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Warner Brothers' Along the Great Divide (1951) was the first western for Kirk Douglas, then only five years into his film career and known principally to moviegoers for his gritty roles in such downbeat urban dramas as Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947) and Mark Robson's Champion (1949). Locked into a one-picture-a-year contract with Warners, Douglas jumped into the project simply as a matter of contractual obligation so he would be free for loan-outs to other studios. The actor hated making Along the Great Divide, from shooting on location in the hostile high desert surrounding Lone Pine, California, to working with director Raoul Walsh. In his 1988 autobiography The Ragman's Son, Douglas characterized Walsh as "a brutal man" who, it seemed to him, derived an almost sexual gratification from the spectacle of violence. Douglas also resented Walsh's brusque and alienating directing style, which ran the gamut from calling "cut" without actually having watched the scene to tearing pages from the script to bring the project back on-schedule. "Critics always talk about how Raoul Walsh movies have such great pace," Douglas opined in his memoir. "They have great pace because he was always in a hurry to finish them."
A rejoinder of sorts to William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), which ends with the lynching of three innocent men, Along the Great Divide pits Douglas' US marshal against a necktie party of concerned citizens as he attempts to bring accused murderer Walter Brennan to a fair trial across the burning Wyoming prairie. Though the actor was unimpressed with the script's Oedipal inclinations (something of a trademark for Walsh, whose protagonists during this time were often plagued by mother or father issues) he did enjoy learning the craft of cowboying, from using a six-gun to handling a horse. Raoul Walsh had come to the project on the heels of shooting the expansive Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) abroad. Having finished Bretaigne Windust's studio-bound The Enforcer (1951) for Warners (for which he declined credit), Walsh was more than ready to be out in the elements, specifically the Mojave Desert, where he had staged the climax of High Sierra (1941) some years earlier.
Walter Doniger had called his original story "Along the Great Divide" but the film went into production on October 16, 1950 as The Travelers. Adapting the tale with Lewis Meltzer, Doniger kept the Warners research department busy with a battery of questions related to Wyoming history, water rights, frontier jurisprudence and issues of physical accuracy: how long could a horse and rider survive without water in the high desert and could a single horseman outrun a stagecoach? Wrapped on November 25, 1950 and shunted into movie theaters on June 6, 1951, the film garnered mixed reviews. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther found Douglas' performance "just a little shy of absurd" while allowing that "like initiation into a fraternity, it seems that every young male star must do at least one performance in a western." Deserving of reevaluation today on the strength of its own dramatic and technical merits (particularly the cinematography of Sid Hickox), Along the Great Divide points intriguingly to other transporting-the-prisoner films, a pan-genre subcategory that includes Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin (1952), Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur (1953), , Delmer Daves' 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Clint Eastwood's The Gauntlet (1977), Stephen Frears' The Hit (1984) and David Twohy's Pitch Black (2000).
Producer: Anthony Veiller
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Walter Doniger, Lewis Meltzer (screenplay); Walter Doniger (story)
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Music: David Buttolph
Film Editing: Thomas Reilly
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Marshal Len Merrick), Virginia Mayo (Ann Keith), John Agar (Billy Shear), Walter Brennan (Timothy 'Pop' Keith), Ray Teal (Deputy Lou Gray), Hugh Sanders (Frank Newcombe), Morris Ankrum (Ed Roden), James Anderson (Dan Roden), Charles Meredith (Judge Marlowe).
BW-88m. Closed Captioning.
by Richard Harland Smith
The Ragman's Son: An Autobiography by Kirk Douglas (Simon &U Schuster, 1988)
The Films of Kirk Douglas by Tony Thomas (Citadel Press, 1991)
Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director by Marilyn Ann Moss (The University Press of Kentucky, 2011)