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When his attempts to get the attention of his railroad magnate father fail, spoiled Chester Graham, Jr. wreaks havoc while they travel across the west by train. Chester, who has just overheard his father plans to send him away to boarding school, wanders into the deserted hills. As soon as the train pulls away, Graham, Sr. realizes that Chester has been left behind and arranges for the police to rescue him, hoping the experience will teach the boy a lesson. Soon after, Chester tumbles down a hill and into the path of cattle driver Dan Mathews, ruining Dan's chance of roping a wild stallion he has been trailing for hours. Chester tries unsuccessfully to bully Dan into escorting him to meet his father's train in Santa Fe, then grudgingly follows him to his camp. There, trail boss Cap warns the boy that he can only eat if he works, and after a day of sulking, Chester is forced to go without dinner. That night, he tries to run off, but as soon as Dan confronts him, he breaks down in tears. Dan feeds the boy and explains that he, too, was a tough kid who had to learn why everyone must work together on the trail. He then reveals his future plans to start a horse ranch with colts sired by Midnight, the wild stallion he has been chasing. The next morning, Chester willingly works alongside Dallas, the camp cook, and impresses the other cattle drivers with his pluck when he insists on riding an ornery bronco. Over the next few days, Dan teaches Chester cattle-driving skills as Cap, worried about the scarcity of water, turns the herd toward a treacherous stretch of desert called Paradise Canyon. Chester braves the wind and heat without complaining, and when the group finally reaches a watering hole, the men congratulate him for his courage. That night, cowboy Jim Currie, who dislikes Chester, challenges Dan to a race to prove who has the faster horse. Dan wins, but when Chester boasts that he rode Currie's horse all night to exhaust it, Dan exposes the ruse to the whole camp and explains the cowboy code of ethics to Chester. Crestfallen, Chester sees a chance to redeem himself when Midnight appears and stampedes the cattle. Dan and Chester capture the stallion together and attempt to break him. Chester grows more despondent as the drive moves closer to Santa Fe, where he must rejoin his father. One night, he disobeys Dan's orders by untying Midnight in the hopes of taming him. Midnight breaks loose and Currie shoots at the horse, causing the cattle to stampede again. After the men finally round up the cattle, they realize that Chester has disappeared. Fearing the worst, they return to the camp, where they find Chester looking for Midnight. The boy confesses that he let Midnight loose, but Currie admits his role in causing the stampede and everyone agrees that Chester's safety is the only important factor. In Santa Fe the next day, Graham, seeing that Chester is more attached to Dan than to him, vows to be a better father. He then gives Chester permission to join Dan in search of Midnight, but just as the two set off, Graham arrives to accompany his son on the trail.
Jimmy Van Horn
Harry Carey Jr.
Leslie I. Carey
Russell A. Gausman
David [s.] Horsley
Danny B. Landres
Ruby R. Levitt
The script by Jack Natteford and Lillie Hayward has been described as "basically Captains Courageous on the prairie." McCrea plays Dan Matthews, a cowpoke who is driving a herd of cattle to San Diego when he comes upon a rich, spoiled adolescent (Dean Stockwell) who's lost in the middle of nowhere. Once the boy joins the cattle drive, he is forced to knuckle down and accept the fatherly guidance of Matthews, who teaches him the value of hard work and upstanding behavior.
Stockwell, who received equal billing with McCrea, was then 14 and facing the end of his stint as a child star, which he claimed not to have enjoyed -- although he would continue acting in adult roles. The year before he had played the key role of McCrea's nephew in Stars in My Crown (1950), another of McCrea's favorite vehicles. "I liked Joel," Stockwell said in a 1985 interview. "He was really good. Stars in My Crown I didn't enjoy doing; but in Cattle Drive I got to ride horses -- and that was like playing, the way a child is supposed to play."
McCrea's character is such a gentle soul that he even croons to the cattle to put them to sleep at night, in a voice pleasant enough to make one think that McCrea might have given Roy Rogers and Gene Autry some competition. (McCrea also offered a brief serenade to the herd in 1946's The Virginian.) And his patient, fair-minded character is so engaging that a final sequence even has him winning over the boy's all-business railroad-owner father, played by Leon Ames, so that the three can take an unlikely ride together into the sunset at film's end.
The supporting cast includes two other ace character actors. German-born Henry Brandon (whose long filmography was highlighted by the John Ford films The Searchers (1956) and 1961's Two Rode Together) plays an ornery cowhand who gives McCrea some trouble although, in keeping with the tone of the film, he eventually falls into line. Chill Wills, always a colorful addition to any film with a Western setting, is the kindly cattle drive cook whose specialties are beans and more beans.
Much of this handsome Technicolor production was shot on location in the Death Valley National Park, California, and Paria, Utah. Director Kurt Neumann, an old hand at adventure movies, keeps things interesting despite the fact that the movie is light on action. Two stampedes -- one with horses and another with cattle -- are staged in exciting fashion, and a subplot about McCrea's efforts to capture a beautiful wild stallion called Midnight is also engaging.
There are no women in the film, although at one point McCrea shows Stockwell a photo of the young woman who is waiting for him at trail's end. Pictured is none other than McCrea's real-life wife, Frances Dee!
Cattle Drive proved a popular success, and most of the reviews were supportive. The New York Times critic described the film as "casually entertaining summer fare" with McCrea and Stockwell delivering "quite winning performances."
McCrea owned Dollar, the horse with the expressive eyes that he rides in Cattle Drive and other films. There was a strict rule that no one else could ride Dollar -- a rule broken only once when McCrea lent the horse to Doris Day for her use in 1953's Calamity Jane.
Producer: Aaron Rosenberg
Director: Kurt Neumann
Screenplay: Jack Natteford, Lillie Hayward
Cinematography: Maury Gertsman
Editing: Danny B. Landres
Art Direction: Hilyard M. Brown, Bernard Herzbrun
Music: Milton Rosen
Cast: Joel McCrea (Dan Mathews), Dean Stockwell (Chester Graham Jr.), Chill Wills (Dallas), Leon Ames (Chester Graham Sr.), Henry Brandon (Jim Currie), Howard Petrie (Cap).
by Roger Fristoe
According to a November 1950 Hollywood Reporter news item, some scenes were shot on location in Death Valley, CA. The Variety review notes that the photograph of "Dan's" girl friend shown in the film is actually a picture of Joel McCrea's wife, actress Francis Dee. Modern sources add Harry Carey, Jr. to the cast.