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Louis L'Amour was one of the most popular and prolific writers of literature set in the American West, turning out more than 100 works between the 1930s and his death in 1988. His earliest writings were poems and short stories, but in the 1950s he began to produce best-selling novels, including Hondo, one of his first stories to make it to the screen (it became a huge hit for John Wayne in 1953). The Burning Hills was published in 1956 and adapted to film within just a few months.
Apparently, Warner Brothers didn't want to bank its money solely on a tried-and-true revenge theme from a successful writer. The studio also banked on the box office potential of two of its most popular young stars, Natalie Wood and Tab Hunter, a ploy to appeal to the youth audience. By this point in her career, Wood had successfully made the transition from wide-eyed, adorable child star to beautiful adult actress without missing a beat, thanks to her roles in such critical and commercial successes as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Searchers (1956). It didn't matter much to her fans that she was completely miscast in this film as a half-Mexican girl. In fact, it may have served her well as an early audition for her later role as a Puerto Rican girl in West Side Story (1961). Reviews at the time noted she did a satisfactory job in The Burning Hills but several noted her questionable accent.
Like any young starlet, Wood was frequently linked romantically to any number of young male actors, among them Hunter, at the height of his popularity around this time. Although the "romance," like so many others in Hollywood history, was a fabrication of the studio for publicity purposes, as late as 1984, Lana Wood, in a biography of her sister, gave some credence to it, noting Hunter was one of many boys courting her big sister and the only one their mother liked. The younger Wood's claims may have been motivated more by discretion since her book was released some 20 years before Tab Hunter's own autobiography finally confirmed what had been an open secret in Hollywood for decades - his homosexuality. In 1956, however, linking its stars as a hot young couple went a long way toward boosting the box office of The Burning Hills and the Wood-Hunter picture that immediately followed, The Girl He Left Behind (1956).
The story follows Hunter's efforts to avenge the murder of his brother by a cruel, wealthy cattle baron. But the avenger becomes the hunted when the baron's son and henchmen pursue him into the hills of the title. Along the way he meets Wood, whose father was also murdered by the same man, and must decide whether to take her with him, possibly hindering his escape, or leave her to a desperate fate as the gunmen catch up.
Reviewers acknowledged the appeal of the stars to teen audiences, but it was the supporting cast that got the most praise. As the cattle baron's vicious son, former child star Skip Homeier brought some of the wickedness he displayed as a Nazi youth in his film debut at the age of 14 in Tomorrow, the World! (1944). Stern-faced character actor Eduard Franz also stands out as a veteran tracker who helps the duo.
L'Amour's novel, first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, was adapted to the screen by Irving Wallace, later a best-selling author of such books as The Prize and The Chapman Report. Producer Richard Whorf started out as a stage and screen actor in the 1930s and took up directing in 1944; this was the first of three films he produced. The Burning Hills was directed by Stuart Heisler, who had directed a 14-year-old Natalie Wood in her role as Bette Davis's daughter in The Star (1952). Heisler's other films include the Alan Ladd film noir The Glass Key (1942) and the Susan Hayward vehicle Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947).
Director: Stuart Heisler
Producer: Richard Whorf
Screenplay: Irving Wallace, based on a novel by Louis L'Amour
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Editing: Clarence Kolster
Art Direction: Charles H. Clarke
Original Music: David Buttolph
Cast: Tab Hunter (Trace Jordan), Natalie Wood (Maria Colton), Skip Homeier (Jack Sutton), Eduard Franz (Jacob Lantz), Earl Holliman (Mort Bayliss).
by Rob Nixon