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.