Back to God’s Country

Rugged outdoor adventures have a timeless appeal and I think it’s true too that the cold weather variety carry with them an invigorating quality, as though the  crisp, chilled air blasting the protagonists on the screen adds a little freshness and energy to our viewing. A film such as Back to God’s Country (1953) is a largely formulaic affair yet is enlivened considerably by its sub-polar setting. Of course, following a formula need not necessarily be seen as a failing; handling and execution are key elements and, with the movie in question, I feel director Joseph Pevney brings a briskness to the piece that makes its hour and a quarter running time positively zip along.

It’s the late 19th century and we’re  in the icy north of Canada. Peter Keith (Rock Hudson) is running a schooner trading fur pelts in the US and is keen to get underway before the winter freeze sets in and leaves his vessel unable to sail. As such, he’s vexed to receive an official letter ordering him to remain in port until an inspection can be made of his cargo. That would mean a delay which might well see him sealed in for the season and the consequent hit to his finances it would entail. While he and his wife Dolores (Marcia Henderson) have made up their minds to ignore the order and put to sea anyway, it comes to the attention of both that there might be something fishy about the whole thing. Local bigwig Paul Blake (Steve Cochran) is expansive and hospitable yet there’s an oiliness about him and it looks like he may be behind the request, partly for financial gain and partly (maybe even mostly) because he far from honorable designs on Dolores. Thus, with rivalry and subterfuge established, the scene is set for a showdown which will play out for the most part over a couple of enforced journeys through the frozen wastes.

Back to God’s Country appears to have been filmed twice before, back in the silent era, and I can see how the combination of adventure, melodrama and romance would have drawn filmmakers eyeing a source with reasonably wide appeal. Now I’ve no idea how Pevney’s movie compares with those earlier iterations, and indeed I don’t even know whether they still exist or are available for viewing. What I can say though is that this movie represents a marvelous piece of escapism, a no-nonsense slice of entertainment with that characteristic aesthetic one associates with Universal-International pictures. The combination of studio shooting and some location work in Colorado and Idaho is handled most attractively by cinematographer Maury Gertsman, with Pevney marshaling it all with pace and energy. The story holds no real surprises, and arguably has its fair share of cliches, but the meanness, the naked self-interest and almost perverse covetousness of the villain add an edge and an unexpected extra layer.

Steve Cochran was born to play villains, his self-assurance and grace offer a sheen of sophistication, while all the time there’s a gleam in his eye that hints at a ruthlessness any time the main chance wanders into view. By and large, he plays it cool but there is one scene in particular – an assault on Henderson – where he, unfortunately, cuts loose and indulges in the kind of eye-rolling, over-the-top hammy histrionics that would put many a mustache-twirling cartoon cad to shame. His character is of course a thoroughly bad lot, a blackmailer and master manipulator with a history of grabbing possession of whatever and whoever he wants. And there’s a sadistic side to him that goes beyond mere greed, his treatment of Hugh O’Brian’s forger is a case in point, holding him in what amounts to bonded labor. O’Brian does well in that part too, allowing his natural charm to soften his own villainy and act as a counterpoint to Cochran’s.

Pitted against these two are Rock Hudson and Marcia Henderson, and they make for an attractive and resourceful couple. Hudson was in the process of building his career at the studio (a career that Ross Hunter and Douglas Sirk would soon move to a whole different level) and this type of role, while not all that demanding dramatically, was the kind of thing  that couldn’t hurt. He gets to play it tough and heroic, even in the latter half of the movie when a broken leg sees him essentially confined to a sled. A good deal of the drama arises from a combination of Cochran’s machinations, the deteriorating weather conditions, and also some frankly poor decisions on the part of Hudson’s character. He makes amends for them, naturally, but this also gives Henderson the opportunity to prove her mettle. She too displays a hard edge when the chips are down, playing well off Hudson and holding her own quite convincingly when she has to.

Back to God’s Country may not be all that well-known but nor should it be all that difficult to locate. There seem to have been DVDs released pretty much everywhere – I have this Italian version which seems to have gone out of print and been replaced by another by the same company claiming a Hi-Def restoration  – still, I’d imagine all will be using the same transfer. Generally, it looks OK, but there is a bit of damage and overall ageing visible. Sometimes I think I could happily spend my days watching, and writing about, nothing but Universal-International movies; they’re that entertaining. There’s a polish and professionalism on show that mean even undemanding and average efforts like this offer a good deal of viewing pleasure.

Another view of the movie, from Laura, can also be accessed here.

