Santa Fe Passage

All westerns are about journeys. In some cases this journey is explicit and external, involving some pioneering trip along or beyond the frontier. At other times it’s implicit, an internal or spiritual quest which the hero embarks on leading to the discovery of some truth or a better understanding of himself. As much as anything it’s the setting of the western which lends itself to stories of this type – if you’re going to tell such a tale, then what better time or place to do so than one on the fringes of civilization amid a harsh and primal landscape. For me, when the two concepts of the journey, the external and the internal, coincide the results are almost always satisfying. Santa Fe Passage (1955) is one of those movies, a case of seeing the hero strike out into the wilderness and simultaneously (impelled by circumstances) delving into his own consciousness to confront his preconceptions and prejudices.

It’s always nice to see a movie come charging out of the starting blocks, and that’s precisely what happens here. Two riders are driving their mounts hard over the baked Utah landscape, one clearly in hot pursuit of the other. The quarry, a Kiowa, is soon overtaken and savagely clubbed to the ground with the butt of his pursuer’s rifle. This is Sam Beekman (Slim Pickens), a wagon train scout, and he hauls his captive back to where his partner, Kirby Randolph (John Payne), is waiting with the westbound travelers. With the Kiowa evidently on the warpath, Randolph hits upon what he thinks is a clever ploy, namely distracting the war party with an offer to trade while the wagons roll ahead to safety. However, he miscalculates badly and only discovers later that those he’s responsible for end up massacred and the few survivors left mutilated. If the guilt for this piece of poor judgment weighs heavily on his soul, it’s as nothing compared to the near universal revulsion and hatred the mere utterance of his name invokes. Randolph becomes an outcast among his own and virtually unemployable. Despite all this, he’s presented with a second chance, an opportunity to redeem himself, when a freight outfit needs a scout. Jess Griswold (Rod Cameron) and Aurelie St Clair (Faith Domergue) are taking a shipment of arms to sell in Santa Fe and, even though the latter voices strong objections based on his tarnished reputation, decide to hire Randolph to see them through safely. The trip will be an eventful one, filled with physical dangers and peril, though none quite as challenging as the psychological hurdles the scout is going to have to negotiate along the way.

Over the years, I’ve managed to feature the work of most of the major figures from the classic era of cinema, particularly those who worked in westerns. A notable exception though is William Witney, a director whose critical reputation has gradually grown, no doubt helped by the fact that people like Tarantino have spoken of his work with admiration. Early in his career, Witney worked extensively on serials before moving on to features and thereafter alternating between those and a significant amount of television work. His output was so substantial that I’m sure most people with an interest in classic cinema or TV will have come across examples of his directing at some point. Unsurprisingly, given his background, action and pace were his forte, and Santa Fe Passage certainly packs plenty into its hour and a half running time. There’s a kind of brutal honesty to this movie, something I recall noticing in one of Witney’s later productions Arizona Raiders too, and is particularly noticeable in the scenes depicting the chilling aftermath of the early wagon train massacre. It’s also to be found in the frank presentation of uncomfortable attitudes and how they are addressed and overcome, which I’ll touch on presently, although this aspect probably has its roots in Clay Fisher’s original story. Additionally, the harshly beautiful Utah locations, where the bulk of the action plays out, provide yet another layer of realism to it all.

What raises this picture above the straightforward adventure variety, not that there’s anything wrong such movies of course, is the characterization of the leads. In particular, the roles undertaken by John Payne and Faith Domergue offer a fascinating insight into guilt, bitterness and self-loathing, all sparked by racial stereotyping and the fear of miscegenation. Both characters carry their burden of guilt for different reasons and this threatens to consume them whole. In Payne’s case, the guilt appears to have twisted around and turned in upon itself; the bitterness stemming from his awareness of mistakes made manifests itself in a violent distrust of the Indian, or even anyone of mixed blood. It sets up a wonderful dramatic conflict as it seems to me that his character is galled by his own prejudice even as he indulges in it. One could argue that the resolution, when it comes around, is too pat and convenient but it’s fitting for all that and it does complete the journey the filmmakers have been on. The whole thing also serves to blur the line between hero and villain, especially when Rod Cameron is cast in such an ambiguous role – he’s more understanding and tolerant than Payne yet behaves treacherously, although his motivations in that regard are not entirely ignoble. The net result of all this is that the viewer is forced to think and weigh up the good and bad in all concerned, and that’s never a bad thing.

