The Man from Colorado

The years following WWII saw a number of movies looking at the problems encountered by veterans returning home and the difficulties they faced in trying to assimilate themselves once again into society in peace time. This was a common enough theme in film noir, where the shadowy, paranoid and dangerous world of the dark cinema seemed ideally suited to such tales of detachment and disillusionment. Westerns, on the other hand, would appear an odd choice for exploring these particular issues. However, as I’ve tried to point out in the past, the western was a versatile and malleable genre capable of embracing just about any type of story. The Man from Colorado (1948) deals with a man coming home after experiencing the horrors of a different and more distant war – the Civil War – but the associated problems, especially the psychological ones, are sure to have struck a chord with contemporary audiences. Perhaps more importantly, the film remains relevant for modern audiences as, sadly, new conflicts have a nasty habit of rearing up to rob a little of the soul of almost every generation.

It all starts with a massacre. On the last day of the Civil War a small band of Confederate soldiers are holed up in a box canyon. Faced by a well equipped Union force, these demoralized troops have the choice of making a fight of it or surrendering. Their officer orders a white flag run up, and then watches in disbelief as the Union commander gives the word for his artillery to open up. Owen Devereaux (Glenn Ford) is the colonel who knowingly seals the fate of this group of doomed men. Devereaux is a man not only hardened by battle but psychologically damaged to the extent that his humanity has been all but stripped away. This calculated atrocity is witnessed by his friend and subordinate Captain Del Stewart (William Holden), but his sense of loyalty to his commander, and perhaps his charity to a man he feels has been scarred enough by conflict, leads to his surreptitiously burying the evidence. Devereaux himself recognizes the mental strain he’s suffering from but hopes that civilian life and freedom from official duties will offer him respite. However, that’s not to be; a man with his war record is attractive to those with a political agenda to push, and the local businessmen in his hometown convince Devereaux to take on the role of federal judge. Reluctantly, Stewart agrees to serve as federal marshal under Devereaux, partly because it affords him the opportunity to keep an eye on his disturbed friend. Nowadays, the condition affecting Devereaux would likely be referred to as post traumatic stress disorder and various treatments would be prescribed. However, we’re talking about 1865 and men had to simply soldier on, so to speak. The power and responsibility that Devereaux now holds seem only to exacerbate the problem, and the fact that Stewart is not only his deputy but a rival in love too doesn’t help matters any. As Devereaux, backed by grasping mining interests, develops a kind of callous megalomania that threatens to undermine all respect for the law among the locals, Stewart increasingly realizes that his friend has gone beyond the pale and it’s his duty to take a stand.

Borden Chase wrote the story that The Man from Colorado was based on, although I don’t know how much of that was altered in the finished screenplay. The dark characterizations certainly all bear Chase’s stamp, but the script shows the mine owners and authority figures in a pretty negative light, something that would appear to be at odds with his conservatism. The depiction of a man driven insane by the horrors of warfare and his inability to come to terms with a post-war life is the main theme of the movie, and it’s obviously the most interesting feature. However, the critique of a society shaped and driven by financial interests is never far from the surface either. Taken together, these two aspects are held up to the light in what is essentially an examination of how society treats those it relied on to defend its safety when the hostilities have come to an end. The inference is that, at the time anyway, a man had to deal with these matters himself, or with the help of a handful of close friends at best. Director Henry Levin is one of those figures who worked away within the studio system, making movies in all kinds of genres, without too much fuss or acclaim. His handling of the material in The Man from Colorado shows he was more than capable of telling an interesting story and keeping the pace tight. The film is a mix of interior and location work, with the former dominating for long stretches. For the most part, the action set pieces take place outdoors – particularly the opening and the fiery climax – while the sound stage interiors are used for the more psychologically complex character scenes. At times here, the lighting, composition and musical cues suggest the feel of a film noir, in spite of the sumptuous Technicolor used in the movie.

As far as the performances are concerned, the lion’s share of the work is carried out by Ford and Holden, with the former being the center of attention. The part of Owen Devereaux is arguably the least sympathetic of Glenn Ford’s many roles. He managed to get right into the dark heart of his character, but in doing so missed out on giving him too much dimension. That may be down to the writing as much as anything, but it still means that the central role is robbed of some much needed complexity. Basically, Ford becomes a villainous black hat for the audience to hiss at, and not a lot more. What this means is that Holden’s part is given added interest. A lawman who turns in his badge and joins a gang of outlaws isn’t usually seen as a hero in westerns of the period, but that’s precisely what Holden’s Del Stewart does. There’s considerably more conflict in this character – loyalty, love and social responsibility are all motivational factors for him – and Holden gets to explore his range a good deal more than Ford. Among the supporting cast James Millican has the plum role as the former soldier who insubordination sees him run foul of Ford’s Devereaux. Millican gets to play a great anti-heroic figure and eventually bows out in fine fashion – a terrific actor. Ellen Drew is the only woman in the movie, as the object of both Ford and Holden’s affections, and her role is a weak one; she’s not called on to do much more than look suitably distressed by Ford’s growing excesses. Other parts of note are filled by Edgar Buchanan as a sympathetic doctor and Ray Collins as the mercenary mine owner.

