The Saga of Hemp Brown

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.

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44 thoughts on “The Saga of Hemp Brown

    • It is a good film but that panning and scanning is dreadful and really damages it. It is something I have a big problem with these days even though I wouldn’t have been all that troubled by the process when i was watching stuff on TV as a child.

      • I think I was aware of it just as I became a teen and it started to bug me then. Cut to 35 years later and like you, virtually impossible to enjoy a film that way. It was shown on 5USA a couple of years ago, no idea what the AR was though …

        • I’d be amazed if that 5USA screening was anything other than pan and scan – if anyone knows otherwise for sure though, it would be good to know as it would at least prove that a widescreen print exists.
          While I can force myself to watch cut down prints if nothing else is available it’s deeply unsatisfying and I certainly wouldn’t recommend others do so.

  1. I agree about this being an enjoyable western. Rory Calhoun added value to whatever he was in. The problem is that, because of the aspect ratio problem you’ve described, I don’t regard that I have seen this film “properly”. There is, in fact, a new German DVD of it coming out next month (April 2017) but, frankly, it doesn’t look promising at all. From a glance at it on Amazon.de, I would say that it will be just another reissue of the same old pan & scan print. Might be worth keeping an eye on it though…just in case. It’s under the title “BIs zur letzten Patrone.” Another western that it seems to be impossible to get in scope is Audie Murphy’s “The Wild And The Innocent”.

    • Dafydd, I quite agree about not feeling you’ve seen the film properly, so much of the image is absent when it’s shown in this way. Most frustrating.

      I saw that upcoming German release but I wouldn’t be hopeful either. There are a few scope films that never seem to appear in the correct ratio anywhere – Dragoon Wells Massacre and Day of the Badman are two more.

  2. Been years since I saw this and I recall very little about it. I know it was Rory’s name that lured me in which it frequently does. Nice cast and Larch always makes for a good “baddie”. It’s amazing how many older films one can watch and see an uncredited Sen Yung or any number of Asian actors from the times like Philip Ahn or Benson Fong etc.
    I’ll have to hunt this one down for the library here at home. Not sure if it plays TCM at all.

    • I wonder if the lack of a decent print is part of the reason it doesn’t get broadcast so often.
      Strange about the Asian actors, isn’t it? Those guys were instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with classic cinema yet, as you say, often appeared uncredited. Regardless, it’s always a treat to see them pop up.

  3. Agreed it is a very well paced and a very entertaining western. It is also one of my favourite from Rory Calhoun. Incidentally if I am not wrong, its the only western where John Larch was the main villian. I saw it on the wide screen in the cinema as a weekend matinee. Best regards.

    • I envy you seeing on the wide screen – you saw twice the move I did then! 🙂

      Regarding Larch as a villain, he may not have been the main villain in Seven Men from Now but he was one of them. And he did play the main bad guy in Quantez.

  4. I tried to post comment but it didn’t take. Trying again. Would like to see this one. Didn’t know Richard Carlson had directed. Hope a decent print comes out soon.

    • Good solid work from Carlson and worth seeing if you have the chance. The aspect ratio mess is extremely annoying though and I don’t blame anyone who avoids it because of that. If a decent print were to show up, I’d be near the front of the queue of those looking to buy a copy.

  5. Thanks for the review, Colin. An 80-minute Western with a good cast that wastes no time getting on with the story and tackling interesting themes sounds great. That was a good decade for Westerns. Rory Calhoun could play heroes or villains (RIVER OF NO RETURN). He was a good actor, and I think he would have made a better Jett Rink in GIANT (there, that ought to start some fights.)

    • Elgin, there is much about this film to admire and it’s just a shame about the chopped down print.
      If you spend a little time round here you’ll find plenty of people (myself included) who share the view and argue passionately that the 1950s was the decade for westerns. Calhoun figured prominently in many of them and if he was just a step below the full-fledged A list stars of the genre he still has a solid body of western work to his credit.
      I never thought of him in the role of Jett Rink, probably because it’s so closely associated with James Dean, but I’m trying to picture him now.