30 thoughts on “Back to God’s Country

    • It’s enjoyable, in the way that so many Universal-International movies are, with a highly capable cast and crew making everything look smooth.
      As for the locations, to be honest, I’d say the majority of the film is shot in and around the studio, with some fine looking mock ups, but there is clearly some location work in there too. IMDB says Idaho and Colorado, although I know it’s not always the most reliable source.

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  1. ” His character is of course a thoroughly bad lot, a blackmailer and master manipulator with a history of grabbing possession of whatever and whoever he wants.”

    That’s kind of an interesting thing to say today, isn’t it? (Just saying…)

    Will add to that re Steve Cochran, yes he’s effective in a role like this and does seem to be born to play villains but isn’t that partly because he was cast that way so much and did so well with it. As a tormented, tragic figure at the center of Antonioni’s IL GRIDO, he is also superb, indeed haunting. He has some other sympathetic characters that he did well with too, if not so often.

    In any event, yes, it’s a very enjoyable movie, with those great U-I aesthetics. They did a share of remakes of their old movies in this period, usually to good effect, and with the melodramas Sirk made, they could be sublime, especially in the case of IMITATION OF LIFE. That wonderful art direction, Technicolor look (or black and white too!), creative blend of sets and some locations, all the things you observe here.

    Though, Colin, I really believe you neglected to mention that dog, who has a pretty important role here.

    I made a few comments about Pevney in the last piece and not sure this is the place to carry on with that. Yes, he did pretty well with it, probably as good a choice as U-I would have made among their contract people; but the material doesn’t really play to his greatest strengths, which are really not with what is at heart a matinee type of picture (let me assure that I tend often to like these and do like this one) but with more quietly moody things, in melodrama like my favorite THE MIDNIGHT STORY but even in the Capraesque comedy of an unexpected gem like IT HAPPENS EVERY THURSDAY. Not to say he does not have some range–a lot of genres came his way and he could find his way with them, but with most directors, what artistry they have may come most alive when stimulated by certain kinds of material, and he’s no exception.

    I offer this comment in context of having seen all of Pevney’s theatrical features except JUST ACROSS THE STREET (wish I could see it!).

    I will quote you again:

    “Sometimes I think I could happily spend my days watching, and writing about, nothing but Universal-International movies; they’re that entertaining.”

    I have felt that way too. At one time, I listed all their movies (those actually produced by the studio, and excluding other releases) and felt if I could spend a couple of years seeing them all in something like chronological order, I’d try to write a book or at least a lengthy article.

    Just a pipe dream. Seems like they will never come close to all being available, and formats (aspect ratio) appear compromised with a few movies that we know about. Still in that imaginary cinematheque in heaven…

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    • Working backwards through this, Blake. Personally, while I mourn the absence of certain U-I titles and the lees than stellar versions of others, I still find myself feeling quite spoiled at times when I realize how much I am able to access. I’d so love to have more but if what we have now is all I ever got, then I’d still say I was pretty satisfied.

      On Pevney, I haven’t seen enough of his movies at this point to form as clear a judgement as you have on his favored material, though I’m happy to take your word on what seemed to best fit that category. I look forward to digging deeper into those works in the future and I’m grateful for the pointers.

      The dog. Yes you’re right, I did neglect to mention him and the fact the film is essentially bookended and thus given that classic, circular structure by two important scenes featuring the character.

      I hope I didn’t give the impression I was aiming any criticism as Cochran on grounds of lack of versatility – that wasn’t my intention anyway – but just observing how in villainous roles (which are the ones I’m most familiar with) he seemed very much at home. I’ve never seen Il Gridobut I’m quite keen to do so now.

      As for the quoted sentence you opened with, I hadn’t thought about that having an application outside the context of the movie character here, but it could indeed be interpreted in a different way.

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  2. Yes, there are a lot more U-I movies available now than when I first started thinking along those lines (really, there were few then–finally, the cable station American Movie Classics had access to what may have most of them, though that just lasted a few years). Now, things are a lot better–and I’m grateful for that too–plenty to see or get back to.

    Really, for an example there was no way to see BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY for so many years. And I’d always wanted to see it (missed it back in 1953, a key year for me seeing movies and maybe still the year closest to my heart at least partly for that reason).

    I do wish the studio cared a little more. Should add that I may have been a little careless about available versions. I do believe it was the digital copies that were lost in the fire and that they have all the original negatives if they’d restore from those. But realistically, I’m not expecting that anytime soon.

