' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Colorado Territory (1949)

Friday, February 06, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Colorado Territory (1949)

Raoul Walsh's "Colorado Territory" was a remake of his own 1941 film "High Sierra", a fact which seems appropriate given that the former is a Western, a genre notable for recycling tropes and themes. You think Western and you think of White Hats and Black Hats. You think of grizzled men astride horses tired of life on the dusty windswept godforsaken plains. You think of last reel shootouts when the main character is brought eye to eye with the pesky forces of fate. And so I apologize for refraining from issuing a a sixty-six year old spoiler alert but I'm pretty sure it goes without saying that Joel McCrea's cowboy "Colorado Territory" protagonist is brought eye to eye with the pesky forces of fate in in the last reel and gunned down. In the moviegoing version of the Old West, the gods rode in not on machines but pale horses.


Still, not every detail between the two films is identical. In "High Sierra" Humphrey Bogart got sprung from jail by convincing the governor to grant him a pardon whereas in "Colorado Territory" Joel McCrea simply busts out from behind his prison bars. "I didn't like jail," he explains, "but I did something about it." That's a genuinely funny line, and one that underlines the difference between the respective movie's motives. The former still seems to place at least a scant amount of trust in the world at large, to believe that a politician might be able to see both sides, while the latter has lost all faith. If you want something you gotta do it yourself. Frontier justice.

As an actor, Joel McCrea had a way about personifying differing ideals, whether he was a disinterested "Foreign Correspondent" who became very much interested, or as a movie director determined to find trouble in "Sullivan's Travels". This lends itself perfectly to his part in "Colorado Territory", one which comes equipped with two names - Wes McQueen, which sounds like a guy who ties damsels to railroad tracks, and Chet Rogers, which sounds like a guy who saves women tied to railroad tracks second before the locomotive comes barreling around the corner. It is his purported aunt, showing up at the jailhouse to deliver the seemingly innocent goods that conceal the devices that will allow for McQueen's escape, who makes mention of her nephew's beloved white horse from childhood, our first clue that the protagonist possesses good and evil traits. He rode a white horse, now he wears a black hat.

The goodness in his heart is made clearer aboard the stagecoach he's taken to flee, passing himself off as Chet Rogers upon encountering a father and daughter, Fred Winslow (Henry Hull) and his daughter Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone). He saves them from a posse of would-be bandits in a fairly exemplary sequence of derring-do, winning their trust and eventually finding himself not simply smitten with Julie Ann but envious of her and her father's humble lifestyle. McQueen - er, Chet - longs to pull one last job, grab the cash, propose to Julie Ann, and live happily ever after.


Even so, there is something about the way he looks at Fred and Julie Ann's joviality, their belief that they will strike it rich out west, that betrays his cynical worldview. He knows that these dreams of prosperity only exist to get crushed, just as he knows his own dreams of pulling one last job and settling down with a lovely lady only exist to get crushed. He’s like a wistful fatalist. And that fatalism smartly counteracts the archetypal ability of the main character to never be wrong about anything. He meets the two other fellas – Reno (John Archer) and Duke (James Mitchell) – that will be part of his train-robbing crew and instantly intuits that they are double-crossers. And when they double-cross in the midst of the robbery, he knows every devious move they plan to make well before they make it. These two lunkheads never stand a chance.

But then neither does McQueen. Nor does the half-Indian, Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), the one-time dance hall girl who's sweet on McQueen. Oh, she's technically Reno's squeeze but she makes clear that she's only using Reno to get away from what she was and get somewhere she wants to be. She sees in this level-headed if nefarious outlaw the chance to get wherever that it is even if it's nowhere better than a remote bluff with the armed law down below and no way out. Which is why in a genre so known for its misogynist attitude there is something refreshing in the progressivism of letting Colorado go down in a blaze of glory.

She doesn't stand by her man, she stands with him, and they go out together, abrupt pain so that they may suffer this cruel world's mockery no more.

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