Tales of revenge are a staple in the western genre, the better ones pressing home the point about the self-defeating nature of it all and how it ends up inflicting more harm on the seeker than anyone else. That’s a perfectly valid theme and one which has a wealth of potential when handled appropriately. However, variations are to be welcomed and The Saga of Hemp Brown (1958) successfully does just that by laying the groundwork for a very understandable quest for vengeance yet adds a twist right at the beginning by making it plain that justice is more desirable, and that revenge is necessarily precluded as a result.
I like films that waste little time getting to the point, ones which draw us right into the heart of the story at the earliest opportunity. Here we have a military detail bringing the payroll, and an officer’s wife too, to the nearest outpost. The detail is under the command of a young lieutenant, Hemp Brown (Rory Calhoun), and we first encounter them on a twisty mountain road. They in turn encounter an apparently stranded traveler looking for a ride. He’s Jed Givens (John Larch), a former soldier who once served under Brown. As the party gets moving once again, Givens real motives become brutally and violently clear – his purpose was to facilitate a ruthless ambush. The upshot of this is that the patrol is wiped out, with the exception of Brown. No, Givens hasn’t had an attack of conscience and decided to spare his old commanding officer out of any sense of altruism. Instead, he wants a fall guy, someone to hang the blame on. He knows that Brown will face a court-martial under the circumstances and he’s also carrying around an added bit of insurance – officially, Jed Givens is a dead man and knows this fact is going to torpedo Brown when he tries to explain what happened. So, to cut to the chase, Brown is duly found guilty of cowardice and dismissed in disgrace. Despite the fact that, or perhaps because, nobody believes him and his name is now mud, he takes the only course open to him. He saddles up and heads off to see whether he can trace this murderous and larcenous ghost, and restore his own tainted reputation. Ironically and paradoxically, he will find himself fighting to save the neck of the very man he’d dearly love to see swing.
By the time The Saga of Hemp Brown was made the western was close to its apogee as an expression of cinematic art. Even medium range pictures like this were effortlessly examining complex themes and concepts. The old west has frequently presented the ideal canvas for looking at the clash between the individual and society, how the aims and objectives of each can be reconciled with the other and how or whether they can coexist comfortably. The Saga of Hemp Brown presents what I’d refer to as a reluctant individualist, a man standing apart from society but against his will. We see an outcast, albeit one who has been wronged, not so much railing against a restrictive society but searching for the key that will grant him readmission. Somehow though, I can’t help wondering if he will really want to be absorbed back in again; by the end of the movie he will have experienced the haste to judge unfairly, the tendency towards mob rule and also only found support from one who, similar to himself, is living on the periphery of society. Anyway, alongside the traditional western action, there’s much to occupy the viewer there, and actor turned director Richard Carlson smoothly blends all this into a nicely paced 80 minute film.
Rory Calhoun makes fairly regular appearances on this blog, which shouldn’t be any big surprise given his westerns were very often both entertaining and also quality productions. This was his second collaboration with Carlson, following on from Four Guns to the Border – and no, before anyone asks I still haven’t watched that one. Calhoun’s work here is typically strong, dealing well with the action and physical stuff and also coping just fine with the more dramatic moments. He gets sympathetic support from and a believable romance with the prolific Beverly Garland. She came to this movie off the back of a role in the excellent The Joker is Wild and gave an attractive performance which played up her soulfulness and emotional bruises. The principal villain was John Larch, another familiar face in countless movies and shows over a long career. It just happens that I was watching him in an episode of The Untouchables the other day and was struck, in both instances, by the ease with which he could alternate between swaggering cruelty and craven fear. And good as Larch is here he faces some competition in the rottenness stakes from a hook-handed Russell Johnson. In other supporting roles are Fortunio Bonanova, Morris Ankrum and an uncredited but memorable Victor Sen Yung.
Sadly, The Saga of Hemp Brown is one of a handful of problematic titles when it comes to finding suitable copies for viewing. The film was shot in CinemaScope and any film using that kind of wide framing really suffers if it is cropped down. The movie begins, in the edition I watched, with the credits in the correct (though not anamorphic) ratio and then zooms in to a panned and scanned 1.33:1 image. That’s how it is on the Spanish DVD I own but I understand that’s the case with other releases too. Frankly, this is an unacceptable way to view a film and it’s extremely disappointing that no option to see it in the correct ratio appears to exist at the moment. I can only hope that a decent version turns up at some point in the future. Actually, the fact that the rather rough-looking trailer included on the DVD is in (non-anamorphic) scope adds to the irritation. The movie itself is quite good, absorbing and intelligent, and I can well believe a better presentation could only enhance that impression. As such, I find myself in the slightly odd position of championing a film but feeling unable to recommend anyone make much of an effort to track it down given the state of what is currently available.