Reprisal!

I get a kick out of looking at the way trends and perspectives develop and evolve. Anyone who has followed along on my journey through cinema over the last decade and more may have noted that I come back to this, and other matters besides, on a fairly regular basis. As I do so I can’t avoid also observing changes that have taken place in my own perspective over the years. Films and filmmakers have alternately risen and fallen in my estimation, and what I find especially interesting is how certain individuals who only came to my attention relatively late in the game have become not only firm favorites but people whose artistic merits I now rate very highly and examples of whose work I I seek out with genuine enthusiasm. That’s how it is with George Sherman and that’s the frame of mind in which I approached Reprisal! (1956), and I can’t say I was disappointed.

Drama thrives on conflict, in fact it’s said to be one of the integral components. A good deal of conflict in art, and indeed in life itself, derives from the land. And land of course derives its own importance as much from what it represents as what it is.  So what does it represent? Permanence, stability, belonging and, crucially, identity. The western as a cinematic art from draws heavily upon the myths nurtured on the American frontier, myths which had their roots in the notion of the land and all its associated ideals. There is something primal at work here, it is after all what we all spring from and, ultimately, what we return to. Allied to this is the feeling that ownership of land, although perhaps possession or stewardship would be more apt terms given our ephemeral or transitory nature in comparison, affords a strong sense of belonging.

This is all a slightly circuitous way of leading in to Sherman’s Reprisal!, a film which confronts this eternal ambition existing at the very heart of the human condition. The theme crops up again and again in classic westerns and it plays a critical role in ensuring that the genre never really loses its relevance. Here, we follow Frank Madden (Guy Madison) as he struggles to establish himself as a new landowner. His desire (one of the characters speaks of a hunger for land) to literally put down roots is all-consuming for this man. It is his shot at permanence, his chance to attain a sense of identity that will define him. I don’t want to go into too much detail concerning plot here as, in a movie like this, saying a little is so close to saying a lot and I’d like people to be able to come to the film fresh and without too much information that might color their perceptions. Let’s just say that it’s a pretty thorough examination of a man’s gradual coming to terms with his real self, reaching an understanding with that self and perhaps finding a love worthy of him. The film’s strength lies in both its frank appraisal of the core themes and its courage in refraining from providing pat or easy answers to the questions raised.

Sherman takes what I feel is a characteristically thoughtful approach to his story and there is a large measure of the type of optimism and positivism I’ve come to associate with a director like Delmer Daves on view. I’m always on the lookout for redemptive themes but that’s not really the focus here; but it could, I suppose, be argued that a shade of that is to be seen in the arc followed by Felicia Farr’s character. Instead, we’re presented more with some near relatives, namely sacrifice, renewal and rebirth. Madden’s quest to find his own spiritual equilibrium necessitates his sacrificing some of his most cherished dreams, part of himself in truth, in order to achieve some kind of internal rebirth. Sherman switches between some handsome Arizona locations and interiors and uses the landscape quite effectively. There is the image of the hanging tree casting its shadow over the movie at key moments and this – trees being typically symbolic of cycles of renewal as well as the concepts of nature and permanence – mirrors the use of similar imagery in such powerful films as Ride Lonesome and The Hanging Tree.

Felicia Farr made a number of film with Delmer Daves throughout the 1950s – Jubal, The Last Wagon and best of all 3:10 to  Yuma – and would appear in Hell Bent for Leather, another strong movie for Sherman a few years later. If one stops a moment and considers this little group, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Farr deserves to be rated as one of the most important actresses in westerns, her contribution to what are all quite major genre works cannot be overstated. As I mentioned above, Reprisal! doesn’t attempt to present easy answers or to gloss over human weakness and ambiguous attitudes. Farr plays a woman who is superficially a standard western heroine but her character has layers and these are only slowly revealed as the story unfolds – it’s a characteristically subtle and alluring performance.