The Man from Colorado is a Columbia production so Sony are responsible for its release on home video. The UK DVD is a very basic disc, lacking a proper menu and boasting no extra features at all, apart from a plethora of language and subtitle options. That notwithstanding, the picture quality, which is ultimately the most important thing, is excellent. The print used for the transfer is in very good condition and displays no damage that I was aware of. The transfer is clean and sharp, and the Technicolor looks to be especially well reproduced – all in all, this is a handsome presentation. Westerns with a strong psychological storyline really came into their own in the 1950s but The Man from Colorado represents a fine late 40s example of this variant. While I think the film could have benefited from a more rounded portrayal of Ford’s character the roles played by Holden and Millican do compensate to some extent. In the final analysis, I consider this to be a solid, worthwhile western that I’d rate as above average.


33 thoughts on “The Man from Colorado

  1. Very interested to read about this one as this sounds much harsher than I would have anticipated for a Technicolor western of the era – I suspect that you are right about changes to Chase’s story and that Ben Maddow may have been the person primarily responsible as it sounds like his kind of thing (he did INTRUDER IN THE DUST at around the same time). Sounds great Colin – will definitely get this, especially if Italian is among the languages as it’s just the kind of film I know my dad would appreciate – thanks mate.


    • Certainly worth checking out Sergio. The UK edition I own has both an Italian dub and subtitles available seeing as you mention it.

      Speaking of Maddow, and Intruder in the Dust in particular, I’ve been meaning to pick that title up for a while now – I’ve never seen it but it sounds intriguing.


          • Now that is very, very tempting … Brown was a fairly big name in his day and tends to be forgotten now but like Henry King he was one of those fine filmmakers who made the transition to sounds with ease and panache but don;t get enough credit. Unlike Henry Levin, who made some great little movies at Columbia (as well as some Matt Helm films I may not wish to hold in the same high regards …)


            • I really haven’t seen enough of Brown’s output to pass any worthwhile comment myself.
              There are gaps in my viewing experience when it comes to Levin but I do think he was pretty good. I even like those Matt Helm movies, even if they’re not especially good.


  2. I agree with you about the post-war western. It is often about the re-entry to society of men who have been to the killing fields. SHANE strikes me the same way. I found the anti-capitalist theme in the movie strong as well. Screenwriter Maddow was eventually blacklisted.


    • Ron, it’s a theme that can be found in many movies of the era, most especially in noir and, to a lesser extent, westerns though.
      As Sergio said above, Maddow’s influence on the script is most likely the explanation for its political undercurrents.


  3. Neat choice Colin, as this is a generally unheralded Western,despite its obvious
    Henry Levin is the sort of director generally shunned by the auteur crowd.
    He directed his share of hits in his time as well with JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE
    EARTH being a box office smash.He tackled all sorts of films from Noir to musicals
    and I must admit lots of his films have escaped my radar. I would like to see his earlier
    Noir CONVICTED yet another addition to my must track down list.
    Another Western THE LONELY MAN proved just how good a director Levin could be.
    I think,Colin you mentioned that you have not seen this one; all I can say is that its well
    worth tracking down.
    Mr Levin may be a forgotten director but a couple of his film are certainly not.
    His Errol Flynn Swashbuckler THE DARK AVENGER (a.k.a. THE WARRIORS) is one of
    the most requested titles on the Warner Archive Facebook page.Film was Flynns last
    Swashbuckler and while a far cry from his glory days is still not a bad way for him to finally
    hang up his sword.
    a joint venture between Levin and George Pal. I understand this title needs extensive
    restoration work before it can debut on DVD or Blu-Ray.
    Its kinda ironic though by the time Levin made the very bad Euro Western THE DESPERADOES
    I guess it was time to take the money and run.As good as Jack Palance and Neville Brand were
    in THE LONELY MAN by the time they made THE DESPERADOES both seemed to have totally
    forgotten how to act. Nice set pieces though but a dreadful film!


    • John, I like what I’ve seen of Levin’s films – I thoroughly enjoyed a recent viewing of The Gambler from Natchez – and I do have a copy of The Lonely Man now, although I haven’t watched it yet. Also, there are a couple of Levin titles in the Glenn Ford box recently released in the US.


