You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.
“I’m the new marshal. (Pulls out guns.) And these are my credentials.”
Although today he’s best remembered as the inspiration for Ralphie’s long-sought-after BB gun in A Christmas Story, Red Ryder was at one time a bona fide action hero. The big guy started out in a newspaper comic strip by Fred Harmon, and soon graduated into his own radio shows, matinee serials, and feature films.
In a three-year period from 1944 to 1946, Republic Pictures churned out an astounding 16 full-length Red Ryder films, two of which are collected on this disc: the first, Tucson Raiders, and the tenth, Marshal of Laredo. Saddle up, pardners!
It’s the old west. Whenever there is crime, whenever someone is in danger, whenever help is needed, Red Ryder is there. Although he is a peaceful man by nature, Red is not against dealing out righteous justice, in the form of his two fists or his trusty six-shooters. He rides from town to town, doing good deeds, and dishing out plenty of punches and gunshots to any wrongdoers who deserve them.
First, in Tucson Raiders, Red takes on a corrupt governor attempting to impede Arizona’s imminent statehood. Then, in Marshal of Laredo, Red must clear the name of a young man wrongfully accused of murder. He’d better hurry, because there’s going to be a hanging in the morning.
Okay, picture this: There’s a giant Red Ryder book standing on end in front of a classic John Ford-style western background. The book opens, and out steps Red Ryder himself, shooting his guns wildly with a grin on his face. That’s the opening shot of both of these films, setting the cheesiness bar pretty damn high. So the tone that follows throughout is fast-paced and light-hearted.
Red is played by William “Wild Bill” Elliott, who got his start doing cowboy stage shows. He’s certainly a good choice for the role, with his tough-guy looks and the deepest voice this side of James Earl Jones. But as far as the character goes, we never get to know Red. When there’s trouble, we know he’s going to ride in to save the day. But where’s he riding in from? Instead of getting the girl, he usually helps some other guy get a girl. Unlike a lot of comic book heroes, we never really know who he is, where he came from, or the hows and whys of his becoming a hero. Instead, he just is. Character development, what there is of it, is left for the supporting cast.
But then, I don’t think many viewers are coming into this one expecting a deep character study. Red’s number one duty here is take out the bad guys, and Elliott does it with style. These are real old-fashioned “rootin’ tootin'” westerns, filled with gunfights, fist fights, and chases on horseback. The action might seem quaint by today’s standards, but I dare anyone not to be thrilled when the hero takes a bullwhip, lashes it to a chandelier overhead, and swings across the room during the middle of a barroom brawl.
These Red Ryder films are described as “B-westerns,” which is certainly appropriate. Even in these two samples, one can spot where shots or sets have been reused to meet the needs of the undoubtedly small budget. When we’re not in the middle of the action, dialogue scenes are filmed flatly, with the actors standing chorus line-style as if on a stage. Some viewers might be turned off by the low budget sloppiness on display, while others might find it charming.
Tucson Raiders is easily the better of the two films here. The action scenes are more elaborate, and the humor is broader, which better fits with the overall tone. By Marshal of Laredo, several films into the series, the mood is a little more toned down and more serious. Also, too much time is spent with the somewhat bland supporting characters, and not enough with our gun-toting hero.
These movies are also very much a product of their time, seen mostly when dealing with Red Ryder’s sidekick, a little Native American boy with the unintentionally giggle-worthy name of Little Beaver. The kid is always at Red’s side, willing to lend a hand when necessary, usually with his bow and arrow. Some of today’s culturally sensitive viewers might balk at the possible stereotyping on display with this character, especially his broken English (“You betchum, Red Ryder!”). Then things becomes even more oddball once you discover that Little Beaver is played by none other than Robert Blake, who would later grow up to star in In Cold Blood, Lost Highway, and TV’s Baretta. And, yes, there’s that whole “accused of murder” thing. If nothing else, his presence here makes these films quite the Hollywood oddity.
The picture quality here is surprising good, considering the films’ ages and low budgets. Although the visuals do tend to be soft, compare them to the two promos in the extras section to see just how much the picture has been restored. The promos are riddled with so many scratches that it’s hard to make what’s happening at times. The mono soundtrack is a little flat, but all the dialogue, music, and gunshots come through just fine.
Along with the above-mentioned promos, this disc also features chapters seven and eight of a 1940 Red Ryder matinee serial, The Adventures of Red Ryder, starring Don Barry in the title role and Tommy Cook as Little Beaver. It’s a little awkward jumping into the middle of the story. This is followed by two text bios for Elliott and Blake. (Sorry, tabloid fans, but Blake’s bio cuts off just after the Baretta years.) Rounding out the extras is a slideshow gallery of movie posters and panels from the original comic strip. I personally would have preferred to read some of Harmon’s comics in their entirety, but that’s not to be found on this disc.
So, this disc is “Volume 9” and it contains the first and tenth movies in the series? If VCI Entertainment is releasing an entire collection of these films, why not put them in their original order? If that’s not possible, then how about putting the two movies in order on the same disc? The main menu lists Marshal of Laredo before Tucson Raiders, although the latter was filmed first and is intended to be our introduction to Red and his world. So if you end up buying or renting this one, be sure to start in Tucson.
When I first saw one of the titles here, it set off all the Star Wars geek alarms in my head. Could Red Ryder’s Tucson Raiders be a long-lost precursor to George Lucas’s Tusken Raiders? Now that I’ve seen the film, I can report that there doesn’t appear to be any direct influence for Star Wars here. I kept hoping for a line about cowboys riding single file to hide their numbers, but it never happened. On the other hand, it’s no secret that Lucas is a big fan of old-fashioned serial-type films such as this, so you never know.
Although I doubt the western will ever die, it seems that the “B-western” is officially a thing of the past. As a historic relic, these films can’t be beat. But know that these are light westerns—if you’re expecting John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, you’ll be disappointed. If you go into them looking to have some harmless fun, though, you might get a kick of them.