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Before achieving cultural immortality with his TV series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), writer Rod Serling had already gained fame with a number of celebrated small-screen dramas, including Requiem for a Heavyweight (1957) and Patterns (1955). Rising to the peak of his form, it was inevitable that Serling would be recruited by Hollywood, and that opportunity came in the form of the 1958 Western Saddle the Wind.
Adapted from a story by Thomas Thompson, Saddle the Wind involves reformed gunslinger Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor), who has settled into a new life as a rancher, working alongside his former boss, cattle baron Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp). The harmony of the open range is disturbed when Steve's "gun-happy, loco" kid brother, Tony (John Cassavetes), comes home with a dance hall bride (Julie London) and a hair-trigger Colt revolver.
When Tony encounters a stone-faced gunman (Charles McGraw), who is looking to settle an old grudge with Steve, the "strutting, itchy-fingered little monster" gets the better of the vengeance-seeker in a barroom showdown. Once uncorked, Tony's violent tendencies cannot be controlled. He taunts a group of squatters led by an embittered Civil War veteran, Clay Ellison (Royal Dano), who is looking to farm the land once owned by his father. After Ellison becomes another casualty of Tony's unpredictable rage, Tony commits an unpardonable sin: he turns his gun on Deneen. As a posse is formed to bring Tony to justice, Steve realizes that he too must stand on the side of the law, even if it forces him into a violent confrontation with his homicidal younger brother.
In the biography Serling: The Rise and Fall of Television's Last Angry Man, author Gordon F. Sander suggests that Serling looked at his first movie assignment as something of a lark, mocking Saddle the Wind by calling it "Stop the Fart," and commenting, "I gave better dialogue to the horses than the actors."
It was not the most plum assignment he could have hoped for. Taylor was a serious, inexpressive actor, and it was a challenging task to craft a lively adventure film around his persona. It was reportedly Serling's idea to pit him against the volatile, unconventional Cassavetes. Director Robert Parrish recalled, "I remember once he said, 'Jesus, we got this square star' -- Taylor was square as a post, see? -- 'Let's get this guy I know called Cassavetes. To have him and Robert Taylor in the same picture will either be a total disaster, or it will have something interesting to it."
Serling biographer Sander preferred to call it, "an interesting disaster." Slightly more kind, The New York Times called it, "interesting rather than walloping."
"Taylor wasn't difficult," Sander quotes Parrish as saying, "He was just boring. And the more wooden he got, the more 'Actors Studio' Cassavetes would get, just to annoy him. Cassavetes was always respectful, but you knew he was putting on Taylor all the time."
Like Serling, Cassavetes had come from television, and was cautious not to be seduced by Hollywood's talent-grinding allure. Also like Serling, he did not appear to take the project very seriously.
"He was a terrific pain in the ass in the beginning," remembered co-star Richard Erdman, "John was pretty defiant, kind of paranoid about Hollywood. He was pretty distant until about halfway through."
According to Fine, Cassavetes would impede production if he strongly disagreed about the filming of a particular scene, and describes a specific example from early in the shoot. "Parrish had his location picked out, but while driving to it, Cassavetes spotted a field of wildflowers and declared that this was where he wanted to do the scene. Parrish decided it would be impractical. In retaliation, Erdman remembered, Cassavetes stretched out a tracking shot on horseback to almost twenty takes by mumbling or otherwise refusing to play the scene. Eventually the scene was cut."
Cassavetes's diabolical performance garnered largely positive praise, but viewers couldn't help but feel the New York-born Greek-American seemed out of place in the Old West. Time Magazine called him, "a Stanislavsky-type buckaroo who looks sort of lost in all those wide-open spaces." Newsweek had a similar reaction: "Cassavetes...talks and looks about as Western as a member of the switchblade set."
In an interview with Ray Carney, Cassavetes recalled his transformation from city boy to cowboy. "Somebody spread a report I was the greatest rider alive. Why, I couldn't ride at all! They hoisted me aboard this four-legged package of muscled dynamite and I got thrown so fast I bounced before I hit. I got hoisted up again and got bounced again into the wild blue yonder. A third time up, and this time I grabbed that horse's mane and yelled, 'You four-legged so-and-so, I'm gonna ride you and you're gonna like it!' Well, I rode him sure enough, but the way that horse carried on I guess neither of us liked it. Maybe he figured like I did, 'Well, it's a living.'" (Cassavetes on Cassavetes ).
Co-star Julie London was at the peak of her sultry singing career when she appeared in Saddle the Wind. At the time of the film's release, she was named most popular female vocalist for the third consecutive year by Billboard Magazine. Her one song in the film - "Saddle the Wind," music by Jay Livingston, lyrics by Ray Evans - failed to appear on the pop charts.
John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock , Gunfight at the O.K. Corral ) is said to have directed portions of the film, without credit.
Saddle the Wind won respectable reviews, but never rose above the status of a conventional Western made for undiscriminating audiences. "Rod Serling's screenplay is colorful and exciting," Variety wrote, "and director Robert Parrish has kept it keyed high for a fast, exciting picture that will have particular appeal to younger ticket buyers."
Serling's script was frequently singled out for praise upon the film's release. The New York Times remarked, "The emphasis is on talk. And the dialogue -- whether Mr. Serling's or his source's -- is excellent, blunt, thoughtful and scathing, in turn. The picture is worth seeing simply to hear what these people will say next."
Serling's script for Saddle the Wind earned him a $250,000, four-picture contract with MGM. He went on to work on the screenplays of such memorable films as Seven Days in May (1964) and Planet of the Apes (1968), but his heart does not seem to have been in screenwriting. Television was Serling's forte, and to television he always returned, and there his greatest accomplishments were achieved.
Director: Robert Parrish
Producer: Armand Deutsch
Screenplay: Rod Serling
Based on a story by Thomas Thompson
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Production Design: Malcolm Brown and William A. Horning
Cast: Robert Taylor (Steve Sinclair), John Cassavetes (Tony Sinclair), Julie London (Joan Blake), Donald Crisp (Dennis Deneen), Royal Dano (Clay Ellison), Richard Erdman (Dallas Hanson), Charles McGraw (Larry Venables).
C-84m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Bret Wood
Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film  by Marshall Fine
Cassavetes on Cassavetes