In terms of actors featured on this site, there have been some notable absences and I’ve been trying to plug a few gaps in recent months. The focus of this place suggests that someone like Guy Madison ought to have made an appearance by now but, for no particular reason, he ended up being overlooked – no doubt his name will appear again in future though. Reprisal! offered him a very strong role and came along in the middle of his long run on TV playing Wild Bill Hickok. I think what stands out most about Madison’s work on this movie is the restraint he displays. There are some very powerful emotional currents in this film and the fact he underplays lends them even greater potency. The way the lead, the director and the writers consistently sidestep the predictable options is another big plus for this production.

Felicia Farr got the top female billing but there is a worthwhile role for Kathryn Grant (Gunman’s Walk) as a potential rival for Madison’s attention and affections. As the heavies, the ever reliable and versatile Michael Pate is cast as the impassioned yet confused one of a trio of brothers gunning for Madison. Edward Platt is a more straightforward proposition as the older and more clearly hate-fueled sibling while Madison’s real-life younger brother Wayne Mallory appears as a slightly cliched hothead.

As far as I know, Reprisal! hasn’t had any official release on disc in the US. However, there are DVDs available from France and Italy. As a 1956 production this movie would have been shot for widescreen projection (probably 1.85:1) but the current  DVDs appear to be open-matte 1.33:1 presentations. Leaving aside the aspect ratio, the movie looks to have been well preserved and is colorful and sharp. Over time I have grown into a big fan of George Sherman and I think this is a very strong effort from the director. I’d like to think his reputation is being reassessed and upgraded, it most certainly ought to be. I still have a good number of his movies to catch up with and every time I come across a pleasure like Reprisal! I find myself looking forward to the next one all the more keenly.

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26 thoughts on “Reprisal!

  1. A great choice for review, Colin! I’m happy that you are ‘homing in’ on Guy Madison. He didn’t make a vast number of westerns but some of those he did make were very worthwhile and he was good in them.

    George Sherman does indeed deserve reassessment and a number of us out here would agree with you on this. If you view even his very earliest directing efforts, films in the long-running Three Mesquiteers series at Republic, they are superior jobs. He instinctively knew his way around a western, though he later made a good job venturing into other genres too. His films always seem to have the right balance, never sacrificing the essential ingredient, action, while giving the films emotional depth at the same time.
    Decidedly, a safe pair of hands.

    I have the Hollywood Scrapheap release of this film and it is an excellent transfer in 4:3 aspect. They also released “THE HARD MAN” at the same time, also excellent, but I see they are no longer offering it now. That would be a very good candidate for your next Guy Madison review….

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    • Well, you’re far better versed in the merits of early westerns than I am, or can hope to be, so I take your word on Sherman’s prowess in those Republic features.

      I think Madison made some very good westerns in the 50s, although I’ve yet to see the often mentioned The Charge at Feather River. However, I do have a copy of The Hard Man and no doubt a piece on it will appear here at some point.

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    • I guess that between his TV work and his time spent in Europe in the 1960s he spent less time in the type of traditional Hollywood movies we’re more likely to stumble upon.
      I think this deserves a look, but I would say that of a George Sherman film of the time, particularly one of his westerns.

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  2. An interesting review of a western, I have yet to see. Guy Madison always dependable in a western or sword and sandal flicks. Have always enjoyed a western from George Sherman. Find Felicia Farr infectious as always. Best regards.

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    • Your mention of sword and sandal movies reminds me that I’ve not seen Madison in any – or none I can recall just now at any rate – and reminds me too that it’s a genre I’ve only seen the scarcest smattering of. I’ve often told myself to look into it, and then something comes along and shunts it aside in my mind.

      For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, there seems to be an online option at the moment.

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  3. A very fine review, Colin and it has me seeking out a copy right now. I have always thought Felicia Farr’s performance in 3 10 was a small glory of movie acting and Daves’ camera took every opportunity in her limited screen time to linger on her characterful face.

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  4. I’m glad that you got to see this, Colin. I rate this very high among Sherman’s movies and as I’ve noted here before, this was the period in which he seems to have been most purposeful about choosing projects (he was relatively independent then) and his body of work starts to feel very pulled together.
    I know I’ve said it enough before–he’s not just underrated to me but one of the best directors of Westerns, maybe not in that top tier of half a dozen greatest masters, but easily in the top 12. Again, it’s not any individual films so much, though a number are outstanding, but the weight of so many good films in the genre and in the genre’s best years. And he has his share of excellent movies in other genres too, though the Westerns are definitive for him.

