A Neglected Western: ‘Colorado Territory’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Colorado Territory, a remake of the High Sierra plot, is an early masterpiece of the pessimistic Western. It retains the High Sierra story and works variations on most of that film’s characters. But some significant changes are also made and the result, on the whole, is much more impressive. While High Sierra was set at the end of Dillinger-style gangsterism, Colorado Territory is given a setting that evokes the end of the Wild West. The Bogart figure is now Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea), “just a big Kansas jay,” escaping from jail and getting involved in one last train robbery. The Joan Leslie character becomes Julie Ann Winslow (Dorothy Malone), who is sexier and nastier than Velma was and who thus becomes a key to this version’s darker psychology. Velma’s father moves West for a better life and so does Julie Ann’s, but the latter’s dream paradise turns out to be a desert. The sentimentally symbolic dog of High Sierra is absent here, while the geographical symbolism is developed much more fully. Colorado (Virginia Mayo) is a disillusioned refugee of “the dancehall,” like her High Sierra counterpart (Ida Lupino), but here she is much more than a highly emotional spectator. High Sierra‘s cynical reporter (Jerome Cowan) is understandably missing here, but it’s intriguing to think of Brother Tomas (Frank Puglia), who watches over an all but abandoned mission, as his replacement.

Even more than White Heat (which was released three months later), Colorado Territory has a wasteland setting. At times, High Sierra has a bucolic sense of nature, and its big mountain becomes the setting for a last gasp of “lefthanded” heroism that never quite comes off. Like Roy Earle, Wes McQueen dreams of settling down on a farm; whereas Earle strolls in the park after his release, McQueen is seen bolting through a field of high corn just after his escape. But Winslow’s dried-out ranch sets the topographical tone of much of Colorado Territory. The gang’s hideout is in an abandoned town carved out of the side of a mountain, “a dead city, hangin’ in space.” It’s “the back end of nothin'” where whites and Indians have killed each other off, with the scorpions getting the remainder and an earthquake getting them. This sense of absolute waste, of “the back end of nothin’,” carries over into the film’s preoccupation with fate and death. McQueen is told very early on that “You’re branded to the bone as one of the herd,” and Colorado and Duke (James Mitchell), an anachronistically articulate little outlaw, separately continue the film’s invocations of doom. Death, meanwhile, is often given a touch of cold, black humor in the dialogue (“one more double shuffle and you’re dead meat”; “prettiest little bone orchard you ever did see—little stone angels”) and in the visual detail (when McQueen finds the dead gangleader, the corpse is covered with a sheet but the right arm is hanging out). All of this converges in McQueen’s ultimate realization that “we’re just a couple of fools in a dead village makin’ plans about somethin’ that’ll never happen,” and in his death and Colorado’s.

But before that, of course, there is a struggle. Although McQueen and Colorado are increasingly drawn to each other as the action moves along, they represent contrasting attitudes toward the fate that confronts them in the film. “Y’ can bust out of jail or a mudhole, y’ can’t bust outta what ya are,” says Colorado; “Ya can if ya set yourself to it,” insists McQueen. He slugs the man who tells him he’s “branded to the bone,” and this defiance continues until events persuade him otherwise. McQueen ranks with Cody Jarrett as a Walsh protagonist whose struggles have a metaphysical dimension. But he also bears comparison with Eddie Bartlett in his disregard for “what ya are.” Like Bartlett and Roy Earle, McQueen falls for the wrong woman and his choice is all the more ironic here because Dorothy Malone’s Julie Ann has only a little of the conventional goodness that was so blatant in Priscilla Lane’s Jean and Joan Leslie’s Velma. In contrast to Earle, McQueen gives his money to the girl’s father, not for an operation on Velma’s crippled foot, but the drilling of a much-needed well on the older man’s arid property. McQueen is a skeptic about money: “I’ve been rich,” he says in jail, “and I couldn’t get a breath of fresh air or feel the ground under my feet.” And yet, perversely, he is an irresponsible optimist when it comes to his own identity: “I got another life to get rid of—won’t take but a few days.” Our sense of his self-delusion is heightened by a Freudian slip which only emphasizes the devastating hold that the past has on him: he calls Julie Ann by the name of his lost love, Martha, at one point; whereas Roy Earle talked in his sleep of “that sweet Indiana farm,” McQueen mumbles the name of the woman he mistakenly hopes to rediscover in Julie Ann.

Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo with the gang

More of a pessimist than McQueen, Colorado nevertheless defies fate, too—in ways that arguably place her at the heart of the film. She invokes loyalty as an alternative to the sense of doom that haunts Duke, and while the latter responds only with scorn, her loyalty to McQueen is all that either of them has left when they are killed. The two plan to marry, but separate in the process of escape; when McQueen is trapped, she returns—on foot—to aid him. Whereas Marie’s dog draws Roy Earle out into the line of fire, Colorado herself is duped into drawing McQueen out into the open. But where Marie is helpless and distraught, Colorado is defiant: she fires on the posse with both guns. The two lovers die together, and the camera moves in after the fusillade to show McQueen’s hand clutching hers in death, Earlier, McQueen had scratched a charmingly awkward disclaimer on the wall of his cave hideout, “THE GIRL IS NOT GUILTY WITH ME.” But this proves to be another of McQueen’s evasions. In a life where you “can’t bust outta what ya are” and where destruction is inevitable, Colorado’s loyalty and the death she more or less chooses for them are all the meaning they have.

As such, Colorado Territory is closer to the melancholy romantic ballad on an outlaw couple than High Sierra is, but it is also richer in social ironies. Pluther (Harry Woods), a detective turned outlaw, operates as the film’s counterpart to the Barton MacLane character in High Sierra and thus brings a hint of big-city corruption to the decline of the Wild West. Homer Wallace (Ian Wolfe), a decided improvement on the Cornel Wilde character of the earlier film, is the antithesis of McQueen’s frontiersman: nervous, bourgeois, pointedly uncomfortable with horses, respectable (“a family man, a lodge man”). His betrayal of McQueen and the others planning the train robbery evokes the greed and self-serving lack of honor which McQueen and the movie seem to associate with the world of business. And that feeling is echoed in Wallace’s wife, who says, “I told him he’d be sorry he took them fellers in on it—just makes less for him.” The jolly friar, Brother Tomas, also provides an ironic note, though the movie seems to see the man himself in a kindly light. Tomas watches over the rundown mission; McQueen and Colorado come to him when they want to get married. He cannot perform the ceremony (since he’s not actually a priest), but without his knowledge, the roof of the mission’s confessional becomes the hiding-place for the money stolen from the train. At the end of the film, after the shot of the dead couple’s hands, we return to the mission, where Brother Tomas is joyfully ringing a bell paid for by “a happy couple who passed this way.” The irony of naïve joy juxtaposed with two violent deaths is, of course, compounded by the prospect of a mission revived with stolen money. More than in The Roaring Twenties, there is a distinct gap between conventional religion and the meaning of the protagonists’ lives.

‘Colorado Territory’

This sense of a social environment that is at once hostile and indifferent links Colorado Territory with the perverse ironies of White Heat. Both films end in violent death and both happen to have late, futile confrontations between the Virginia Mayo character and the law (“No deal—lock her up” in White Heat; “The law don’t bargain” in Colorado Territory). But while White Heat obviously has the closer ties with contemporary America, Colorado Territory‘s more mythical drama provides a richer response to the culture. White Heat‘s perverse ironies seem especially suited to a highly mechanized world in which humanistic values are decaying, while Colorado Territory juggles myth and realism in a way that challenges a whole series of conventional American pieties about the power of the individual, the value of commerce, the goodness of the land, the importance of religion. It is not an all-out assault on America or its myths, but its consistently ironic approach to the Western form make it surprisingly articulate about the melancholy that hovers over it. Much of the credit for this must go to John Twist’s screenplay. But while it has few of the personal touches of a Walsh film, Colorado Territory looks especially good alongside High Sierra and Pursued: all three movies have serious-minded scripts, but only here has Walsh found an overall form for the film that is completely in tune with the writer’s efforts.

COLORADO TERRITORY
Warner Brothers, 1949. Screenplay: John Twist and Edmund H. North, after the novel High Sierra by W.R. Burnett. Cinematography: Sid Hickox. Art direction: Ted Smith. Editing: Owen Marks. Music: David Buttolph. Production: Anthony Veiller.
The players: Joel McCrea (Wes McQueen), Virginia Mayo (Colorado Carson), Dorothy Malone (Julie Ann), Henry Hull (Winslow, her father), John Archer (Reno Blake), James Mitchell (Duke), Basil Ruysdael (the old boss), Harry Woods (Pluther), Ian Wolfe (the railroad man), Frank Puglia (the monk), Morris Ankrum, Housely Stevenson, Victor Killian, Oliver Blake.

Copyright © 1975 Peter Hogue


2 Comments

  • Kevin Hagopian

    April 29, 2015

    What a joy to read Peter’s Movietone News pieces again. This is topflight film criticism, and deserves this encore.

  • Bill White

    May 4, 2015

    Better than High Sierra? You’re kidding.

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