  6. Colin, John Larch obtained 3rd star billing in this movie. Saw it on you tube recently just to walk down memory lane. Best regards.

  7. I’ve been enjoying the variety of your posts of late but it IS great to see you reviewing a western once again – and a pretty good one at that!
    Calhoun goes up in my estimation all the time and I consider some of his westerns among my all-time favourites. Carlson did a good job directing here, and an even better one with “FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER” (hint hint LOL).

    • I thought it was time to put up something on another western, Jerry, and I’m pleased you approve of the choice too. There is plenty of highly entertaining stuff featuring Calhoun throughout the 50s, it’s hard to go too far wrong with one of his movies.
      And don’t worry, the hint has been noted.

  8. Colin-firstly I must congratulate you on a most impressive
    write up-I am very fond of the points that you make in the 3rd
    paragraph (section?)
    We have discussed the missing Universal; CinemaScope titles
    several times before but I guess it’s worth one final trip to the well-
    my obsession with lists being a prime mover.
    There are several Universal Fifties CinemaScope titles that have never
    seen a DVD release they are as follows.

    ISTANBUL………………………………………..Errol Flynn
    NEVER STEAL ANYTHING SMALL……..James Cagney
    THE SECOND GREATEST SEX…………..Jeanne Crain
    FOUR GIRLS IN TOWN…………………….George Nader
    THE TATTERED DRESS……………………Jeff Chandler

    Also there are several CinemaScope Noirs starring the now virtually
    forgotten George Nader-a big star at Universal in the Fifties.

    APPOINTMENT WITH A SHADOW Directed by Richard Carlson
    MAN AFRAID
    FLOOD TIDE.

    The following Universal CinemaScope titles are only available as
    pan & scan versions

    DAY OF THE BADMAN
    THE WILD & THE INNOCENT
    THE PURPLE MASK.

    The latter two titles were released on DVD by Universal,France.
    If the Universal,Vault MOD series can release a 66 minute B flick
    SMOOTH AS SILK starring Kent Taylor then why none of the above
    certainly every one a higher profile film than the Taylor flick.
    Did the widescreen masters for all these films get destroyed in the
    oft mentioned Universal fire of several years back?
    I did,like Chris see THE SAGA OF HEMP BROWN at a revival
    cinema in the Sixties and remember enjoying it very much but
    I refuse to watch pan & scan versions of CinemaScope titles but hold
    out very little hope of seeing the film in it’s correct ration.

    • Glad you enjoyed the write-up, John. In truth, films such as this – brisk, rich and entertaining – are easy to write about and pleasure discuss and/or dissect.
      As another who likes to see a good list, that summary is most welcome, if a tad disappointing too.

  9. As an add on to the above,I might mention that the
    UK title for APPOINTMENT WITH A SHADOW was
    THE BIG STORY.
    Also in the UK the title for THE MIDNIGHT STORY
    was APPOINTMENT WITH A SHADOW…confused?

    • I’ve just lately got my hands on a copy of the UK DVD of The Midnight Story – the only copies I’d seen before were non-anamorphic so that was very welcome.

  10. I too recommend that you watch FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER,
    sooner rather than later-arguably Carlson’s best film as director.
    Carlson’s last feature as director was KID RODELO which has some
    novelty value as possibly the only Euro Western shot in black & white.
    Despite four impressive leads (including Carlson) and being based on
    a Louis L’Amour original I remember being underwhelmed by the film
    at the time.Certainly worth another look I would say.
    Returning to Colin’s now legendary “to be watched” pile I was spurred on
    by Mike’s recent review of RING OF FIRE. Colin you mention a liking for
    Andrew L Stone’s pictures-well one of his finest is HIGHWAY 301 another
    one in your pile and one that In urge you to bump up the viewing rota.
    Only Kristina,thus far, has shown any love for this cracking little Noir-
    so all can say Colin-is “get with it” 🙂
    Warner Archive have promised a remastered version of RING OF FIRE
    at some point-sooner rather than later,I hope.

