Thunder Over the Plains

I can never quite make my mind up on voiceover narration in the movies; after all, it does create what might be termed an authoritative mood that feels somehow fitting for certain pictures such as documentary-style films noir. On the other hand, it can give the impression of lazy writing, an info dump of sorts that resorts to telling rather than showing, or what’s worse is that it can signal the arrival of historical/political lecturing or finger-wagging. Thunder Over the Plains (1953) opens like this, offering up a potted post-Civil War synopsis that had me fearing the worst. Fortunately though, it panned out differently, the narration serving to contextualize the story before letting the drama at its heart grab the reins and move center stage.

The background is Texas in the years following the Civil War – Reconstruction and carpetbaggers loom large, and with them come all the frustration, resentment and anarchy one might expect in the aftermath of conflict. The main thrust of the story concerns the attacks on the despised carpetbaggers and the role of the army in trying to establish and maintain an uneasy semblance of order. That thankless task has fallen to native Texan Captain Porter (Randolph Scott), and while the burden of duty weighs heavily on him, there’s no doubting his professional ethics. Porter’s main antagonist is Ben Westman (Charles McGraw), a Robin Hood figure among the local population, an especially troublesome thorn in the side of the grasping tax agents, and something as elusive as a shadow in the early morning mist for the hard-pressed military. Porter, and indeed his whole command, is trapped in the middle, regarded with a sneering contempt by the locals while having his hands effectively tied by remote figures in Washington. And so the tit for tat sniping continues, with the warring factions fencing more or less  harmlessly until a would-be informer turns up dead. It’s at this point that the situation creeps relentlessly towards another level of volatility, and Porter also faces the added hassle of a dealing with a newly arrived officer (Lex Barker) who not only lacks professional judgement but has set his sights on wooing his superior’s wife.

It’s never less than a pleasure to come back to the films of Andre de Toth, and although the movies he made with Randolph Scott aren’t held in the same regard as those the star worked on with Budd Boetticher I still feel there’s much to admire and enjoy. With a deep and talented cast, a highly accomplished cinematographer (and frequent John Ford collaborator) in Bert Glennon, and a story overflowing with internal conflict, the director would have found it difficult to go wrong. De Toth  handles the action scenes with gusto, and there’s a lovely little bit of business with McGraw and Scott stalking each other in the aftermath o a well staged ambush. And throughout it all there are some clever close-ups and interesting angles calculated to heighten the tension.

I’ve just spoken of internal conflict, and Randolph Scott (especially as he aged) seemed to grow increasingly confident exploring the dramatic potential of this. Stoicism was one of his greatest on screen traits and this was always employed most effectively when the challenge he faced had its roots within himself. He’s very successful at getting across the sense of a man who is well aware of what his responsibilities are and to whom he owes his professional allegiance, but at the same time is none too fond of the guy looking back at him from the mirror. For all that, the viewer never has any serious doubts concerning his doing the right thing when the chips are down. While Scott is working on the self-appraisal, Charles McGraw is enjoying himself tantalizing the audience with the kind of ambiguity his gruff roguishness was ideal for. Scott generally did some of his more interesting work when facing off against a charismatic and appealing foe – think Lee Marvin, Richard Boone or Claude Akins – and McGraw has something of that quality about him.

If I have a criticism of this movie it lies with the part played by Lex Barker. It’s  not that I have any issue with Barker’s handling of his role – if anything, I’d say he does a pretty good job with a largely unsympathetic part – but my beef is with the way it’s written. With a plot that sees Scott at war with himself as his home state descends into chaos, I feel there was no need to add in an extra layer of conflict in a movie running a shade under an hour and a half. Barker had just come off the Tarzan movies and I get the feeling (this is just a hunch, mind, without any hard evidence to back it up) his part was expanded artificially here. Using his character as a spanner in the military works makes some sense, but the supposed rivalry for the affections of Phyllis Kirk adds nothing of substance to the story and ends up feeling like a lame and half-hearted afterthought. Still, even if that’s a weakness in the picture, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had from watching the likes of Henry Hull and Elisha Cook Jr, alongside familiar faces such as Lane Chandler and Hugh Sanders, doing their stuff.

