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The Rare Breed
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The Rare Breed

The Rare Breed (1966) is that rare Western that is actually about cattle and the cattle business. Specifically, its plot deals with the introduction of Hereford cattle into the United States in 1884. The Herefords were a stocky, white-faced breed from Britain which produced better beef than the American longhorn. The idea of crossing these two breeds was widely scorned in the 1880s, with American cattlemen deriding the hornless Herefords as not tough enough to survive the long American winters. In the end, however, the cross breeding worked out fine.

So fine, in fact, that most of the cattle American moviegoers have seen since cameras first started rolling are in fact Herefords - regardless of whether a movie's story takes place before or after 1884. This is because Herefords are much more impressive visually than the scrawny Texas longhorns, and most Hollywood Westerns (given a choice) go with appearance over authenticity. As historian Jenni Calder has written, "John Wayne's herd in Red River [1948], years before a Hereford ever crossed the Mississippi, was suspiciously tainted with the familiar white blotched faces of that attractive breed of cattle."

In any event, The Rare Breed uses the actual debates over the Herefords as a framework for its story of British cattle breeder Martha Evans's determined effort to deliver her Hereford bull (named "Vindicator") to Alexander Bowen's Texas ranch. Helping her with the trek is Sam Burnett (James Stewart), a somewhat skeptical cowpoke. Burnett, in fact, has accepted a bribe to swindle Martha (Maureen O'Hara) along the way. But as he guides her through the country, protecting her from rustlers and stampedes, he starts to admire Martha and her ideals and eventually becomes her biggest supporter. In Texas, the plot shifts to whether the bull can in fact survive the winter and cross-breed with a longhorn.

Of course the outcome is never really in doubt and one of the film's great pleasures is its top notch veteran cast, which also includes such venerable supporting players as Harry Carey, Jr., Ben Johnson and Jack Elam. Elam, who here plays a colorful cattle rustler, was a constant delight in a career that spanned 50 years before his death last October at age 84.

It's a genial Western, much like Shenandoah the year before, which also starred Stewart and which also was directed by Andrew McLaglen. Though McLaglen never brought much of a personal visual style to his films (and certainly nothing to compare with that of his mentor John Ford), his pictures were often robust, with strong action scenes. Further, he knew how to effectively exploit Stewart's iconic image as a Western hero even though the actor's popularity was beginning to wane at this point of his career. Stewart's kind of Western was simply on the way out, and the few Western roles that allowed him to play multi-dimensional characters, such as The Rare Breed, were rare indeed.

The critics were kind to The Rare Breed. Time admired "the green-eyed beauty of Maureen O'Hara, who makes Technicolor seem a necessity." The New York Times called the film "tasty, a little overcooked with sentiment perhaps, but amusingly salted at the edges. The kind of frontier opus that Mr. Stewart personifies with his laconic expertise year in year out."

And The Hollywood Reporter also lavished Stewart with praise: "The scene where Stewart finds the calf, with the camera entirely on Stewart's face, is one of great poignance and tenderness. It is only one shot, that of Stewart's face, but it is the crux of the picture, and Stewart once again, as he has a hundred times, shows what it means to understand acting and to make it meaningful."

The subject of Hereford cattle had previously been treated in at least two other Westerns: The Untamed Breed (1948) and The Longhorn (1951).

Producer: William Alland
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Screenplay: Ric Hardman
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Film Editing: Russell F. Schoengarth
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Ybarra
Music: John Williams
Cast: James Stewart (Sam Burnett), Maureen O'Hara (Martha Evans), Brian Keith (Alexander Bowen), Juliet Mills (Hilary Price), Jack Elam (Deke Simons), Don Galloway (Jamie Bowen).
C-97m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold

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