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The fine line between historical fact and legend becomes blurred in Fighting Man of the Plains (1949). Randolph Scott plays Jim Dancer, a former Quantrill raider who kills an unarmed man he wrongly holds responsible for his brother's death during an attack. Years later a detective tracks Dancer down and captures him. Thanks to a twist of fate, Dancer gets a second chance. He lands in Lanyard, Kansas, where his gun skills so impress the locals that they appoint him town marshal. Soon Dancer runs up against the corrupt and deadly Dave Oldham (Victor Jory) and is joined in his battle for justice by Jesse James (played by Dale Robertson as a heroic good guy) and Florence Peel (Jane Nigh), a kind-hearted saloon hostess.
Scott had settled into the role of western hero by the time he made Fighting Man of the Plains. He appeared in his first western in 1929 as an extra in The Virginian and he would give his final film performance in a western - Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962). Fighting Man of the Plains came near the mid-point of Scott's career and was one of the only times that he played an outright killer. In the film, Scott plays a member of Quantrill's Raiders, a real life group of Confederate supporters who used guerrilla tactics during the Civil War.
The group was led by former schoolteacher William Quantrill, who was commissioned as a Confederate Captain, though he always operated outside the chain of command. Quantrill led his men in ambushes against Union patrols and supply convoys; he also conducted raids against civilians. In one such attack, on August 21, 1863, Quantrill's Raiders killed 183 men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas (a pro-Union stronghold). This infamous assault is depicted in the opening scenes of Fighting Man of the Plains. Quantrill would be killed by Union forces in 1865, but his raiders would ride on. The Younger brothers, as well as Frank and Jesse James, were all members of Quantrill's forces. After the war, they would apply his guerilla training to bank robberies.
Dale Robertson plays Jesse James in Fighting Man of the Plains. This version of the story cast James in a heroic light; he helps his old pal Dancer clean up a lawless town. Robertson had appeared in just a handful of films for Warner Bros. before Fighting Man of the Plains but his performance in the film led 20th-Century-Fox to sign him to a contract. When Robertson's portrayal of Jesse James drew rave reviews in the preview cards and fan mail, he followed up Fighting Man of the Plains with another Randolph Scott western, The Cariboo Trail (1950).Robertson's first leading role arrived with the college drama Take Care of My Little Girl (1951) in which he played opposite Jeanne Crain. Nevertheless, Robertson built his career on westerns, most of which were B-movies. Some of his more memorable entries include The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1952) with Anne Baxter and Miriam Hopkins, Devil's Canyon (1953), co-starring Virginia Mayo, and the Little Big Horn narrative Sitting Bull (1954). He occasionally ventured out of the western genre to tackle roles such as Sinbad in Son of Sinbad (1955). In the fifties, Robertson took his western persona to the small screen. He appeared in a number of TV series, most notably Tales of Wells Fargo in which Robertson starred from 1957 to 1962.
Along with its accomplished cast, Fighting Man of the Plains also had the expertise of two frequent western contributors behind it director Edwin L. Marin and writer Frank Gruber. Marin helmed seven Randolph Scott westerns, along with Tall in the Saddle (1944) which starred John Wayne and the outlaw saga The Younger Brothers (1949). Novelist and screenwriter Gruber published dozens of western stories, many of which were adapted for the big screen, including the Buffalo Bill-Wild Bill Hickok yarn Pony Express (1953) and Alan Ladd's The Big Land (1957). Gruber also became a very busy TV writer in later years; he created the series Shotgun Slade as well as Dale Robertson's Tales of Wells Fargo.
Producer: Nat Holt, Harry Howard
Director: Edwin L. Marin
Screenplay: Frank Gruber
Cinematography: Fred Jackman, Jr.
Film Editing: Philip Martin
Art Direction: George Van Marter
Music: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Randolph Scott (Jim Dancer), Bill Williams (Marshal Johnny Tancred), Victor Jory (Dave Oldham), Jane Nigh (Florence Peel), Douglas Kennedy (Kenneth Vedder), Joan Taylor (Evelyn Slocum).
by Stephanie Thames