    Just a note that I first saw this on TV in that full frame ratio and was just fine with it. I think it’s carefully composed to allow for that. But Columbia restored all of their films (God bless them!–if only all the other studios would do the same) and did a little Western series and this was one I got to see on the big screen (having missed it in 1956). It was shown in 1.85 and that does seem best–I think Columbia was pretty consistent with that for their non-anamorphic ones after a certain point. Still, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from 1.33 with this. It didn’t seem to hurt it for you either.

    Now, for your piece, I’ve read it twice wanting to comment and feeling a little unsure about this. Plainly, you understand and have your usual insight about where this movie means to go, and you are eloquent on the theme as in evoking “spiritual equilibrium” and “internal rebirth.” But you also seemed to want to sidestep some things about the story and I don’t want to get in the way of that too much but just not sure why you didn’t want to acknowledge that this movie is in part on an Indian theme, so following in a line of movies where Sherman explored white/Indian relations. It wouldn’t have given too much away, for example, to say that Kathryn Grant’s character is an Indian girl and plays an important role partly for that reason.

    The reason this is important is that in 1956, the genre started to go a different way with the Indian movie. The major ones had dealt more expansively with history (PILLARS OF THE SKY, which you wrote about last, was one of the last and came out at just about this time). Sherman’s COMANCHE earlier in the year is in line with the earlier ones. But REPRISAL! goes to a more intimate kind of story, in which racism is now more unreasoning. The Indian Wars are not part of these films, and where in the earlier historical time, it’s understandable for either side–white or Indian–to be full of hatred for the other, because they are openly in conflict so much of the time, in a film like this one, the two sides are supposed to integrating and at peace. So the prejudice–and, inevitably, it’s especially of whites against Indians–darkens these films in another way. REPRISAL! picks this up quite brilliantly and it’s pretty fresh and provocative in the Indian cycle.

    That said, I won’t go into any detail of where this story goes, but will say something about the two leads, more about Guy Madison. I think that the male stars in Westerns of the period needed to get some conflicted, troubled or darker characters to fully make their mark on the genre, rather than straightforward and less interesting heroes. Someone like Rory Calhoun seemed to get this easily most of the time–and he always jumped out for me. And really, within a wide range of roles Audie Murphy had his share of these roles too, making the body of his work very satisfying. Guy Madison did not get many, so we are slower to see him that way, but in the two Sherman films in a row (THE HARD MAN), he did get them and does well them. And they are kind of similar in that the characters present themselves as aloof and even callous toward others, even as they too have some yearning for relationships. The two films break that down, most movingly with Frank Madden–you finally see the man he has really wanted to be but has denied. In that sense, Colin, though I completely agree with what you say about sacrifice, renewal and rebirth, I’d say this also intimates that this is a redemption story as well, as he is redeemed from the kind of existence he walked into the film insisting on.

    You’ll want to see THE HARD MAN for sure. It’s not quite this good but it has some remarkable things in it too, perhaps especially the opening sequence in which Madison’s character (unhappily) has to shoot it out with and kill his friend Myron Healey in a pounding rainstorm out on the trail, not a peaceful opening and powerfully and movingly done and makes you care what will happen in the rest of the film.

    As for Felicia Farr, just want to say I agree with you and everyone else about her, agree about the Daves and Sherman movies she is, and I guess a lot of us treasure her. I must acknowledge that for me life and the world would be not quite the same–a little more pallid and less vibrant or something–without that 15 minutes or so of 3:10 TO YUMA that she is in.

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    • I think you’re right here, reading back over what I’d written, Blake. I actually wrote this piece and left it on the computer back in the first half of July – not sure why I didn’t publish it sooner, apart from a desire to mix things up a bit over the summer.
      Anyway, I feel I was a little too coy about some plot details – I sometimes find it hard to strike that balance between avoiding major spoilers and ending up too vague. On reflection, I do think I erred too far on the side of caution here. As such, I’m glad you brought up those points that I ought to have done in a more straightforward fashion – these are important to one’s understanding and appreciation of the film and need mentioning. So, thanks for doing so.

