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Some of the most memorable American Westerns have come from the frequent collaboration of actor and director. Although not as well known as the works of John Wayne and John Ford, or James Stewart and Anthony Mann, the films made by actor Randolph Scott and director Oscar "Budd" Boetticher rank among the genre's finest creations. The last of seven films together (including Seven Men From Now, 1956 and The Tall T 1957), Comanche Station (1960), represents the full flowering of their collaboration, a rousing film that - in its taut 73 minutes - employs complex characters and finely-crafted narrative to explore the codes of honor and survival on the American frontier.
While many of the films of its decade tended to reshape the myths of the American West, Comanche Station honors the conventions and ideology of the traditional Western, without being trapped by its stereotypical elements.
Scott stars as Jefferson Cody, a bounty hunter of sorts who frequently ventures into hostile territories to retrieve women who have been captured by Native American warriors. After "purchasing" Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates) from Comanches, Cody escorts her back to her husband to retrieve the $5,000 reward. En route to Lordsburg, they meet up with three gunmen who are
fleeing a band of attacking Comanches. Ben Lane (Claude Akins), the leader of the trio, is also a bounty hunter, albeit one without a trace of conscience or sympathy. Riding in his shadow are Frank (Skip Homeier) and Dobie (Richard Rust), two inexperienced youths who follow Lane out of a
thirst for adventure and lack of moral guidance. Mistrust and jealousy haunt the voyage of the five travelers, and it becomes clear that the greatest threat to their safety is neither the treacherous terrain nor the fierce Indians, but one another.
Behind the Scott/Boetticher collaboration are two men whose contributions cannot be underestimated. Harry Joe Brown produced five of these films, and brought in screenwriter Burt Kennedy, who penned five of the screenplays. It is a testament to Brown's abilities that he convinced Columbia Studios to back several of the films, at a time when very few high-profile Westerns were being theatrically released. The Western had been co-opted by television, which churned out numerous weekly installments of low-grade oaters, greatly contributing to the genre's decline.
But Boetticher's films were no ordinary Westerns. Comanche Station, in particular, is so finely observed that it rises above the status of mere shoot-'em-ups. The Scott/Boetticher Westerns forsake the bombast of the large-scale epic and the ribald comedy that flavor the films of John Ford or Howard Hawks. Instead, their films are low-key and tight-lipped, driven primarily by characters, and the deadly grudges that sometimes arise between them.
As portrayed by Scott, Cody carries himself with such quiet nobility that his strengths and virtue are established without acts of bravado, speeches or displays of emotion. Instead, his personality unfolds gradually and gracefully, more often than not through his stony yet expressive face and his weary but determined posture. In fact, ten minutes pass before Cody
engages in any real dialogue in Comanche Station, and even then his words are spare and terse.
Much of Comanche Station was filmed in the northern California region of Lone Pine, near the foot of Mount Whitney. The mountainous accumulations of boulders, known as the Alabama Hills, figure prominently in the film, serving as the backdrop for the film's opening and closing scenes, as well as providing the arid, desolate battleground upon which Cody and Lane's
grudges are resolved. "The great thing about Lone Pine is that you don't need to go anywhere else," Boetticher told writer Mike Dibb, "we had sand, desert, a river, mountains, all the volcanic structures, it's amazing....Kennedy and I just went from one place to another rewriting
scenes to fit the rocks."
Another significant detail of the film's "natural production design" is a cross-shaped tree trunk that stands in a shallow riverbed. This same dead tree, transplanted from another location, figured prominently as the "hanging tree" in Boetticher, Scott, Kennedy and Brown's earlier
collaboration: Ride Lonesome (1959).
Numerous Westerns have been filmed in the Lone Pine area, but Comanche Station seems utterly fresh, due largely to the unique perspectives discovered by Boetticher's calculating eye (and ear). For example, in several scenes, characters converse beneath shade trees as breezes stir the branches above them. While most filmmakers would have objected to the ambient noise and re-dubbed the dialogue in post-production, Boetticher allowed the sound of the gently rustling leaves to be recorded, endowing these scenes with a sense of serenity, a calm before the inevitable storm of violence that will ultimately end the conflict between Cody and
Director Oscar "Budd" Boetticher
Producers: Harry Joe Brown, Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Burt Kennedy
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Production Design: Carl Anderson
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Randolph Scott (Jefferson Cody), Claude Akins (Ben Lane), Nancy Gates (Nancy Lowe), Skip Homeier (Frank), Richard Rust (Dobie).
by Bret Wood