    • I know, as i said in reply to Jerry, I promise to get with it as far as Four Guns to the Border is concerned asap.
      And thanks for the reminder on Highway 301 as well – for some reason that title just keeps slipping my mind.

  11. The”get with it” comment was of course meant in good fun-
    a different day-a different browser-my “smiley face” seems to have
    disappeared. (:
    HIGHWAY 101 was one of those little gems that far exceeded
    my expectations-it’s not often that happens.
    I don’t know if ALL the titles in my list are in fact “lost” some may
    yet turn up on Universal’s MOD imprint or in Europe,perhaps.
    It’s odd that all of Universal’s Fifties Sci-Fi Monster Movies seem to
    have survived intact except THIS ISLAND EARTH which needs some color
    adjustment.
    It would indeed be wonderful if the three missing Universal
    CinemaScope Westerns turned up in a fire proof vault or something-
    though I’m not holding my breath.
    Finally it’s amazing how many George Nader films are on the
    missing list-he’s also in FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER I might add.
    Another Nader film,though not in CinemaScope is the diverting
    CONGO CROSSING-I’d love love to see that one again.
    CONGO CROSSING also starred Virginia Mayo and Peter Lorre and
    I have very happy childhood memories of seeing it on a double bill
    with RAW EDGE.

    • Don’t worry, John, I knew you were just kidding me.
      If I’ve learned anything over time it’s that we should never let ourselves get too pessimistic about seeing stuff in better condition – there have been a fair number of movies I’d essentially written off ever seeing in acceptable form only for them to show up further down the line. I guess the point is, you never can be sure.

  12. It’s interesting that according to imdb Warners loaned Virginia Mayo to Universal for CONGO CROSSING so they could have Rock Hudson for GIANT. I wonder what GIANT would have been like at Universal- Rory Calhoun in the Hudson role,Mara Corday instead of Elizabeth Taylor and Jan Merlin as Jett Rink-though I like
    Elgin’s idea of Rory as Jett. The Universal GIANT would probably have probably been directed by Joseph Pevney and ran about 80 minutes.

    I note Yvette Vickers was in THE SAGA OF HEMP BROWN. Males of a certain vintage…well ancient- like yours truly will remember the lovely Yvette raising temperatures in camp classics like ATTACK OF THE FIFTY FOOT WOMAN and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES. The latter was described by Maltin as an absurd combo of
    the white trash/monster genres scripted by Leo Gordon. I also remember Yvette’s stunning turn in James Cagney’s SHORT CUT TO HELL.
    Yvette’s life makes for very sad reading especially her tragic demise of several years back. Lots of stuff on-line for those who wish to take things further but be warned this makes for very grim reading. Yvette certainly had a very colorful personal life including flings with Cary Grant and Steve Cochran and more long term relationships with Ralph Meeker and Jim Hutton. Interestingly, Yvette has nothing but good to say about Calhoun who she describes as an absolute doll.From what I have read Rory seems to have been very well liked by all who worked with him.

    .

    • Yeah, fantasy casting is always good fun, and can lead to quite daring lines of thought at times.
      I ought to have mentioned Ms Vickers in the piece – just slipped my mind I guess. I remember hearing about how her life ended and thought it was all just dreadfully sad.

  13. According to Amazon. de an outfit named KNM are releasing the Rory Calhoun Western APACHE UPRISING on DVD in April. As I remember this was one of the better A.C.Lyles efforts. Don’t know a thing about KNM but they do seem to be one of the better public domain imprints. No idea what the p.q. or the ratio will be.
    It, sadly, looks as if p.d. hell is the fate that now awaits the thus far unreleased Lyles films.