Nowadays, there aren’t too many Randolph Scott westerns that can’t be tracked down and enjoyed. Thunder Over the Plains popped up on DVD in the US some years ago via Warner Brothers on a triple feature set, sharing disc space with Riding Shotgun. Bearing in mind the fact it’s squeezed on alongside another movie, it doesn’t look too bad at all. Naturally, the presentation is basic and there’s nothing in the way of supplements, which I think is a pity. Sure these films that Scott and de Toth made together don’t have the kind of reputation that the Ranown movies enjoy, and I’ll freely admit they are a notch below them in quality, but I can’t help feeling they deserve a little more critical attention. Recent years have seen a number of reappraisals and fresh evaluations of the artistic and cultural legacies of a range of filmmakers. Perhaps it’s now time for a new look at these movies?

53 thoughts on “Thunder Over the Plains

  1. I do like the sound of this, thanks Colin. I am always a bit nervous of narration, which can be wonderful (CITIZEN KANE FORCE OF EVIL, SUNSET BOULEVARD, any Wes Anderson movie), and also awful (BLADE RUNNER). But often it’s just to set up the story instead on a title scrawl. I do prefer writing myself. Shame that the love triangle feels tacked on I always HATE that!

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    • Yes, narration that simply serves to introduce the story isn’t really an issue. It’s the overuse or, even worse, attempts to guide your thoughts in a certain direction that bug me most. Thankfully, the film is allowed to tell its own story here.
      I’ve no particular problem with romantic triangles in general. However, like any plot point, such matters need to have relevance within the story, to push events in a certain direction or inform character development. The example here is arises and then disappears almost as abruptly, with no development to speak of and little relevance save to highlight the antipathy between Scott’s and Barker’s characters. This had already been alluded to anyway, and there honestly was no need for a new layer of conflict that wasn’t going to be explored in any kind of depth.

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        • No arguments from me on that. I feel everything needs to have a good reason to exist within the context of the story, as opposed to merely serving the external demands of the writer(s). What struck me with this movie was the complete lack of necessity of this element – the conflict was already set up and in place, and the story had enough to carry it along comfortably without this. That’s why I wonder whether it was tacked on just to give Barker a bit more to do.

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            • Quite. I feel McGraw makes for a good enough central antagonist and he does elicit a good deal of sympathy, which adds interest and depth. I can see why Barker’s character was there – he does fulfill a necessary function, and quite successfully too – but the broth didn’t require any further seasoning.

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  2. Pingback: Riding Shotgun | Riding the High Country

  3. A review by Colin of a Randolph Scott western – always a more than welcome thing to dig into!

    I know we will agree generally about Scott and his place in the genre and probably mostly about the films too, Colin. First though, I feel Scott’s westerns with De Toth could be variable (though not by much) but personally I feel at least one of their collaborations (“MAN IN THE SADDLE”) matches up pretty well with the Ranown films. One of Scott’s best.

    I also take a slightly different view on the romantic aspect, where I see a wife feeling neglected by a husband who has his hands very full with trouble and a handsome officer who fulfills that need in her by showing her attention. I thought the three actors took that situation and played it very well whilst keeping it from pushing the action story to the background in any way.

    I have that Warner triple DVD and you have reminded me it is about time for a revisit to a Scott western I like a lot.

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    • Jerry, on the romance angle, point taken. My issue isn’t so much its presence as the fact the theme is picked up, briefly toyed with, and then dropped abruptly. I feel it should either have been treated as a major plot element or not at all. OK, it’s not a fatal flaw, but it does appear forced.

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  4. This is a Scott title I haven’t seen yet. And I’m on a quest to see all of Randy’s Westerns, like probably everybody else.
    I guess I have to come out in favor of voice-over narration as so many Noirs rely heavily on it. Sure, it can occasionally come off as lazy writing, but to me in general it works.

    The problem with the love triangle may be here that Phyllis Kirk is not a very interesting actress and as such the romance angle feels simply perfunctory. I had that problem with Scott and Jocelyn Brando in Ten Wanted Men.