      I enjoyed your comments on Madison’s work here, and in westerns generally, and the way you contextualized it. Very neat.

      And that’s a delightful little reference to Felicia Farr at the end. There’s nothing I can add to that except to say I just bought the Blu-ray of 3:10 to Yuma the other day, after humming and hawing over the purchase for a long time. It’s a beautiful presentation of a beautiful film and Farr’s presence both enhances it and is correspondingly enhanced.

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  5. A usual insightful and excellent piece Colin and some intriguing follow ups. It’s all downhill & shady from now on kid!
    George Sherman, where to start. Some time before I joined in the fun at RTHC Blake & I sort of had this “George Sherman Appreciation Society” thing
    going on over at Toby’s. I also remember,way back then, turning Toby onto REPRISAL! he commented how it’s wonderful turning up these hidden gems when
    delving deeper into unheralded programmer Westerns. I commented to Blake how underrated Sherman generally is, to which he commented others are fighting his corner,notably Dave Kehr. Blake mentions the stark opening of THE HARD MAN,it’s sensational. Another brilliant set piece in the film is where Madison “breaks” bully boy gunslinger Rudy Bond…you can literally see the cogs trick over in the actor’s minds.

    I will attempt to fill in some Sherman trivia which I’m sure I have covered both here and elsewhere. According to Budd Boetticher, MGM wanted Sherman to direct the Gable Western LONE STAR,Universal refused to release him and in fact the film was directed by another Sherman, namely Vincent. Boetticher thought this was a big mistake as he was sure Sherman could have enticed Gable over to Universal. So many of Sherman’s best films still not available on disc, especially earlier Universal efforts like LARCENY and TARGET UNKNOWN. France now seems to be the last hope for 50’s Western fans as far as regular DVD and Blu Ray releases go. Elephant Films France have announced Blu Ray editions of the excellent RED CANYON and the lesser but fun COMANCHE TERRITORY. Sony (USA) are releasing a Blu Ray of one of Sherman’s most high profile films COUNT THREE AND PRAY. The advance review on Blu Ray.Com is very positive regarding picture quality,especially how nit picking, generally that site is. The film is presented in the 2.55 ratio which I am a great admirer of. I understand the compressed ratio (as opposed to 2.35) was to accommodate
    4 track magnetic stereo, so popular in the mid 50’s. The magnetic stereo thing was abandoned when too few theatres, generally, decided not to adapt. I remember in the 1960’s catching films like PRINCE VALIANT, HELL & HIGH WATER, WHITE FEATHER and GARDEN OF EVIL as magnetic stereo prints were still in circulation even then. It’s also worth noting that COUNT THREE AND PRAY will be released by Sidonis, France, I guess from the same master as the USA edition.
    The good news is that, for now at least, Sidonis have stopped using “forced” subtitles on their DVD and Blu Ray releases.

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  6. It would surely be good if Sidonis were to release some of their earlier-released westerns that had ‘forced’ subs and to remove the subs retrospectively? One could but hope…….

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  7. Apart from the more serious/thoughtful issues that run throughout Sherman’s films there is also an impish sense of fun in many of his pictures. This is best demonstrated by a scene in COMANCHE TERRITORY where Maureen ‘O Hara rides through the town carrying a tray with four full beer glasses, nary spilling a drop…it’s that sort of movie. When Sherman is confronted with more challenging material, like several titles in my previous post plus the excellent Westerns RENEGADES and RELENTLESS he is more than up to the task.
    Sherman is at his best with fare like the two Madison Westerns and the remarkable HELL BENT FOR LEATHER, or LAST OF THE FAST GUNS. Sherman the “entertainer” for want of a better word,is very evident in his later Swashbuckler SON OF ROBIN HOOD (1959). Made for a reported mere $350,000 the film looks remarkable.
    Sherman produced the film himself and obviously had fun working with a veteran British cast, apart from leading man David Hedison, who sadly passed away recently. Delphi Lawrence is fun as a sort of 13th century “cougar” and Philip Friend, most entertaining as a noblemen who has lost the taste for torture.
    There’s also an astonishing gender bender moment where June Laverick disguised as a “page boy” is grabbed by the butt by a burly “merry man” who explains…”Arrgh! we’re a rough lot but you’ll get used to us”
    Now for something more serious…..There is in the archives of Park Circus a lovely widescreen 4K version of SON OF ROBIN HOOD which I would love someone, somewhere to release. The Fox Archives MOD was wretched even for that woeful series and 4×3 to boot! According to Glenn at Cinesavant and further discussions over at Toby’s Fox/Disney as they now are, have for starters banned any USA revival cinema from showing vintage Fox titles. Furthermore, according to Glenn at least one prolific Euro label has been told that they can no longer release Fox product. A European commentator over at Toby’s also stated that Eureka had to rush release their Sam Fuller At Fox set to beat the deadline. All of this sounds very depressing and possibly means SON OF ROBIN HOOD will now never get released as well as other interesting George Sherman Fox titles like NONE BUT THE BRAVE and THE FIERCEST HEART.

