Cast & Crew
Lon Chaney [jr.]
In 1864, the Union army needs horses to mount an offensive against the South. The men at Fort Hedley in Colorado, led by Lt. Col. Hudson, have been unable to accomplish this mission because, despite all security precautions, raiders sympathetic to the Confederacy manage to steal them. As the raiders always know where the soldiers and horses will cross the mountain pass, Col. Sharpe suspects a southern spy is tipping them. When Hudson demands more men to fight off the raiders, Sharpe replies that no men can be spared, but shows him a new Springfield repeating rifle that will help his small troop become more effective. Later, a band of Union soldiers led by Major "Lex" Kearney, accompanies a band of horses across a desolate mountain pass, only to be met by a large party of raiders. Rather than risk the lives of his men, Kearney lets the raiders have the horses and leads the troop back to the fort. Kearney reports to Hudson in the presence of Matthew Quint, a private detective charged with discovering the southern spy. They are interrupted by Capt. Tennick, who demands that Kearney be court-martialed for cowardice in the face of the enemy and for sacrificing war materiel. Kearney, who is from Virginia, is suspected of southern sympathies and, despite the support of his men, is found guilty and ordered out of the military. Although he is prohibited from setting foot on an army base under penalty of death, Kearney stays nearby, taking every opportunity to taunt Tennick. One day, Kearney returns to his hotel to find his wife Erin waiting for him. She begs him to return home for the sake of his son Jamie, but Kearney refuses and sends her home alone. In the saloon, Quint informs Kearney that two of the raiders were captured during the army's latest encounter with them. Later, Kearney picks a fight with Tennick and during the brawl steps inside the fort. He is immediately arrested, sentenced to death and jailed along with the two raiders. Kearney soon helps the men escape and follows them to the ranch owned by Austin McCool, who has been selling horses to the Union army. After the two raiders vouch for Kearney, McCool shows him where he keeps the horses his men have stolen from the Union until they can be sold to the South. Kearney learns from the others that even his right-hand man, Pete Elm, does not know how McCool gets his information. After the horses are delivered to the South, Hudson, who is sympathetic to Kearney, finds him and tells him that Erin has returned and that Jamie has run away from school. Known only to Sharpe, Quint and Tennick, Kearney is actually a spy for the Union. Although he asks to be relieved of his assignment, so that he can join Erin in searching for Jamie, the others persuade him to remain on the job. Tennick agrees to kill McCool so that Kearney can take his place and subsequently learn who his contact is at the fort. Later, during a battle, Tennick wounds McCool, but is himself mortally wounded and dies just after firing the fatal shot to McCool. Back at the ranch, Kearney allies himself with Elm and waits for McCool's contact to approach them. To his surprise, the Union spy is revealed to be Hudson, who also discloses that a shipment of Springfield rifles, which he intends to steal for the South, will soon be delivered. When Kearney next reports to Sharpe, he learns that Jamie has been found. Delighted, he tells the news to Erin, who believes that he is lying in an effort to send her home again. She then visits Hudson, who confirms the news, but when Erin reveals that her husband told her, Hudson realizes that Kearney has been acting against him. Hudson then arranges for Sharpe and Quint to be killed, and later, Elm tells Kearney that Hudson will execute him as a southern spy. Before Kearney can be brought before a firing squad, however, the Union soldiers who served with him help him to escape. He tells them what he has learned, and they proceed to seize the new Springfield rifles, which they use to recapture the recently stolen herd of horses. During the ensuing fight, the raiders hide in the surrounding country, and Kearney's men must smoke them out. Finally, Hudson and the raiders are captured and Kearney is cleared. Witnessed by Erin and a proud Jamie, Kearney is returned to duty and becomes the head of the newly formed U.S. Army Intelligence Department. The efficacy of the Springfield rifle proven, it is now acquired by the Union army.
Lon Chaney [jr.]
Guinn "big Boy" Williams
Alan Hale Jr.
Guy E. Hearne
G. W. Berntsen
Louis F. Edelman
Robert L. Swanson
Charles Marquis Warren
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)
Gary Cooper in Springfield Rifle on DVD
The scenario by Frank Davis and Charles Marquis Warren concerns the struggles of the Union command to protect its drives of much-needed Cavalry horses through the Colorado wilds from the predations of bands of jayhawkers seeking to provide the stock to the Confederacy. The rebels can't have their intimate knowledge of the herd movements without inside information, but Washington finds it unseemly to descend to the level of developing counter-intelligence.
Certain officers in the field, however, act on the gravity of the situation by staging a covert ruse. Major Lex Kearney (Cooper) a Virginian whose Southern sentiments are open to question, is transferred to the outpost in the hopes that he can lead a drive past the looters, but turns rather than fight once confronted by them on the trail. He's summarily court-martialed for cowardice, and the combination of his experience and his apparent bitterness gets the attention of Archie McCool (David Brian), a local rancher who reveals himself as the ringleader of the rustlers.
Kearney's disgrace, as it develops, was staged solely to gain access to the cabal. The downside is that fact is shared with only a select few, and those on the outside include Kearney's frustrated wife (Phyllis Thaxter), who can't understand why he won't come home and deal with the crisis presented by their young son's having run away in humiliation. It's her presence that ultimately tips McCool's mole to the subterfuge, and places Kearney in jeopardy of execution as a traitor. With the help of the loyalists among the troops, and a convenient cache of the then-new chamber-loading rifle that would "turn one man into five, and fifty into an army," Kearney is able to confront the rustlers, and the real betrayer, in a well-staged final confrontation.