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    • Yes, while it’s impossible to overstate how important it was/is to retain the original materials, the fact so many digital copies appear to have been destroyed remains distressing from the perspective of the viewer.

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  3. I have not seen this. When I came to know about it, I thought it was a western ala The Man From God’s Country and was mistaken. I have always like Cochran as a villian as in Shotgun and The Deadly Companions. Regarding you and Blake’s comments on Universal’s releases of 50s and 60s,I have fond memories of them as weekend matinees. Best regards.

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    • No, this isn’t a western, Chris, but there are certain features present which are shared with that genre, not altogether surprising I suppose given the time period.

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  4. Gosh, I just can’t imagine to whom you might be alluding, Blake! (Just can’t imagine……)

    I fully agree with the assessment and love for U.I. films of those wonderful years. Rarely does one come away from any of them dissatisfied. They nearly all have a ‘look’ and quality about them that stand up so well today, quite a few being true classics.

    Rock Hudson was nurtured there of course until his stardom was assured. I think my dear Mum must have been a big fan – she took me along to see him starring in “GIANT” (1956), which was a very long and pretty adult film for a 8 year-old though I loved it (I was already hooked on movies), and again in “BATTLE HYMN”.

    Colin, apologies for rambling slightly off-topic.

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    • Not at all, Jerry. It’s not as though I worry much about “off-topic” comments anyway, everyone’s welcome to go in whatever direction they like as far as I’m concerned.

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  5. This post has generated some most interesting discussions,and I too if I may would like to work backwards or forwards depending on ones point of view.
    Needless to say I’m enjoying Colin’s mini “Pevney Fest” although this time I have only seen BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY at a revival cinema back in the 60’s. The film is the closest Pevney came to directing a 50’s Universal Western whereas other Universal contract directors (George Sherman,Boetticher, Nathan Juran and Jesse Hibbs) made several Douglas Sirk made just one Western TAZA,SON OF COCHISE and was soon to launch Rock Hudson into superstardom as opposed to being merely a contract player.

    I’d also like to take time out to mention Steve Cochran who might have had a better career had he been distracted from,by all accounts,his constant pursuit of the fairer sex. He did,on several occasions get to play more sensitive roles, especially in Louis King’s THE LION AND THE HORSE. This Bryan Foy production (Cochran was a Foy regular) was in deep contrast to the monsters that he played in HIGHWAY 301 and INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON,both excellent films I might add. Sadly the Warner Archive DVD of THE LION AND THE HORSE is in very bad shape and I’m not holding my breath for a restored Blu Ray version. 1956 again saw Cochran show his sensitive side firstly in R.G.Springsteen’s COME NEXT SPRING a lovely little piece of Americana regarded by many as R.G.’s masterwork. COME NEXT SPRING was a pet project for Cochran. Cochran came to England to make Val Guest’s THE WEAPON a decent thriller with sensational location work of a now vanished London. THE WEAPON again showed Cochran’s sensitive side. I’m also rather fond of the two oddball Albert Zugsmith/Charles Haas thrillers THE BIG OPERATOR and THE BEAT GENERATION, which hit the target with their sleazy sensationalism and striking widescreen black & white compositions. Again Cochran is the good guy in these two,offbeat and interesting films. Although Cochran passed away at a young age there are enough gems in his filmography to amount to a considerable legacy.

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    • Seeing as you mentioned The Weapon, John, I just want to say that I have that on my radar for some point in the next few months, although I’m so snowed under with work type stuff that I can’t actually promise anything. And the same goes for Pevney movies – I did have in mind another title to extend this little run, but I don’t know if I can get round to it. Maybe.

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  6. I had, in my Cochran piece meant to mention that when Steve crossed the pond his libido had certainly not cooled down, I recall a tempestuous relationship with an English starlet but not having Jerry behind me as a prompt, forgot which one. It was in fact Sabrina-thanks to Google! Anyway their antics made for sensational headlines at the time. Only English cats of Jerry’s and my generation will remember Sabrina.

    Anyway back to the topic in question-I am most interested in Blake’s comment that master negs of all those beloved Universal pictures still exist-I certainly
    hope so. I also find it odd that ALL of Universal’s classic Horror films and all the monster mash up spin offs now are available in high definition. This includes all the second string thrillers MAN MADE MONSTER,HORROR ISLAND, THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET,THE MAD GHOUL and so on. Furthermore virtually all of Universal’s 50’s classic Sci Fi wave now exist in high def from classics like TARANTULA! to the not so classic LEECH WOMAN. The only title in less than stellar condition is the wacky THING THAT COULDN’T DIE which I understand the DVD was sourced from a 16mm master.
    It would indeed be wonderful if these much sought after Universal CinemaScope pictures finally surface: ISTANBUL, WILD AND THE INNOCENT, DAY OF THE
    BADMAN, NEVER STEAL ANYTHING SMALL…I could go on but I won’t.

