Monday, March 12, 2012

Kansas Pacific (Allied Artists, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a film Charles and I recently downloaded from, Kansas Pacific, a 1953 production from Allied Artists (née Monogram) which was supposedly about the building of the transcontinental railroad (or at least one of them) and therefore I thought it might make interesting viewing so soon after I read Richard White’s fascinating history of the transcontinentals, Railroaded. It had almost nothing to do with the real history, but Kansas Pacific — directed by one Ray Nazzaro from a script by Daniel B. Ullman adapted from his own play (and how they did a story like this on stage is beyond me) — turned out to be an entertaining action Western, a series of confrontations taking place in 1860-61 (the movie begins with a newspaper headline announcing Abraham Lincoln’s election as President) in so-called “Bleeding Kansas” over the Kansas Pacific railroad. Ostensibly it’s a private enterprise owned by Sherman Johnson (Jonathan Hale) but really it’s a secret project of the U.S. Army under General Winfield Scott (Roy Gordon — he’s nowhere nearly as corpulent as the real Scott and his facial hair is far less impressive, but a mere actor was hardly going to be able to compete with Sydney Greenstreet, who played Scott in They Died With Their Boots On and was an almost dead ringer for the surviving paintings and photos of the original).

There’s a team of comic-relief characters, construction supervisor Cal Bruce (Barton MacLane) and his chief engineer, Smokestack (Harry Shannon, a good deal more personable and entertaining than he was as Zarkov in the Flash Gordon serials), who resent the fact that, at Scott’s insistence, Johnson has sent them a new “supervising engineer” in the person of John Nelson (Sterling Hayden, top-billed), who’s really a U.S. Army captain who’s there to make sure the Kansas Pacific gets built because it’s going to be essential if the Union is to be able to supply its western forts in the upcoming Civil War. Out to make sure the Kansas Pacific doesn’t get built is a gang of Confederate raiders headed by Bill Quantrill (Reed Hadley) — the character is actually based on a real person, who during the war led a guerrilla band fighting a so-called “irregular war” on the Confederate side and enlisting a number of people who became prominent outlaws after the war, notably Jesse and Frank James. (Reed Hadley also played Jesse James in at least two films.) One of his men, listed in the cast merely as “Henchman Stone,” is played by future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore (and a number of people on commented on the irony that the great masked hero is playing a bad guy here). The script of Kansas Pacific is little more than a series of action highlights detailing Quantrill’s attempts to sabotage the railroad’s construction and Nelson’s attempts to keep the construction going — at one point they reach the Iverson Ranch and I joked, “Obviously they’ve been making progress; they’ve got to all the old familiar Republic Western locations” — interspersed with the predictable romantic interludes between Nelson and Bruce’s daughter Barbara (the personable Eve Miller), who predictably hates him at first sight (thinking he’s there to take her dad’s job) and ends up in love with him.

Produced by Walter Wanger after he’d fallen from grace at the major studios — he’d shot at Jennings Lang, his wife Joan Bennett’s agent, in the mistaken belief they were having an affair, and had served a six-month sentence for attempted murder; when he got out only a cheap outfit like the former Monogram would hire him — Kansas Pacific is competent enough entertainment, though Sterling Hayden is oddly miscast (his best roles are the anti-hero of Johnny Guitar, what might be called the “anti-villains” — crooks, but not entirely unsympathetic crooks — of The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, and the bonkers general who starts World War III in Dr. Strangelove) and the role needed the less ambiguous heroics of Gary Cooper or John Wayne. It’s also in color — Cinécolor, a competitor to Technicolor which was developed in the early 1930’s and managed to photograph blue before Technicolor could; indeed, in Cinécolor films the blues tended to be so overpowering they dominated every other color — as they do in this film, in which the first thing we see is a vista of blue sky in the background and, in the foreground, a blue train passing through the blue countryside with its blue smokestack emitting blue smoke. (At least it’s more fun to watch than the modern films in which everything is brown!) And there’s an amusing anachronism: dynamite figures prominently in the plot as an explosive being used by the good guys to help build the railroad and by the bad guys to help sabotage it — only dynamite wasn’t invented (by Swedish construction engineer Alfred Nobel, who wanted a way to stabilize nitroglycerine chemically so it wouldn’t explode until he and his crews wanted it to) until 1866, one year after the Civil War ended.