I think there may be a commercial DVD of Santa Fe Passage available in Italy, though I wouldn’t be too sure about its quality, and it can be viewed easily enough online. So far, it doesn’t appear to have been granted an official release anywhere and, once again, I’m indebted to John  Knight for his kind assistance in ensuring I was able to watch a good print of the film. As has been noted before, too many of John Payne’s films remain unavailable and this is one of the best examples, in my opinion. This is a fine mid-50s western, the kind that typically offers plenty of food for thought alongside strong entertainment value. Check it out if you get the chance.

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40 thoughts on “Santa Fe Passage

  1. John Payne – Rod Cameron – William Witney – Republic Pictures – for this fan these are SOME credentials!!
    Good review, Colin, of quite an entertaining and satisfying western. A good way to start 2016.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Jerry, there’s much here for any western fan to savor – not to mention the contributions of Slim Pickens, Leo Gordon and Anthony Caruso.
      I very much enjoyed watching this again, I film I hadn’t seen since a TV showing I caught some years back. I thought it was pretty good then and, if anything, I found this viewing even better.

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    • Very true. I really appreciated the movie on lots of levels this time – for the acting and tight direction, as a solid trail drama, and for the theme.
      The only false note for me was the casting of Irene Tedrow, who simply doesn’t convince me at all in that role, but that’s a small complaint really.

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      • I could really use a re-view of this film, Colin. Only problem is my “to-watch” hill (as opposed to your “to-watch mountain”!!

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  2. I saw it once on TV some years ago, and would like to get back to it too. I had a pretty good impression as I’m remembering now and enjoyed reading what you said about it.

    Yes, Quentin Tarantino has helped William Witney’s reputation–but personally (this has nothing to do with anything you wrote) I’m unhappy when a classical era director is cited as being important as an influence on some more fashionable contemporary director but not so much for other reasons. Witney is a better director than Tarantino in my opinion, like so many others Tarantino also admires (Samuel Fuller, for example, is on a whole other plateau artistically, and I can’t imagine someone like Tarantino could ever get there). Because Tarantino is talented but a child.

    I’m trying to get myself out to The Hateful Eight in 70 millimeter roadshow version while it’s around here and may actually get myself to do it. But I’m really ambivalent. I used to go to every Western–because relatively few are made now and it’s easy to do–but somewhere in this century I just became very dissatisfied Probably it was that viewing of 3:10 to Yuma “remake” that did it. So now I’m not making a point of it anymore.

    I’d rather catch up with more Witney, more Selander more Paul Landres, more Thomas Carr. They all have more for me.

    BTW, in The Hateful Eight, Jennifer Jason-Leigh plays a character named “Daisy Domergue”–plainly an homage to Faith and likely a nod to this Witney movie. As most folks know, Faith Domergue was married for some years to Hugo Fregonese, a favored director for me and notably strong in his Westerns. He’s still as underrated as the director of The Hateful Eight is overrated.

    OK, I vented a little in my first comment of the New Year. But I assure you there is a positive comment in here somewhere, at least about Westerns of 1955 vintage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t worry, the positive part is clear enough to me anyway. I’m similarly cautious about new westerns, grateful when a major one is made yet also unwilling to get my expectations up too high.
      The new Tarantino film hasn’t come out here yet but it’s due soon and I’m undecided if I’ll see it or not. As a director, I’m not crazy about him either and feel he’s a minor figure next to those he pays homage to so frequently. As for The Hateful Eight, I’ve read a few quite negative comments about it and that’s colored my expectations a little too – we’ll see.

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  3. I’ll be saving my money, I’m sorry to say. I’ll get so much more out of instead watching films of the directors Blake listed. I hate to be negative about the new but there are still westerns for me to discover, and many many more to re-watch and see new aspects to.

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    • I quite understand that. As I said, I’m in two minds myself and if the director’s other work doesn’t grab you, then it may well end up a waste of time and money. Like yourself, there’s plenty of material I still have to discover – although I do like to see the genre returning to the big screen.

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  4. Your encouraging review , the cast and director interest me to this. Somehow your review reminds me of The Deadly Companions starring Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith of their journey through dangerous territory. Incidentally this was directed by Sam Peckinpah, if I am not mistaken before he was famous. Best regards.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, The Deadly Companions was Sam’s first feature as director – not a bad movie but, due to the nature of the production, it doesn’t feel as personal as his later projects.
      This film is easy enough to track down for viewing on the likes of YouTube, which is hardly ideal of course but does at least offer the opportunity of seeing it.

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  5. “Because Tarantino is talented…but a child”

    Pure Blake Lucas,and welcome back to blogland Blake…you have been sorely missed!