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    • You know, Comanche Territory is a film I must get back to. The fact is I remember finding it a bit disappointing when I last saw it, but that’s quite a while ago and I’d like to see how it plays with me now – after all, films don’t change but we do and I wonder if I’d be more receptive to it these days.

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      • Yep! Sherman’s Westerns were better when they centred on original material rather than pseudo historical pap like the above and BLACK BART and CALAMITY JANE & SAM BASS although all three are not without some merit, especially the latter.
        MGM’s LONE STAR would have been ideal for Sherman taking into consideration the other titles mentioned which play fast and loose with actual events.

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  8. Chris previously mentions Guy Madison in Sword & Sandal pictures, actually he only started making those when he moved to Italy. SLAVES OF ROME; SWORD OF THE CONQUEROR with Jack Palance and BLOOD OF THE EXECUTIONER with Lex Barker.
    Madison made lots of films in Europe, War Pictures, Pirate Movies, Spaghetti Westerns (mostly lousy) and out and out rubbish SUPERARGO, THE BANG BANG KID, the latter as silly as it sounds and the former even worse.
    Madison and Barker moved to Italy ’round about the same time although Barker generally made better films or was far more choosy. It’s a shame because in his Spaghetti Westerns Madison looked great, he aged very well and it’s a pity the programmer Westerns Madison made were on the way out in the 1960’s. I guess if Madison and Barker had stayed in Hollywood they could have ended up in A.C.Lyles Westerns…I’m sure the Euro option was far more profitable for them both.
    A couple of interesting Madison Euro Westerns: GUNMEN OF RIO GRANDE aka Duel At Rio Bravo. Directed by Tulio Demicheli best known for the Harry Joe Brown
    production SON OF CAPTAIN BLOOD with Sean Flynn which got Worldwide distribution.GUNMEN OF RIO GRANDE looks more like the “real thing” than
    most Spaghetti’s in fact it’s quiet well made and Madison plays Wyatt Earp although the story is nonsense. OLD SHATTERHAND aka Apache’s Last Battle. Arguably the best of the “Winnetou” films directed by Hugo Fregonese and on a very large scale at that. Lex Barker plays the title role.
    Winnetou Trivia: Lex Barker was Old Shatterhand, Stewart Granger was Old Surehand (Barker & Granger had the same agent) and for one final entry Rod Cameron was Old Firehand.

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  9. I really ought to write down notes instead of firing this stuff off the top of my head, at any rate I’ve omitted a pretty important Sherman picture I had wanted to mention. SWORD IN THE DESERT (1949) a superior political thriller was actually banned in the UK at the time. The powers that be were upset about the way the British, or more to the point British troops were portrayed. To be fair, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about these days.
    At that time Sherman was one of Universal’s top contract directors and SWORD IN THE DESERT was an important picture for the studio, with a top notch cast. A left wing cinema in London’s West End did make a valiant attempt to screen the film which resulted in not only far right groups getting involved but also Oswald Mosley himself,riots and bomb threats followed. Rather ironic that in those days the British Left were supportive of Israel, so different to their stance today. SWORD IN THE DESERT has never been shown in British cinemas but did feature in a “Banned” season at London’s National Film Theatre some 20 years ago.

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