    I also note that the dreaded Sidonis have announced THE VIOLENT MEN on Blu Ray with their forced subs and all. THE VIOLENT MEN should look stunning on Blu Ray-it would be great if perhaps Eureka or Indicator picked this one up.

    • Despite being no great fan of the Lyles westerns, I think I’d pick that one up depending on feedback regarding picture quality, ratio and so on.

      I haven’t watched The Violent Men in a log time but I quite like it, even if it does have a few faults. I agree it ought to look terrific in Hi-Def and, yes, I could see someone in the UK releasing this if there is a master prepped and basically ready to go.

  14. I hate to say that I’ve never seen the complete Saga of Hemp Brown. I bought a Spanish DVD a couple of years back, but the poor pan and scan picture only lasted about 10 minutes on my TV.
    The version on U.K. Channel 5 was also pan and scan after the scope titles had played.
    My UK DVD of The Purple Mask from Simply Media was also dumped after only 5 minutes viewing. The DVD companies must know they have a poor print right from the start before it goes into production, obviously they don’t care.

    • Hi, Mike. Yes, I guess with companies licensing product from the big studios it’s just a case of taking whatever is offered to them. That’s not excusing poor presentations of course, just that there’s a sometimes a chain of responsibility with some of these titles. What irritates me most is when the distributors don’t make it clear what aspect ratio their discs will be presented in – I have a hard time believing the failure to do so is simply an oversight.

  15. As an add on to the above I feel that “low rent” outfits
    like Simply Media may well take what’s on offer but more up-market
    imprints certainly do not.
    I remember Sidonis rejected the copy of WESTERN UNION
    supplied by Hollywood Classics who sourced a far superior copy.
    As I have mentioned before Hollywood Classics have now been
    replaced by Park Circus,but I understand boutique labels now find
    it cheaper to go to companies like Fox or Universal direct who charge
    half what Park Circus are charging.
    I hope Park Circus change their charging structure as they have many much
    sought after films on their books. If they don’t address this they may well
    go the same way as Hollywood Classics.
    Of course DVD BEAVER is the go-to source for finding if a release is
    worth it,an invaluable source for serious film addicts.
    The Beaver,of course would never entertain a low rent outfit like Simply
    Media-they stick mainly to the high quality imprints and are quick to expose
    any shortcomings on any disc.
    Sometimes a quality imprint will release a sub-standard print if that is all
    that is available the Koch THE SPOILERS (1955) being a prime example.
    Having said that the Koch version is the best available but the color is
    way off at times-Technicolor looking more like Cinecolor at times.
    Possible the master neg for THE SPOILERS is another victim of the
    “Universal fire”

    • Yes, releases via a company like Simply Media are very hit and miss – they may be fine or they may not and, due to the dearth of reviews for such discs, you often end up having to take a gamble yourself.
      That’s very disappointing about The Spoilers but it may as you say, be beyond anyone’s control. I’ll likely buy that DVD eventually, but only when I see it heavily discounted.

    • Whenever the Universal fire is mentioned I always check internet for any new information, but nothing new appears. Going way back to 2008, year of fire, Universal said that none of their master prints were lost because they were stored in a vault in Philadelphia.
      What were lost were digital and high quality film copies, totalling up to 50,000 reels. So although the film copies can be replaced, they can now be classed as lost, because it is very time consuming and costly, one film copy would have cost over $5000 back in 2008. A spokesman also said most titles lost in the fire were of new and old features that were rarely requested. I guess that would cover a number of old western titles.

      • Yes, Mike, the wording is rather vague and open to interpretation regarding the titles affected. I imagine some of those we talked about here would be included and again I agree that the fact the original elements are safe and well is cold comfort in some respects.