    Actually I’ve always thought Tarantino’s style such as it is is rather like a hyperactive kid on a
    sugar binge let loose in a candy store.
    I still enjoy most of his films and will certainly see THE HATEFUL EIGHT.
    As Colin mentions the reviews are certainly mixed…Lou Lumenick a writer who I much admire
    tore the film apart his review could not be worse.
    On the other hand Todd McCarthy another writer that I much admire is certainly a lot kinder
    to Tarantino’s film. Mr McCarthy is perceptive enough to spot the Charles Marquis Warren
    reference (regarding Samuel L Jackson’s character) and even highlights such fare as TENSION
    AT TABLE ROCK and CATTLE EMPIRE.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Colin’thanks for the credit BTW and also for featuring your first Witney picture on RTHC
    …a very perceptive review I thought. It’s also interesting that another Witney western
    APACHE RIFLES has a racist character (Audie Murphy) who feels betrayed when he discovers the
    woman that he fancies (Linda Lawson) has Native American roots.
    As good as SANTA FE PASSAGE is I prefer Payne’s other Republic Western ROAD TO DENVER
    from Joseph Kane,another prolific and talented director of Westerns yet to make his RTHC debut.

    As I have stated many times before both here and elsewhere the reason so many of Payne’s
    films are on the missing list is because during the Fifties the lion;’s share of his output was for
    Paramount who as you know have little interest in releasing vintage films.
    Two Paramount titles that should be released are Lewis R Foster’s CAPTAIN CHINA a very
    superior “Maritime Noir” and Phil Karlson’s HELL’S ISLAND.
    George Sherman’s very fine Universal Noir LARCENY should also surface at some point,I am very
    surprised that Koch have not released this one.
    Payne in the early Sixties was I believe struck by a vehicle while crossing the street in New York
    which put him out of action for a couple of years-he required extensive surgery and after that only
    did a few TV guest spots. In his last appearance a Columbo episode from 1975,more or less
    playing himself (with Janet Leigh) he looked really good and it’s a shame that he called it a day
    as far as movies go.
    Having said that that I’m rather glad that he never made fare like A.C.Lyles Westerns.
    For the latter part of the Fifties he was involved with his hit TV series THE RESTLESS GUN.

    Like Blake Lucas I have a great interest in directors like the ones that he mentions (Carr,
    Selander Landres) and it goes without saying I much prefer them to Mr Tarantino.
    Another director who never fails to impress me is Nathan Juran another I believe yet to make
    his RTHC debut! 🙂
    I wrote quiet extensively about Juran on a marathon thread over at Toby’s and that generated
    some nice feedback.His output certainly ticks most of my boxes (Universal Fifties Westerns,
    crime thrillers,Fifties creature features,Sindbad and all the rest.) The always informative Kristina
    has just posted a lovely piece on Juran’s HIGHWAY DRAGNET)
    That’s one thing I love about these blogs-we can always voice our opinions on people that we feel
    deserve more attention.
    Finally Colin,rather belatedly I must say…Happy New Year and I look forward with great interest
    to future RTHC selections.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You’re really stretching me Colin! I initially thought that was a young Robert Mitchum staring out from that poster – looks quite a bit like him.
    The movie is available on You Tube. One is 360p – fairly acceptable.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That does look a little like Mitchum now you mention it! Yes, I noticed there were a few uploads of the movie on YT – I only glanced at one of them but it seemed watchable anyway.

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  8. Good stuff Colin, and thanks for noting that it’s available on YT – will definitely check it. As for the comments above on Tarantino, modern Westerns, etc, I’ll definitely be seeing HATEFUL EIGHT (despite the fact various cinema chains in the UK don’t have it); it looks like a lot of fun, the homages are always clear enough and there’s generally a sense with each film of him trying to do something different, all fine reasons for me. Of other moderns, I caught up with SLOW WEST recently – great little movie! I especially admired the attempts at retaining the pace of a classic Western, like the one described above, while also very clearly a 21st century effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers, Mike, hope you get something out of it if you do get to watch it.
      I’ll likely go to see The Hateful Eight when it’s released here – should be quite soon actually – so I’ll reserve judgement till then. I really haven’t taken much from Tarantino’s films since Jackie Brown, but we’ll see.
      I did see your recommendation for Slow West on FB and I’ve heard others comment favorably on it so I’ll be looking out for that.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. “Because Tarantino is talented but a child.”

    Blake, that’s one of the most succinct and powerful critiques I’ve ever read. Loved it!

    Colin, SANTA FE PASSAGE looks like just my cup of tea! Love those John Payne Westerns! Faith Domergue is an interesting actress…she plays a rather shocking character in THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK, a Western I really like a lot.

    Just today I edited the commercials out of a copy of Payne’s THE ROAD TO DENVER which was shown here on Grit TV, so I hope to see it soon. LARCENY, which John mentions, is a good movie; I was fortunate to see a gorgeous print at the Noir City fest in 2014, with Dan Duryea’s family there to watch it.