      • I too really liked GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ,Kevin McCarthy was aces as the bad guy
        in that one.Really glad that you tracked down THE LONELY MAN so different in tone
        to many of Levins other films.Knockout supporting cast too;a very underrated Western.


        • I found The Gambler from Natchez very entertaining, and the cast, McCarthy included, was on top of their game. The whole thing was an extremely pleasant surprise.

          I look forward to viewing The Lonely Man – it seems very worthwhile.


  4. Thanks for drawing attention to this film, Colin….I have taken brief glimpses of it but have yet to watch all the way thru….I probably will now. 🙂

    In a connection to the current AMC series Hell on Wheels, lead actor Anson Mount, who plays former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, has remarked that his character is suffering from what would be deemed today as PTSD….i.e. the same affliction you note for the characters in The Man from Colorado.

    It is also worth considering how historically some soldiers who emerged from the US Civil War, in being unable to reintegrate into a peaceful domestic life, became outlaws in the West/post-war period. For example, the type of skills gained and situations experienced during the Civil War, it has been argued, set the context for the James-Younger gang.

    Thanks again for a solid review.


    • Chad, the theme of the returning soldier and the psychological issues he brought with him is a fascinating one, and one with great dramatic potential so it’s no surprise that it continues to be mined to this day.


    • Hope you get to see it and enjoy it Chris.
      I agree on the qualities of The Violent Men – another complex film with a marvelous cast, and one I may feature somewhere down the line.


  5. Thanks for introducing this film Colin. I totally agree with your belief that westerns are far more flexible than people think. Most people have probably only seen a few westerns, most likely films by Eastwood, Leone and ford, but there are so, so many. I am not a big fan of William Holden, but Glenn Ford is always a pleasure to watch.


    • Andrew, it’s been commented on before how the careers of Holden and Ford seemed to follow a similar path for many years, although Holden did experience something of a late era resurgence while Ford simply fell out of favor. Personally, I like them both and the contrasting qualities they brought to their roles.


  6. I always thought that Ford would have been better prepared for this role five years later in his career — after Gilda where he seemed to mature and sharpen his ‘edge.’ I think we’re both fans of his performances, but this one is where he hasn’t the dimensions required to be loathsome but pitifully pained. Kind of strange too, how Levin sandwiched this hard-bitten dusty noir-like western between Mating of Millie and Mr. Soft Touch — both lighter films that helped prepare Ford for bigger stuff.
    As usual, great review Colin — hope you had a great summer!


    • Thanks and nice to hear from you again.
      I guess the fact that Ford’s part is so one dimensional is the biggest weakness of the film – we really do need a more conflicted and vaguely sympathetic character whom we can feel some degree of pity for, while Ford’s characterization focuses almost exclusively on the negative aspects.


  7. Hi Colin. Thank you for your recent visit to my blog and for your comment on “The Gun Runners.”

    I have only seen “The Man from Colorado” one time, and that was about 5 years ago. It was very early in my quest to catch William Holden’s entire filmography. I didn’t really enjoy the film at the time; however, the last few months have seen me growing in appreciation for the Western (thanks in part to my month of Audie Murphy), so I am going to have another go at the Holden Westerns I didn’t overly care for. Your great write-up has convinced me that this one is definitely worthy of another chance.


    • Thanks Patti, I really enjoyed browsing your place and I’ll be back.

      In fairness, I wouldn’t try to sell The Man from Colorado as the best of either Ford or Holden. Still, it is definitely a worthwhile movie and has much to recommend it.

      I must look through more of your pieces on Audie Murphy. It’s always good to hear of someone gaining an appreciation of the genre, and Murphy’s films are a pretty good starting point. Beware though, these dusters can prove very addictive if you catch the bug!


  8. Pingback: The Man from Colorado (1948) | timneath

  9. Thought I’d chime in belatedly as I finally got round to watching this one (dubbed into Italian with my Dad) – tell you what, it is weird that after DAY OF THE OUTLAW and A DAY OF FURY, this is the third Western in as many days we have watched with a love triangle at its centre! Having said that, we really liked this one too – Holden and especially Ford are very understated and its nice that, apart from an electronic musical sting on the soundtrack, Ford’s mental issues are without hysteria (well, apart from a couple of daft closeups of Ford right at the end). The social subplot is fascinating too and gives the film real complexity – another great choice, thanks chum.


    • You’ve really been packing in the westerns in the last few days, Sergio! I’m impressed – and if some of that’s down to me, I’m a little flattered too.
      This is another nice, complex movie which, as you say, is handled with reasonable subtlety for the most part.


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