Who doesn’t love a Western? Horse riding, barroom brawls, gunfights, scenic vistas, those bitchin’ vests with the dangly tassels, and all the other elements of the Western make fans feel right at home whenever watching one. The Western is probably the most durable of any genre, so that even the bad ones still have some enjoyment factor, if only because they carry with them the visual language that’s so familiar to viewers everywhere.
Hollywood used to produce Westerns at an alarming rate, overcrowding theaters with them. This means that for every great, famous Western, there are dozens—if not hundreds—of lesser-known, obscure ones. VCI Home Entertainment has taken six films from the latter category, and packaged them together for today’s audiences, as its Legendary Outlaws collection.
We’ve got six low budget Westerns from the 1940s and ’50s to go through here:
• The Great Jesse James Raid
Although retired from the criminal life and now raising a family, the legendary Jesse James (Willard Parker, Kiss Me Kate) is drawn back into one last heist, which, if pulled off, will have him set off for life.
• Renegade Girl
During the final days of the Civil War, the forces of the north in Missouri are threatened by guerrilla fighters. The deadliest among these are the Shelby family, including Jean Shelby (Ann Savage, Satan’s Cradle) one of the toughest, sneakiest women to ever don a pair of six-shooters. When Jean’s family is killed by Chief White Cloud (Chief Thundercloud, The Lone Ranger (1938)), a ferocious Apache, Jean seeks revenge.
Outlaw Frank James (Western staple Don “Red” Barry) has found religion and retired after the death of his famous brother, so another group of outlaws start pulling robberies by impersonating him. Driven to clear his good name, Frank comes out of retirement and seeks justice.
• The Return of Jesse James
Jesse James is dead and buried, but an imposter (John Ireland, Red Mountain) has been committing robberies left and right, claiming to be the famous outlaw. Frank James (Reed Hadley, Little Big Horn) comes out of retirement, not unlike he did in the last movie, in search of justice, as does the lawman-turned-bartender who shot and killed the real Jesse.
• The Dalton Gang
As the titular gang rides into town, its members blame some murders on the local Indian tribe. It’s up to a U.S. marshal (Don “Red” Barry again), working undercover, to solve the mystery and put an end to the gang.
• I Shot Billy the Kid
Don “Red” Barry is back for more, this time playing the titular bandit instead of the good guy. This film promises a historically accurate re-telling of Billy the Kid’s life and his outlaw career in the Old West, leading up to his final confrontation with Sheriff Pat Garrett.
So the folks at VCI Home Entertainment, who’ve made bringing old movies into the digital age their niche, have presented the six films in this set, with two per disc. This is a lot of low budget, B-movie cowboy action to get through. Let’s get started, shall we?
I’ll watch these in the same order they’re on in the box set, and that means starting off with The Great Jesse James Raid. “Great” is not the word I would choose. Has there ever been a Western with as many indoor scenes as this one? About the first third of the movie takes place inside Jesse James’s house as the characters go through all the necessary exposition about their big heist. This provides for a lot of looks at star Willard Parker without his shirt, which I’m guessing was a big selling point for the movie, but most of this extended opening just feels like waiting for the movie to really begin.
I wish I could say I was enjoying this one, but no. Slow paced with too little happening, Jesse’s great raid is a great bore. By the time I got to the big action set piece at the end, I assumed this was the build-up to the finale, but, instead, this was the finale. What a let down. Also, this print of the movie must have been buried in sand for the last 50 years, because there are scratches and other such defects everywhere. Let’s just move on.
Renegade Girl starts out by combining its Western setting with some Civil War action. Then, halfway through the film, the war ends, and the characters all find themselves in new roles in their lives. Speaking of roles, Ann Savage is a winner in hers, playing tough and feminine in equal doses. You can really believe that this is the woman both feared and wanted by every man east of Missouri.
Although it’s just over an hour, Renegade Girl feels a lot longer, because there’s so much story. At times, this is more like a historical romance, as our heroine is reunited with her dream man, and they’re no longer separated by the North vs. South conflict. So, even there’s hardly any action in this one, the actors and their emotionally rich performances make up for it.
Although Jesse James is name heard most often in this set, Gunfire puts the emphasis on his brother, Frank James. The story here is fairly ludicrous, with Frank’s imposter discovering he looks like Frank thanks to an out-of-nowhere coincidence. Still, Don “Red” Barry shows why he was such a bankable star back in the day. He was doing Clint Eastwood’s act long before Eastwood came along.