    Happy New Year to our host Colin and all gathered here!
    Best wishes,
    Laura

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laura, I think you would like Santa Fe Passage – it looks good, moves fast, and the cast is appealing.
      I envy you getting to see Larceny under those circumstances – must have been great – and thanks for reminding me of The Duel at Silver Creek, a movie I haven’t watched in ages now.

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  10. Laura,

    You will really enjoy THE ROAD TO DENVER one of Payne’s top Westerns.
    It’s such a shame that his Paramount/Pine Thomas Westerns are so flabby
    THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK,EL PASO,PASSAGE WEST.
    They have good moments and very good casts but Lewis R Foster,for me was not a good
    director of Westerns-all three films would have been far superior had Joe Kane or William
    Witney directed them-those guys would have given the films some much needed zip.
    Having said that there is a doozy of a punch-up between Payne and Dennis O Keefe in
    PASSAGE WEST.
    Talking about DUEL AT SILVER CREEK that’s another film that I need to re-watch soon.
    The film has a great cast and has the pacing that we expect from the great Don Siegel.
    Siegel said that while himself and Murphy were filming THE GUN RUNNERS they went into a
    bar in Mexico,or somewhere. Murphy had a colt 45 tucked in his trousers.
    Siegel asked “why the artillery” Murphy replied “you never know when you may need it”
    Siegel then replied “are you expecting trouble” to which Murphy said “no,but if it shows it’s face
    I’ll blow it away!

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    • Neat story, John, and one that says much about demons Murphy was living with I think.
      The Gun Runners is god little movie, a kind of halfway house between the lighter tone of To Have and Have Not and the grimness of The Breaking Point.

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    • Payne vs. O’Keefe in PASSAGE WEST? That’s my kinda cast!

      I liked THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK so much I included it in my “Favorite Discoveries” for Rupert Pupkin Speaks a year or two ago. Just one of those really nice Westerns that movies along.

      Colin, I like the summation of SANTA FE PASSAGE you included in your note to me. Sure sounds good!

      Great Audie Murphy story, John.

      Best wishes,
      Laura

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      • The Duel at Silver Creek is one I recall as being very enjoyable, although it’s been 10 years or more since I last saw it – I plan to watch something else with Audie Murphy this weekend but will have to fit this in soon now that you’ve brought it back to my attention.

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  11. Great review, this is one I need for my John Payne collection, which after this Christmas includes an insert of Hold Back the Night. I have the book William Witney wrote about his life and filming adventures, “In a Door, Into a fight….” look into that, it’s full of great stories. Thanks to John above for mentioning me re Juran. He also notes Hell’s Island which I just got, and look forward to watching. All our “to-watch” mountains together must look like the Alps. Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it’s a good one and worthy of any self-respecting Payne collection.
      Witney’s book sounds interesting and I’ll definitely keep it in mind and actively seek it out – thanks.
      And yes, we may have to stop talking about unwatched piles or mountains and be honest here – they’re growing into ranges!

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  12. Anyone ever see THEY RAN FOR THEIR LIVES, Payne’s last movie? I saw it for first time last year, certainly not a great movie but worth watching just to see Payne. He was much thinner than he looked in the ’50’s but looked younger. I think I prefer the heavier Payne more, but he did look healthy.

    I too have a listing of “Westerns To Watch” I add films to it when I read esp. good comments on them from you’s guys (and gal). Also have a “Noirs To Watch” list, Larceny’s now on that one. Here’s one for you if you haven’t seen it. Last year I watched an especially good and enjoyable J. Payne noir, THE CROOKED WAY. Highly recommended, the cast alone makes it worth it. Percy Helton is perfect in this and the story really moves (movies) along briskly and excitedly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve certainly never seen They Ran for their Lives – interesting looking cast though.

      The Crooked Way is a film I like a lot – I wrote about it here last year in fact – and I’m delighted that it’s recently been cleaned up and released on Blu-ray.

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    • His work does tend to grow on you, I think. As has been said, a lot of stuff he appeared in isn’t or hasn’t been the easiest to get hold of and it’s only in relatively recent times that my own appreciation has risen.

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  13. Colin
    Thanks for the write-up. I have this one bookmarked on You-tube and hopefully will get to it in the next few weeks. Love the cast. Been watching episodes of Rod Cameron’s CORONADO 9 with this director at the helm.
    Gord

    Like

    • There’s a fair old chill in the air here too, a blast of polar air apparently. No snow, thankfully, and the promise of more seasonal temperatures just round the corner.

      Like

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