Director Andre de Toth bears a certain amount of cult cache for efforts like House of Wax (1953) and The Gunfighter (1950), but the workmanlike job that he put forth here was not particularly remarkable. Notables in the supporting cast include Lon Chaney, Jr. providing dimwitted bluster as McCool's head lackey; as well as Paul Kelly and Phillip Carey for keeping the audience guessing in their respective roles as Kearney's immediate superior and chief accuser.
Warner's mastering job on the DVD does no disservice to the rich palette of Edwin Dupar's cinematography, but the disc is bare-bones in terms of extras. In addition to Springfield Rifle, Gary Cooper: The Signature Collection also contains Sergeant York (1941), The Fountainhead (1949), Dallas (1950) and The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959).
For more information about Springfield Rifle, visit Warner Video. To order Springfield Rifle (which is only available as part of Gary Cooper: The Signature Collection), go to TCM Shopping.
by Jay S. Steinberg
Gary Cooper in Springfield Rifle on DVD
TCM Remembers Andre de Toth
Born in Mako, Hungary to the son of a civil engineer, De Toth showed an early artistic bent, having his first exhibit of paintings and sculpture at age 14 and seeing his first play produced at age 18. After obtaining his law degree from the University of Budapest, he began acting, writing and working as a cameraman for cinematographer Istvan Eiben. In 1939, he went to England, where he worked as a second unit director for Alexander Korda on The Thief of Bagdad and other films. De Toth immigrated to Hollywood in the early '40s, and worked with Korda on The Jungle Book (1942) and several other films.
He made his Hollywood directing debut with the 1943 feature, Passport to Suez, a propaganda thriller about the Nazis wanting to bomb the Suez Canal.
Impressed with his ability, Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, put the director under contract for one film and the result, None Shall Escape (1944), launched his Hollywood career. This tense, sensitive drama about a Nazi officer made to examine his actions was fascinating in its structure: Set after the war's end, the film centers around the trial of a Nazi butcher, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), in Poland and makes excellent use of flashbacks illustrating the prosecution's testimony to form the bulk of the film. In a way, the film predicted the Nuremberg Trials after the war.
de Toth earned considerable critical acclaim with the taut, intense noir thriller Pitfall (1948) which he co-wrote. Starring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr, this story of a bored insurance salesman who embarks on an affair because he feels stifled in his picture-perfect home (a devoted wife, son, nice house, successful career, etc.) was striking as one of the first films to examine the American dream gone sour. De Toth followed that with a shared Oscar nomination with William Bowers for Best Original Motion Picture Story for The Gunfighter (1950), a haunting character study of a killer (Gregory Peck) trying to live down his past.
His biggest commercial hit came with House of Wax (1953), the movie that launched Vincent Price's horror film career and is still regarded as the best of all three-dimensional films to be released during that period. Unlike other directors who seemed to be dabbling with a new technique, De Toth emphasized character and plot over the special effects: Price was a sculptor rebuilding his wax figure collection (destroyed by fire) by making statues out of his murder victims. The one-eyed de Toth was an odd choice to helm a 3-D film as he could not experience the stereoscopic process, having lost an eye in his youth, but he persevered and it was the most successful 3-D film of its day.
De Toth followed that hit with some fine films: Crime Wave (1954), a hostage thriller that boasts some fine performances by Sterling Hayden and Gene Nelson and excellent location shooting on the streets of Los Angeles; The Indian Fighter (1955) an exciting Kirk Douglas vehicle about a wagon master leading his train through rough territory that won accolades for depicting the Native Americans with more depth than contemporary directors; and Day of the Outlaw (1959), the stark, stylish, low budget western about an outlaw (Burl Ives) and his gang taking over taking a small town and matching wits with one of its citizens (Robert Ryan). For many, this film best articulated many of the recurring themes in De Toth's work that would be evaluated only decades later by film scholars: survival, betrayal, the capacity for evil and complexities of human relationships.
In the early sixties film work became increasingly scarce for De Toth and he found himself relegated to directing for television: Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip and The Westerner. Tired of the limitations he was finding in Hollywood, De Toth headed to Europe in the '60s, where he found work as an uncredited consultant and location scout on David Lean's extravagant Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He directed a few films abroad, the best of which was the World War II action film Play Dirty (1968), starring Michael Caine, and then he more or less retired from active filmmaking. It was not until recently that De Toth began to receive critical recognition for his entertaining body of work. The last few years have seen several retrospectives and he enjoyed a renewed popularity at film festivals from Scotland to San Francisco. His contributions to film were recognized with the 1995 life achievement prize by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the publication of his autobiography, Fragments: Portraits From the Inside, as well as an interview book, De Toth on De Toth, by Anthony Slide. De Toth was married for a time to Veronica Lake (1944-1952) with whom he had two children. He is survived by his wife, Ann Green.
by Michael T. Toole
TCM Remembers Andre de Toth
Much of the film was shot on location at Mt. Whitney, CA. According to a Warner Bros. press release contained in the production file on the film in the AMPAS Library, one sequence was filmed during a three-day blizzard at nearby Lone Pine. The production notes also remark that shooting stopped one day when an atomic cloud appeared on the horizon after a bomb explosion at the Nevada testing ground. A June 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that portions of the film were also shot at Bell Ranch in the San Fernando Valley.
Although only John Beckman is credited onscreen as art director, a December 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Douglas Bacon would fill the position. His contribution to the final film has not been determined. A May 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item adds Jeff Stevens to the cast, but his appearance in the film has not been confirmed. According to an April 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item, the horse Wildfire, who debuted in the 1952 Warner Bros. film The Lion and the Horse, appeared in Springfield Rifle (see entry for film above).