  16. Yep! Originally THE SPOILERS was announced on the Koch
    website as a 2,0 widescreen Blu Ray release.
    With Universal’s failure to source a suitable high-def master
    we ended up with the 4×3 DVD only.
    What may show up in the future heaven only knows.
    I’m looking forward to seeing what transpires with the new
    Koch arrangement with Sony-hopefully it will include
    some of the Sidonis titles with those forced subs that drive us
    all mad. I’m also hoping Koch will release THE VIOLENT MEN on
    Blu Ray-I agree it’s not a total success as a film but would be a great one
    to have in high definition.
    I personally feel that CinemaScope Westerns were made for the Blu Ray
    format.
    Incidentally I recently got the Koch Blu Ray of THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE
    JAMES. The film I understand is one Koch have been sitting on for several
    years and the source is from an old master from Hollywood Classics,
    Without being too unkind I will say Koch have done far better-the color is rather
    harsh,to say the least.Never saw the original DVD so I don’t know what to
    compare it with-I might add that the film holds up very well.

    • John, CinemaScope anything tends to look really good in Hi-Def, as far as I can see. The fact westerns often utilize dramatic landscapes doesn’t hurt of course.

      I think The True Story of Jesse James is quite a bit better than its reputation suggests. Nicholas Ray uses the wide frame beautifully and Jeffrey Hunter is frankly excellent.

  17. Oddly enough I’ve been on a bit of a Jeffrey Hunter binge
    recently-not intentional,but things just happen that way sometimes.
    So sad we lost him at such a tender age.
    Also rather sad that his career tailed off after he played the King Of Kings.
    He worked a lot in Europe towards the end of his career.
    I recently caught (a dreadful copy) of one of his Spaghetti’s
    FIND A PLACE TO DIE which I had fond memories of.
    It’s a superior effort and Hunter fits the genre perfectly.
    FIND A PLACE TO DIE was partly directed by Hugo Fregonese
    and borrows much from GARDEN OF EVIL.
    I’d jump at the chance to get this on Blu Ray but that’s hardly likely
    as these sort of films were handled by independent distributors and
    finding high-def elements near impossible.
    One of Hunter’s last films was SUPER COLT ’38 a Spaghetti I’ve never
    heard of but would like to see it just for Hunter’s involvement.

    Nice to see you have just reviewed a Burt Kennedy picture another director
    who promised much but who’s career was spotty,to say the least.
    If you remember we talked about YOUNG BILLY YOUNG recently-and I
    mentioned that I liked Mitchum and the Old Tuscon setting.
    I might add that on a second viewing the films many faults really
    become more and more obvious-in many ways it’s really lazy film-making.
    I mention this because my initial “thumbs up” for the film was perhaps
    a bad recommendation.
    As mentioned before the Blu Ray from Germany’s Black Hill is excellent,
    and at a great price too.I look forward to future releases from Black Hill
    especially as they only charge a few Euros-all this matters in these days of
    the ever sinking pound.

    • Never seen Find A Place to Die, John, but the combo of Hunter and Fregonese makes me at least curious.

      Yes, I remember chatting about Young Billy Young and I do need to look at it again. As I think I said before, I wasn’t all that impressed by the film and I feel it had that flatness that I reckon can be found in a lot of Kennedy’s work.

  18. Rory Calhoun, Rory Calhoun…it took me a long time to get his vibe. He and Joel McCrae were late comers. Sometimes the 50s westerns caught a whiff of Beaver Cleaver…I mean, Fred MacMurray? 😊

    Now I love all those guys, and ingest their movies like slices on pizza night. What used to come off as slick and paternal now seems smooth and confident; I owe that to Alan Ladd.

    I really need to add more Calhoun to my watch list. This guy deserves more of my attention.

    • Yes, Clayton, I think you have a point about getting with the vibe given off by certain performers. With some it comes straight away, others need time to get used to, and there are others still you never can get along with.
      I’m still in the process of working my way through Calhoun’s work, having only had the briefest of acquaintances in the past, and the more I see, the more I enjoy it. I think he was a smooth presence on the screen, and I mean that in a positive way. Happily, a lot of more of his stuff is accessible these days.

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