Hey, awesome! Jar Jar Binks is in this movie! Oh, wait, let me check the ears…no, that’s not Jar Jar, it’s comedian Wally Vernon as Clem. But, like everybody’s favorite Gungan, Vernon (Heebie Gee-Bees) is the comic relief forced into a movie that doesn’t really need comic relief. The plot comes to absolute halt at least twice in the movie, just so Vernon can make with the vaudeville-style comedy. It’s cute enough, but this is a movie about outlaws and tough guys. I’d rather see Vernon headline a screwball comedy of his own, rather than derail an action Western, where he doesn’t really belong.
I’ve heard the name “Jesse James” a lot tonight, and the night’s still young. The Return of Jesse James is more about James’s legend than the man himself, with some criminals impersonating the dead Jesse. Call me crazy, but I think star John Ireland looks a lot like Dana Ashbrook from Twin Peaks. He also adopts a similar “bad boy” persona in this one, knowing that without the Jesse James notoriety behind his heists, he’d be just another thug. It’s a solid performance from Ireland, and has me wanting to check out his other films.
Is it just me, or are these movies getting better as they go along? The Return of Jesse James includes a cool fistfight in a barn, and a classic Western gunfight up and down a town’s Main Street. Ireland does the antihero thing very well. If this movie had been made today, I’d be championing him as the next big thing.
Although I have a certain fondness for the B-movies of this era, with their simplistic action heroics, I have to admit that while watching The Dalton Gang, I’m seeing a lot of hints of what will eventually become the so-called spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s. You know how The Good, The Bad and The Ugly starts out with long stretches of movie with little to no dialogue? The Dalton Gang is slightly similar, with no dialogue until almost 10 minutes in. Later, during a scene in which the hero arrives at a Navaho village, we can almost see the type of scene that Sergio Leone would later perfect in years to come.
As The Dalton Gang progresses, Don “Red” Barry continues to prove himself quite the Western hero. Barry, by the way, was almost never credited with the “Red” nickname, but I’ve included it here because that’s how everyone knows him. There’s a great fistfight in a shadowy hotel room near the end of this one that will have many viewers thinking this is more hard-boiled film noir than it is a Western. Although we don’t get much of a chance to get to know the villains in this one, Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin: The Complete 1949 Movie Serial) makes for a great nemesis to go against Barry.
Only one more to go. I Shot Billy the Kid takes a different approach, first with a disclaimer that promises absolute historical accuracy (I’d be out of line if I responded with a hearty “Yeah, right!” wouldn’t I?) and a look at the then-present site of the real Billy’s grave. The story is narrated by an elderly Pat Garrett, the man who shot Billy. From there, the movie takes off, showing Billy getting into and out of various scrapes
Jar Jar! No, wait; it’s Wally Vernon again, doing another comedy routine, with a faux Mexican accent this time, in the middle of this “historically accurate” film. Robert Lowery is also back in this one, playing Pat Garrett. Although he and Billy start out on good terms, we all know where the story is headed, so Lowery and Barry, who’s here playing Billy, will once again end up as enemies.
The filmmakers are obviously out to pull on viewers’ heartstrings with I Shot Billy the Kid. As the characters head toward the inevitable confrontation, we see a friendship form between Pat and Billy, as well as a surprisingly sweet romance between Billy and a lovely Spanish girl, Francesca (Wendy Lee). Even if you know nothing about Western history, the title of this movie pretty much gives away what happens. Fortunately, the build up to the big moment is well-acted and packs an emotional punch.
There aren’t a lot of extras, but what’s here is quality. We’ve got some nice trailers for other Westerns, but not the ones included. Still, these trailers are very well made, and will get you jazzed for more cowboy action even after watching all six films on this set. Talent bios are usually dull, but in this case, with viewers likely discovering these movies and these performers for the first time on this set, they’re an interesting peek at the Hollywood that once was. A few photo galleries round out the package.
Now it’s dawn, and the sun has made its first appearance of the day outside my window. I did it. I watched six Westerns in one night, five of which were pretty good. I now realize I should have timed this so I’d be finished at dusk, so I could make a comment about riding off into the sunset. I’ll just go get some sleep instead.
The transfer on The Great Jesse James Raid, the only color film in this set, is terrible. The other films, in black and white, look great. Many old black and white movies have this great black and silver look on DVD, and that’s the case here. That being said, there are a few moments in The Dalton Gang where the picture is slightly washed out, but otherwise, it’s just as good as the others. It’s 1.0 sound throughout, but aside from a few static-y moments, the dialogue and music comes through just fine.
Also, despite the filmmakers’ best intentions, I Shot Billy the Kid is about as historically accurate as Fargo.
Here we have marquee movie stars that few people remember and a genre that is more about nostalgia than it is about blockbuster thrills. Still, despite their flaws, five of the six films in this collector’s set are a lot of fun, and well worth seeing, whether you watch them all in one night or not.