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  5. Yes, lots of Randolph Scott completists here and of course I count myself as one too. Of his postwar ones, I’m only lacking CANADIAN PACIFIC and FIGHTING MAN OF THE PLAINS at this point.

    I find De Toth’s Scott movies relatively uninspired as a group and generally not among the director’s very best, but strongly support Jerry as regards the first of those half dozen MAN IN THE SADDLE, easily the very best one. My top ten Scotts begin with the half dozen Ranowns and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY but are rounded out by HANGMAN’S KNOT (Roy Huggins), A LAWLESS STREET (Joseph H. Lewis) and MAN IN THE SADDLE which all do hold their own there.

    After that I do like RIDING SHOTGUN very much (unlike Colin, I guess) and then THUNDER OVER THE PLAINS ahead of the other three. Somehow I’ve seen STRANGER WORE A GUN a lot and though it has a lot of action, I’m more annoyed by the 3-D effects each time–really I think it’s the weakest.
    The truth is that unlike Budd Boetticher, who appreciated Randolph Scott and so got the best from him, De Toth did not think much of the actor, based on his comments in DE TOTH ON DE TOTH (I believe that’s the name of it)..

    So De Toth is a very strong director, and a distinctive one, and for Westerns too (this past winter I got back to DAY OF THE OUTLAW, and it moved me more than ever), but on the whole it’s more for other movies than for his Randolph Scott cycle.

    It’s interesting what Margot said about Phyllis Kirk because De Toth did like her and she’s in a number of his movies, most effectively in CRIME WAVE, which is one of his best. Again, I’m kind of with Jerry on the romantic triangle as an element of the present film that belongs there but will also agree with Colin that the film does not really make the most of it. And Lex Barker is just OK. Charles McGraw for sure adds more as one would expect.

    Re voiceover narration, it’s like anything else, isn’t it? It depends on how it’s used and the purpose it has. Just to point out it can be one of the richest and most essential parts of a great movie–HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is one that jumps out in that respect; the effect of the narration is sublime there.

    Not true of THUNDER OVER THE PLAINS needless to say. One of those written out forwards following the credits would have been fine here.

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    • I’m not too fond of Canadian Pacific, but Hangman’s Knot is very high on my favorite list, I’d say right after the Boetticher films. It’s just a great movie.

      Of course I forgot about Phyllis Kirk in Crime Wave, another favorite Noir and probably my favorite Sterling Hayden role. She was indeed quite good in it.

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    • I need to revisit Carson City and The Stranger Wore a Gun before saying anything definite about either one – I hope to get to the former some time in the next few months, time and other factors permitting.

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      • A review to savour, Colin as it touches on several elements that resonate with me. These include the way you describe Scott and McGraw’s acting personas and how Scott played so well against those charismatic adversaries. De Toth is on a pedestal for me for his work on the great “Ramrod”: its tautness, its sense of foreboding and raw violence. And, of course, you have me wanting to watch “Thunder” again so I’m off right now to find my copy of that three feature set.

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          • I’d love to get your take on Ramrod. For me, it is one of those movies that fills you with wonder on first viewing and seems to only deepen in quality on subsequent viewing. By the way, I’m half way through “Thunder” and thoroughly enjoying it – so pleased your review put me on to it again.

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              • Thanks for the link to the review, Colin – all the way back to 2011! You’ve been maintaining a very high standard for a long time. Your canny, balanced analysis highlights most of what I esteem about “Ramrod” and it has become available in a much better quality transfer than the one you had. The stalking and killing of the Defore character is one of the most chilling sequences you can see in a Western.

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                • Yes, the movie is of course available on Blu-ray these days. Actually, that piece was written earlier than 2011 (possibly 2008 or 2009) and was transferred to the current site along with a whole bunch of previous entries when I shifted to WordPress at the end of that year.

