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Gary Cooper's return to the western following his Academy Award-winning performance in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952) plays like a superhero origin tale, forestalling the first appearance of the eponymous Springfield Rifle (1952) for seventy-five of the film's ninety-five minutes in order to show the need for the revolutionary breach-loading ordnance as a game-changer in the American Civil War. Prior to 1864, combatants in the War Between the States made use of "muzzle loaders" not greatly different than what Davy Crockett had employed at the Siege of the Alamo thirty years earlier. The single-shot musket allowed the shooter only 3 to 4 volleys per minute, depending on the speed of reloading, whereas the Springfield (a modification of a previous rifled musket) permitted 8 to 10 shots, giving a company of fifty men the firing power of five times that number. Adapting Sloan Nibley's original story, Charles Marquis Warren (later a producer on the Gunsmoke TV series) and Frank Davis (Oscar®-nominated screenwriter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945) place the rifle's combat debut within the context of wartime espionage and counter-espionage, at a point in the conflict's timeline when the Confederacy maintained a strong advantage over the Union.
Legally separated from wife Sandra Shaw (the false Fay Wray awakened and dropped screaming to her death by King Kong in 1933), licking his wounds from a soured affair with actress Patricia Neal (his costar in The Fountainhead, 1949), suffering from stomach ulcers, and certain that any assignment post-High Noon was sure to be a disappointment, Gary Cooper came to Springfield Rifle with little enthusiasm. The actor's cynicism at least worked in favor of his casting as a decorated Union officer who, to ferret out a traitor within his own ranks, submits to an ersatz court-martial branding him as a coward and a Southern-sympathizing "copperhead" and sending him back into civilian life as an ostensible gun-for-hire. Falling in with privateer David Brian's cadre of raiders, renegades, and Kansas Jayhawkers (whose number include Lon Chaney, Jr., Fess Parker, and Alan Hale, Jr.), who are making a handsome profit stealing Union horses to sell to the Confederacy, Cooper's anguished double agent must risk exposure by his new-found comrades while brooking the contumely of his former blue bellies (among them Phil Carey, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, and Martin Milner) and the disillusionment of dutiful wife Phyllis Thaxter.
Clearly inspired by Anthony Mann's superior Winchester '73 (1950), Springfield Rifle is not in the same league but remains a rousing and suspenseful programmer for the duration of its running time. If Cooper lacks a worthy costar, the supporting cast of contract players nonetheless keeps the viewer guessing as to whom the protagonist can trust, bestowing upon this oater the nervous energy of a crime thriller. Director André De Toth and his screenwriters complicate the "inside man" plot by having Cooper encounter sympathetic soldiers on the Confederate side, men willing to extend him the kindness denied him by his Union brethren. The filmmakers also stage an action setpiece near the hour mark that dispenses with two major characters (imagine White Heat's (1949) Cody Jarrett dying before the third act and leaving control of his outlaw gang to undercover cop Edmond O'Brien). One likes to think Cooper, so used to embodying taciturn western heroes, appreciated the opportunity to play a character who must appear villainous; the 51 year-old actor enjoys two extended fight scenes, the second of which ends with him slashing an "Arkansas toothpick" across the buttocks of scoundrel Lon Chaney as a caution against mistreating his mount.
Shot on location in Lone Pine, California, and on the desert floor below snow-capped Mount Whitney, Springfield Rifle suspended filming temporarily when mushroom clouds appeared on the horizon from atomic testing in Nevada. (Eight atomic devices were detonated as part of Operation Tumbler-Snapper during the two months of location shooting, between April and June 1952.) Star Cooper mitigated the effects of location tedium by fortifying himself with Jack Daniels and regaling cast and crew at the end of each day with Shakespearean recitations. Cut free in the summer of 1952, he headed to Alaska for bear hunting, after which he spent time abroad, traveling to Fiji to make Mark Robson's Return to Paradise (1953) and to Mexico for Hugo Fregonese's Blowing Wild (1953) with Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Hathaway's Garden of Evil (1954) with Susan Hayward and Richard Widmark, and Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954) with Burt Lancaster. The actor returned Stateside to star in Otto Preminger's The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) and returned to the western genre in Anthony Mann's Man of the West (1958) before his death from cancer in 1961.
by Richard Harland Smith
Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers (Cooper Square Press, 2001)
Gary Cooper by David Thomson (Faber & Faber, 2010)
Historical Dictionary of the U.S. Army by Jerold E. Brown (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001)