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These Thousand Hills

These Thousand Hills(1959)

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Was there ever an odder body of work than Richard Fleischer's? The recently-deceased director (son of Popeye and Betty Boop animator Max Fleischer), was an animator himself before making all kinds of features, from good to horrendous. There were strong B-noirs like The Narrow Margin and Armored Car Robbery; decent studio thrillers like Compulsion and The Boston Strangler; gimmicky popcorn movies like Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Dolittle and Soylent Green; the Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora!, for which he did the U.S. sequences; the cheese of Che! and Mandingo; interesting crime stories like 10 Rillington Place and Mr. Majestyk; and, finally, such out-and-out 1980s schlock as the Jazz Singer remake, Red Sonja and Million Dollar Mystery.

There's little rhyme or reason here. Aside from a flair for thrillers, Fleischer showed little consistent directorial touch, yet studios kept hiring to do other sorts of movies. Movies like These Thousand Hills. This 1959 release, new on DVD (its home video debut), wasn't Fleischer's only western, but a rare one. And a fairly undistinguished one, too. Based on a book by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., the western novelist and screenwriter (Shane), the Montana-set These Thousand Hills appears to be an attempt at a wide-reaching, Giant sort of epic that covers a big chunk of time and takes its characters through a rugged emotional journey. But, despite Fox giving it a widescreen CinemaScope treatment, the results are very half-hearted. At only 96 minutes, the would-be epic skips around like a rock tossed across the surface of a lake, while protagonist Lat Evans (Don Murray) hardly seems majestic, partially as a consequence of Murray's limitations and the story's superficiality.

Murray, known almost exclusively these days from his role opposite Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop, tries, but he doesn't really have the charisma to put across Lat, the ambitious wrangler and bronc-buster who, after helping to drive his boss' herd to town, sticks around to pursue good-time gal Callie (Lee Remick) and his dream of having his own ranch. Lat's plan to overcome the harsh Montana winters by growing hay on his land and feeding it to his cattle in the winter works, and a year later he's one of the biggest ranchers and most-respected men in the area. But instead of making an honest woman out of Callie, he eventually takes up with the local banker's proper niece (Patricia Owens), betrays the fellow cowboy he'd made his partner (Stuart Whitman) and starts a political career.

Although there's external conflict here, mainly between Lat and Jehu (Richard Egan), the fellow rancher Callie pushed aside when Lat came along, it's internal conflict that's more important, leading to Lat's climactic evaluation of whether he likes his image-conscious "successful" self more than his old self. But These Thousand Hills is too shallow to get that deep into internal dilemmas. While there should be a truckload of passion between Lat and Callie, there isn't, because Murray and Remick have little chemistry together and because the movie never lets them get very physical (there's one post-coital conversation when he's lying in bed and she's brushing her hair, but they're both fully dressed). His obligation to her seems mostly because she gave him her savings to use as seed money for the ranch, after the local banker wouldn't give him a loan. The bond between Lat and Whitman's Tom unintentionally feels much more intimate (their horseplay wrestling is more physical than anything we see Lat and Callie get up to), and Whitman brings some needed fire to the story. Souring the story even more is an insincere resolution in which, after a climax forcing Lat to choose between his old integrity and the economic and emotional comforts of his new life, he (of course) chooses integrity yet, incredibly, loses little of anything in the process.

Of the three new-to-video 'Scope westerns Fox just released on DVD, this is definitely the least (The Last Wagon with Richard Widmark and The Proud Ones with Robert Ryan are the others). As on those discs, galleries of ads, posters and production photos provide the extras.

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by Paul Sherman