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  6. First things first,before I drift all over the shop, I agree that the Scott De Toth’s do deserve a more detailed critical analysis.
    Voice overs….fine in Noir especially crime thrillers but not so good in Westerns GUNFIGHT AT COMANCHE CREEK being one of the worst offenders as well as being the least of Audie Murphy’s Westerns.
    Overall the Scott/De Toth Westerns are all pretty good. I think the films went out on a fairly high note with RIDING SHOTGUN and THE BOUNTY HUNTER. The former is more of a parody and indeed three cheers for Fritz Feld 🙂 At least the film is slickly made and it MOVES!! I like the way the interiors look out onto real exteriors, not painted backdrops or rear projection. THE BOUNTY HUNTER is good fun as well and I understand a proper restoration is a work in progress with Warners. According to Robert Nott’s very well researched book Last Of The Cowboy Heroes the budget for these Scott Warner titles was $600.000 to $800,000 Scott had a 10 picture deal with the studio earning him $100,000 per picture a considerable sum in those days.

    Regarding an exchange I had with Bert Greene over at Toby’s Hannibal 8 regarding the Sony/Columbia Classic Blu Ray editions, De Toth’s NONE SHALL ESCAPE was released recently. I was not aware of this as this series is generally not reviewed on DVD Beaver or Cinesavant. It’s certainly an early De Toth that I will want and there’s some interesting background detail on imdb. Columbia wanted Paul Lukas to star but De Toth persuaded them to hire Alexander Knox. Knox then suggested Columbia use a more experienced director like Lewis Milestone. This angered Harry Cohn who considered Knox ungrateful. It all worked out OK in the end as De Toth and Knox became good friends and the director used him in other films, notably in the excellent MAN IN THE SADDLE. Interesting note NONE SHALL ESCAPE pre figured events after World War Two although it was made during 1943. Producer Sam Bischoff later produced OPERATION EICHMANN which he rushed out to be topical with the sensational trial at the time. Bischoff needed someone who could work fast, real fast, so he employed our old friend Western expert R.G.Springsteen. Sam Bischoff later teamed with De Toth on THE BOUNTY HUNTER.
    OPERATION EICHMANN is interesting in that it has a lead role (not the title role,I might add) for Donald Buka, an excellent actor with mainly TV credits. He was, however, a considerable force in a couple of my favorite Noirs: THE STREET WITH NO NAME and BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN. He’s one of those actors one wishes had made more big screen appearances. He also appeared in an intriguing low budget indie B Noir STOLEN IDENTITY, again where he had a rare lead role.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some intriguing info and trivia there, John, especially towards the end of your comment – the kind of stuff that will bear looking into now that you’ve aroused my curiosity.

      And on The Bounty Hunter, I now it’s not high on everyone’s list but I rather liked it and I’d certainly be willing to stump up for a restored version should it be released.

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  7. Yes, I agree about “THE BOUNTY HUNTER”, maybe one of Scott’s highlight westerns for Warners. A BluRay of that would be very tempting – as is “RAMROD”, one of my favourite McCrea westerns (and therefore one of my favourite westerns). Just about to check out sending for it.

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    • Wonderful to hear from you, Gord! You’ve been missed and I’m pleased to hear you’re more active online now – mind you, I haven’t been anywhere near as visible myself as I’d like due to a whole range of real world pressures.

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  8. According to the French Western Fansite
    http://www.westernmovies.fr in the forum section,
    HANGMAN’S KNOT is due in May on Blu Ray.
    One of Scott’s top Westerns it should look great in
    high def.
    Sidonis have also announced George Sherman’s
    COUNT THREE AND PRAY which is more Americana than
    Western but still very good.
    I have the Sony USA version and the transfer is excellent,
    I’ve no doubt the Sidonis will be from the same master elements.
    Thankfully Sidonis have stopped “forced” subtitles on their discs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good news all round there, John. I like Hangman’s Knot quite a bit and more Hi-Def Scott is always welcome. And I’m also pleased to hear Sidonis seem to have abandoned that irritating practice – it took them a while to get round to it, but better late than never.

