"The Desperadoes" (1943) is a genuine classic, not for its story (which is fairly routine), but for its technical production elements. This was a landmark western, the biggest ever at the time of its release and all the more unique because it was a Columbia production-a lightweight studio with a bottom feeding reputation. Only Fox's "Jesse James" (also starring Randolph Scott) from a few years earlier gave anywhere near this lavish a treatment to the genre. Although it would be eclipsed in a few years by "The Searchers" and "High Noon", "The Desperadoes" was a ground breaking effort and a historical treasure.
In 1863, the economy in the town of Red Valley, Utah is based on rounding up and selling wild horses to the Union Army. The script gets a little messed up here with references to the railroad (which was several years away in Utah's future) and Custer's Last Stand (Custer was busy fighting Stuart in Pennsylvania at the time) but these are not important plot elements.
Red Valley has an honest sheriff, Steve Upton (Scott), but the banker and several citizens are corrupt; robbing their own bank each time the government pays for a herd of horses. The town is visited by Cheyenne Rogers (Glenn Ford), a famous outlaw who is an old friend Steve's. He wants to go straight, especially after falling for the pretty livery stable owner Alison McLeod (Evelyn Keyes). Cheyenne's partner "Nitro" Rankin (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) is mainly there for comic relief as are Uncle Willie McLeod (Edgar Buchanan) and the town judge (Raymond Walburn who models his character on Frank Morgan's "Wizard of Oz" crystal ball faker).
Taking no chances with their huge budget Columbia packed this thing with tons of action and every western movie element but Indians and covered wagons. There is the best wild horse stampede ever filmed, a spectacular barroom brawl, an explosive climax, romance, and three-strip Technicolor. All this stuff doesn't necessarily fit together but who would have cared back in 1943. Unity is a problem as it tries to be both a serious action western and a comedy.
The cinematography was probably the best ever at the time of its filming. The indoor scenes are solid but it is the naturalistic outdoor photography that is truly impressive; both the lyrical static shots and the moving camera filming of the action sequences.
Scott and Claire Trevor were top billed, but the studio clearly wanted to promote Ford, who would soon be their biggest star. And Director Charles Vidor utilized the film to showcase his new wife Keyes (whose portrayal of Scarlett's sister in "Gone With the Wind" had connected with audiences more than any small part in the history of films).
The Ford-Keyes dynamic is "The Desperadoes" most unique and important feature. Rather than go for the cliché "love triangle" with Scott and/or Trevor (which it first appears will happen), the entire romantic focus is on the two younger actors. This was probably the best role Keyes ever got and she makes the most of it. Playing a tomboyish but extremely sexy young woman who looks great in both leather pants and dresses, and who rides and fights like Kiera Knightley's character in "Pirates of the Caribbean". This was revolutionary at the time and coincided with the 1942 formation of the WAAC for WWII military service.
"The Desperadoes" is one film that has been well taken care of and the print looks like it is brand new. Unfortunately there are no special features on the DVD.
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.