a lot going for it.(I especially like seeing Leo Gordon in a vey rare sympathetic role.)

    • I quite liked The Tall Stranger too, and I enjoyed the Louis L’Amour book it was based on. There is an Italian DVD available but it sounds as though it may be full screen. If so, then I couldn’t recommend it. There’s also a Spanish disc that may be in the correct aspect ratio, but I don’t have it myself so can’t vouch for it either way.
      And as for the links to your place – you’re most welcome.

  13. Hi Colin: Avoid at all costs the ‘Spanish disc’ on the second link above. It’s not in the correct aspect ratio and the picture quality stinks! Always enjoy your blog BTW.
    Hello also to Vienna. Another Brit blogger covering films of the classic era.

      • Colin, many thanks for the edit on my last post; my computer went haywire yesterday!
        I too really like THE TALL STRANGER, really fast moving and crammed with action.
        I am sure this will be released by the Warner Archive eventually.
        Totally agree with Vienna, really nice to see Leo Gordon play a good guy for once.
        I too can highly endorse Robert Notts excellent book. Its packed with behind the scenes
        info. Although he admires the three stars that he writes about he is quite critical at times
        which gives a very balanced view of their work.
        Another oddball Charles Marquis Warren credit was the Playhouse 90 “filmed” feature (for
        television) WITHOUT INCIDENT. This was made at the same time as TROOPER HOOK with
        many of the same people involved. Really strong cast Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, John Ireland
        Julie London. All I can say is;if you like TROOPER HOOK you will really enjoy this.
        I feel Warrens style would have been more suited to Film Noir its a pity he never worked in
        this genre, though obviously he enjoyed making Westerns. One of his films I do have fond
        memories of is BACK FROM THE DEAD, a cheap Regalscope horror film with Arthur Franz
        and Peggie Castle. At the time (mid Sixties) I found it very creepy and quiet scary.
        I would love to see it again,as I would most of the Regalscope films if someone would
        re-issue them in the correct ratio. There are lots of pan & scan version of these films floating
        around but I tend to avoid them.
        I see Sidonis in France are releasing more films in Blu-Ray, including two films I really want
        THE NAKED DAWN and A DAY OF FURY. Were it not for the dreadful “forced” subtitles on their
        product, the release of these two alone would most certainly entice me to get a Blu-Ray player.
        I have avoided Blu-Ray at the moment but with more and more obscure films appearing in this
        format, I guess its only a matter of time! By the way,regarding Regalscope Olive Films are at
        some point going to release AMBUSH AT CIMMARON PASS (Eastwood) and SHOWDOWN AT
        BOOT HILL (Bronson), really looking forward to those two;shown in the correct ratio.

        • John, Without Incident sounds like it could potentially be terrific with a cast like that.

          I have adopted Blu-ray, but I remain highly selective of what I buy on the format- DVD still does the job for me with a lot of titles.

          I really admire Olive for the quantity and quality of the product they are putting out there. Ambush at Cimmaron Pass and Showdown at Boot Hill sound like titles I’ll be looking out for too.

  14. This sounds intriguing – I haven’t seen many of Joel McCrea’s films but was impressed by him in ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ in particular, and would be interested to see him in this much darker role. My list of films I hope to see gets ever longer from reading your blog, Colin.

    • My list of films I hope to see gets ever longer from reading your blog, Colin.

      Ha! – I could say the same about visiting your place Judy.

      I’m an unapologetic fan of McCrea, so I have no hesitation recommending you see as many of his movies as you can. Looking at the shape of his career, and the variety of genres he worked in successfully, shows how versatile he was. He had a real light touch in comedic vehicles, yet the gravitas was always there and was used to good effect in is more sombre roles.

    • If you read through the other comments here, Gord, you can see that not everyone liked it so well. I can only speak for myself and I had a good time with the movie – one where I guess I’d have to say you should try it out and see how you feel yourself.

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