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          • Hi, Colin and Gordon – I watched Hangman’s again a couple of days ago and thought it a fine film, with a strong cast and excellent pacing. Was struck by Lee Marvin’s performance – has there ever been an actor who could better convey a leering, threatening presence around women? The way he delivers that line “Well, she doesn’t have a gun …” after searching the Donna Reed character is priceless.

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            • Indeed. And in a similar vein, that bit of business in the wagon in Seven Men from Now is a superb piece of the filmmaker’s art by Boetticher and only possible with the contributions of an excellent cast, not the least of whom is Marvin.

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      • In my conversations with them, both Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy felt this was the best scene they ever did together, each giving each other a lot of the credit (and of course, they both acknowledged what Lee Marvin brought to it—and to his role more generally; that green scarf was his own idea–he came in with it).

        I have to say that I agree it is the standout scene, even allowing for many other peak Ranown moments, a fair number of those sublime. And even though he eventually came out of his years as a valued supporting actor to be a star, I still feel this was Lee Marvin’s best performance ever.

        Hope you don’t mind if I share my “Defining Moments in Movies” entry on this one, Colin (yes, I took as many great Westerns as I could get), hoping others who love the scene might enjoy reading it. This movie I’ve always loved only became closer to my heart because of my personal efforts on behalf of its restoration, I must acknowledge.

        ***

        Speech
        1956 / Seven Men from Now – The villain tells a story
        USA. Director: Budd Boetticher. Cast: Randolph Scott, Gail Russell, Lee Marvin, Walter Reed.
        Why It’s Key: The much-lauded Ranown cycle hits an early peak in this great sequence, as one of the genre’s most mesmerizing villains takes center stage.

        Elegant in style and masterly in cinematic storytelling from its first frames, the first film of what is now known as the Ranown cycle (six Westerns directed by Boetticher, starring Scott, mostly written by Burt Kennedy, and mostly produced by Ranown, Scott’s own company with Harry Joe Brown) hits the heights during a midpoint nocturnal rain, when the villain Masters (Marvin) tells a story in close quarters inside a wagon while sharing coffee with ex-sheriff Stride (Scott) and John (Reed) and Annie Greer (Russell) as they all travel to Flora Vista. In the story, a wife left a soft man for a tougher one, and Masters sees some parallels. As he has observed, Annie and Stride, though both decent and respectful, have been drawn to each other (for the revenge-seeking Stride, in the wake of the killing of his wife by outlaws). Knowing he hits a nerve in each of the others, the flamboyant Masters – always ostentatious in his bright green scarf – savors his phrases: “Been that way ever since ever I guess….” “Ain’t you interested in what she up and did, Sheriff?” “Yeah, she looked a lot like you ma’am, but not near as pretty.” And as much as he enjoys it, so do we. A whole extra level of complex response to the Ranowns has its first flowering here. The villain can be the villain and yet fascinating, even likeable, and tell some hard truth. This great sequence owes equally to Kennedy’s wonderful writing, Boetticher’s inspired staging and shot breakdown, and Marvin’s playing, never more brilliant than here, as he poses, dominates, takes his time – a Mephistopheles of the range.

        Blake Lucas

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  9. Yes, I agree with all that this was an outstanding scene – low-key, underplayed yet every word utterly gripping. I also agree that this was possibly Lee Marvin’s finest (a fine actor generally anyway). So much is said by the eyes of the four in the wagon.
    It’s nice to be reminded too of that lovely piece of writing by our friend, Blake Lucas.

    “SEVEN MEN FROM NOW” could well be in my half-dozen favourite westerns.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks very much for the kind words Colin, Steve and Jerry.

    Of course, I agree about SEVEN MEN FROM NOW as one of the greatest Westerns. That’s a pretty lofty group and it’s easier for me to name a dozen than half a dozen but it’s always been in that top tier. Really, a fair number in the genre beyond those are magisterial works too.

    Do great movies get better the more one sees them? I’d say they continue to have the same qualities that we probably responded to from the beginning, but as we live with them we know them more deeply and so they become even richer and closer to us.

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    • Yes, that’s nicely put. Just like our relationships with those around us, the more time we spend with movies, the deeper our familiarity and therefore the greater our awareness of all their facets.

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