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Robert Mitchum served as executive producer as well as star of the Western The Wonderful Country (1959), which features what is considered by some to be one of his best and most overlooked performances. Mitchum plays Martin Brady, an aging gunslinger who has fled to Mexico from the U.S. after killing his father's murderer. To carry out an arms deal for his boss, ruthless Governor Castro (Pedro Armendariz), Brady travels to Texas and runs afoul of the U.S. Army when he refuses to help them hunt down Apaches.
This melancholy Western, similar in style to John Ford's The Searchers (1956), draws a portrait of a passing way of life, and of a traditional Western hero who finds that his violent ways have separated him from the pioneering community he helped develop. Mitchum affects a subtle Spanish-Mexican accent to play Brady, whose loyalties to two countries are marked by the dividing line of the Rio Grande, which he frequently crosses.
Singer Julie London provides Mitchum's love interest as the sultry, restless wife of an Army major. Baseball hero "Satchel" Paige has a cameo role as the leader of an Afro-American unit of the U.S. army. And Tom Lea, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, has a bit part as a barber who gives Mitchum a shave. Lea, a well-known Texas artist as well as a writer (he also wrote The Brave Bulls), passed his time on the set sketching Mitchum. He later recalled his involvement in the film in Lee Server's biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care: "We thought the perfect guy for the part would be Henry Fonda, but he wasn't interested at all. And then we went to see Gregory Peck, and he had just married a very nice French girl and he wasn't interested. And Bob [Parrish] had done a picture with Mitchum before, and Mitchum said he was interested. And Mitchum had a very sharp lawyer, and finally he took the whole thing over. And it might interest you to know that the only pay I ever got for the use of my novel was what I made acting a bit part in the movie. And I decided to make that my last experience with Hollywood. The hell with this! I thought. But I got to like Mitchum. And Bob Parrish was a fine man."
The Wonderful Country was filmed in and around Durango which at that time was "full of bars and hookers and that's about it," according to co-star Anthony Caruso. Mitchum, of course, was in his element and would hang out after hours with his stunt double "Bad Chuck" Roberson at the local cantinas. One night the duo actually witnessed a fatal shooting in a bar and reported the incident to the local police. For the most part though, the shoot was relaxed and the occasion for many practical jokes, usually at Mitchum's expense (for a bathing sequence, a cast member dumped a bucket of ice water over Mitchum's naked body instead of the expected lukewarm water).
When The Wonderful Country opened nationally, it passed virtually unnoticed among the major film releases of that year. Yet some critics praised it as a lyrical and beautifully shot Western and it's much more highly regarded today. According to Kathie Parrish, wife of the director, in Lee Server's biography, "Mitchum came over to the house once after the picture, and he was trying to tell Bob that he liked the picture, that it had been a good experience and it was a good picture. And it was just so difficult for him. He could not say that he was grateful or that he loved you. It embarrassed him to show emotion, affection, even with Dottie [Mitchum's wife]. He could come on to girls and all that, but real emotion was difficult. He'd take a drink instead."
Producer: Chester Erskine, Robert Mitchum (executive producer)
Director: Robert Parrish
Screenplay: Robert Ardrey, Walter Bernstein (uncredited), from novel by Tom Lea
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby, Alex Phillips
Production Design: Harry Horner
Original Music: Alex North
Editing: Michael Luciano
Costume Design: Mary Wills
Principal Cast: Robert Mitchum (Martin Brady), Julie London (Helen Colton), Gary Merrill (Maj. Stark Colton), Albert Dekker (Texas Ranger Capt. Rucker), Jack Oakie (Travis Hyte), Charles McGraw (Dr. Herbert J. Stovall).
by Roger Fristoe