A ‘shell-shock’ western

Another enjoyable curosity from Grapevine Video.

The Stolen Ranch (1926) was directed by the young William Wyler, learning his trade making B-picture westerns.

The film begins with this title:

stolen ranch

and there follows a sequence in the trenches; we are introduced to ‘Breezy’ Hart, who, according to the intertitle, ‘didn’t know what the war was about, but he wished it was about over’, and his friend Frank Wilcox ‘whose sensitive nerves, exposed to this inferno of war, were near the breaking point.’

Breezy saves his friend from running madly over the parapet when crazed by gunfire.

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After this prologue, the two men are back home, and the film settles into a familiar western plot. While Frank has been away, his uncle’s superintendent has fraudulently laid claim to the ranch. The two of them need to get it back, but Frank has a terror of the sound of gunfire – quite a handicap in a cowboy movie.

You won’t be surprised to hear that after some energetic fist-fights, some impressive trick riding and a dollop of romantic interest, all comes right in the end.

As a treatment of shell-shock, the film is hardly original, but it’s interesting to see how easily the standard tropes of postwar middlebrow fiction – the soldiers returning to a world that doesn’t value them, the villain who has got rich during the war, and the shell-shocker who is cured by the love of a good woman and by taking command of his own life, are transferred to the western genre.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been re-reading Santanu Das’s Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature, but  I couldn’t help noticing the physical closeness of the two ex-soldiers in this film. There is a good deal of touching, hugging, and even a brief kiss. This seems to arise naturally from Breezy’s role looking after war-damaged Frank, and there is no suggestion that it might be abnormal or connected with taboo behaviour.

stolen ranch 3

Considering the constraints – “We shot from Monday through Friday in Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills, then received a new script on the Saturday,” Wyler remembered later – the film is pretty well-made, and very watchable. Wyler, of course, went on to direct major films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Ben Hur. Also one of my favourite films, Carrie – not the Stephen King bloodfest, but the 1952adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, with Laurence Olivier giving one of his very best (because understated) screen performances.

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