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  7. John K., Pevney’s THE LADY FROM TEXAS (1951) is an actual Western, lighter than BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY or later THE PLUNDERERS.

    Along with TAZA, SON OF COCHISE, Sirk’s TAKE ME TO TOWN (1953) is a also a Western of a kind, very charming and one of the director’s best movies.
    Sirk liked Westerns, if anyone is wondering about that.

    I believe THE LEECH WOMAN deserves to be a classic. Really, it’s very under appreciated, with one of Coleen Gray’s best performances and interesting direction by Edward Dein. I could go on–another time maybe.

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    • Thanks Blake, THE LADY FROM TEXAS certainly an oversight on my part and I always thought TAKE ME TO TOWN (which I’ve never seen) more Americana…BTW Elephant Films,France have it announced as a DVD release.
      I too love THE LEECH WOMAN I just don’t feel it has the same profile as other 50’s Universal Sci-Fi Horror films. I do believe Coleen had great affection for the film as it’s the only one of her pictures where she received top billing. The point I was trying to make, albeit quiet badly, was that it’s odd that Universal have been able to source high masters of nearly all their Horror and Sci Fi films-I guess this is due to the huge purchasing power of fans of these type of films and their ever evolving fanbase-new kids coming on board with every generation.

      Colin – I feel that you will enjoy THE WEAPON great London location work,normally lovable George Cole as the slimy villain and Lizabeth Scott’s single mother cafe waitress very downbeat for the era. THE WEAPON is the type of picture that made Chris Wicking comment that at that time Val Guest was the closest thing the UK had to a Siegel or a Fuller.
      THE BEAT GENERATION is the type of film I wish would get more on line exposure (in Colin’s to be watched pile, perhaps) at any rate Mark at Where Danger Lives did a great piece on it sometime back.

      BTW, Chris it was Zachary Scott in SHOTGUN not Cochran, just thought I’d point that out…hope you don’t mind 🙂

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      • John, I think it is true that horror and Sci-Fi does a pretty big, sustainable and enthusiastic fan base, and I imagine this fact does play a role in how deep into the catalogue studios are prepared to dig and subsequently restore. Ultimately, that’s fair enough I guess – they are running a business after all.
        I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Beat Generation, but what I’ve read suggests it might well be something that would appeal to me.

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        • Colin, Mark’s review over at Where Danger Lives gives you a fair guide of what to expect. Mark’s been rather quiet of late,I don’t know if his fine blog
          is still being up-dated. Mark reviews THE BEAT GENERATION as part of a Ray Danton double bill with THE NIGHT RUNNER another of those hard to track down Universal titles. THE BEAT GENERATION is offbeat and very quirky and heaven only knows what Richard Matheson made of the end product. Charles Haas made I think, four films with the notorious Albert Zugsmith and of those four I’ve never seen GIRL’S TOWN but would really like to.
          It’s also interesting that it would seem Mamie Van Doren considered Haas the best director that she ever worked with. I remember years back over at Toby’s a writer named Stephen Bowie tracked down Mr Haas before his passing age 97. Stephen said that Mr Haas was just waiting for someone to knock on his door and discuss his career. Too bad it never happened sooner. Stephen was, as it happens, more interested in Charles Haas’ numerous TV credits. A couple of Haas Universal Westerns have, I believe, been discussed here before: STAR IN THE DUST and SHOWDOWN AT ABILENE. They are both very good and for some reason I thought the latter had been given the RTHC treatment.
          In closing, Colin, I think that you will enjoy both THE BEAT GENERATION and THE BIG OPERATOR which despite their flaws have several appealing points, especially the eclectic list of players in both films.

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      • Although……..according to IMDb, Rory was involved in the production of SHOTGUN……….
        Screenplay: Rory Calhoun, Clarke Reynolds, John C. Champion

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  8. LOL The first time I saw this was when I was about 10 years old and living in Whitehorse in the Yukon. I would need a re-watch before I could give an opinion on the film itself. I’ll need to add this to the list. Thanks for the heads up on this long forgotten (for me) title.

    Gord

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  9. Pingback: Undercover Girl | Riding the High Country

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