THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955) a Western directed by the underrated Anthony Mann is not necessarily Shakespeare on the Range but it does borrow liberally some characters and themes from Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear. Cattle baron Alec Waggoman is clearly a Lear-like character, going blind, having dreams of being murdered, and trying to decide who in his family to hand his cattle ranch over to. But it's also a detective story as the lead character Will Lockhart (James Stewart) tries to solve the massacre of a Cavalry Patrol (including his younger brother) and the theft of a large cache of repeating rifles.
Director Mann and Jimmy Stewart made more films together than Stewart did with Hitchcock. Stewart made eight films with Mann compared to just four with the Master of Suspense. Apparently Stewart had trouble finding film roles when he returned from World War II and Mann offered him WINCHESTER '57. The loyal Stewart stuck with Mann for seven more films. Director Mann's Westerns always had a psychological edge to them which set him apart from directors like Ford or Hawks. Just as John Ford's THE SEARCHERS (1956) is probably Ford's best Western which he gradually worked up to with great efforts like FORT APACHE and RIO GRANDE, THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is considered Anthony Mann's best Western, showcasing all his themes that he had explored in earlier hits like WINCHESTER '57 (1950), BEND IN THE RIVER (1952), and THE NAKED SPUR (1953).
Like many of John Ford's best Westerns, THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is also based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Thomas T. Flynn, adapted to the screen by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. THE MAN FROM LARAMIE opens with Will Lockhart (James Stewart) and his sidekick Charley O'Leary (Wallace Ford) bringing a wagon train of supplies to the town of Coronado. Lockhart is the western version of a trucker, bringing supplies back and forth to towns throughout the West. Before they reach Coronado, Lockhart stops to investigate the burned remains of a U.S. Calvary wagon train known as the Massacre at Dutch Creek. Someone or group ambushed the Cavalry, murdered 12 soldiers including Lockhart's brother, and stole a crate of repeating rifles which seem to be falling into the hands of the Apache Indians. Lockhart wants to avenge his brother's death and find those responsible.
Lockhart will get more than he bargained for in Coronado. The town and most of the surrounding land is owned by Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), the patriarch of the Waggoman family and head of the Barb Ranch. Sensing his mortality, Alec has to decide whether to hand his ranch over to his adopted son Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) the level headed, rational foreman of the Barb Ranch or to his blood son Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), a spoiled psychotic who's jealous of Vic and terrified he can't meet his father's expectations. Lockhart stumbles into this family feud when Alec's niece Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O'Donnell) sends Lockhart to the salt flats outside of town to pick up some salt to take back to Laramie. Dave and his men show up, claiming the salt flats are part of the Barb Ranch. Dave orders Lockhart's wagons burned and his mules shot. Dave has Lockhart lassoed and dragged around until Vic shows up and saves Lockhart. With his wagons destroyed and his mules dead, Lockhart pays his men and decides to stick around Coronado to find work.
Dave snaps and races up a nearby mountain where he uncovers the hidden wagon with the repeating rifles. Dave's ready to sell the rest of the rifles to the Apaches and take over his father's ranch by force if necessary. Vic follows Dave and confronts him about the rifles. The CrazyFilmGuy will not reveal who else is involved with Dave and the stolen rifles and the massacre of the doomed Cavalry wagon train but Lockhart begins to unravel the mystery while dealing with the Waggoman family, Vic, and the Apaches who return to buy more repeating rifles.
THE MAN FROM LARAMIE borrows liberally from Shakespeare's play King Lear with cattle baron Alec Waggoman as the tragic Lear. Like King Lear who struggles to decide how to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Alec must contend with passing the Barb Ranch onto his hot-headed but weak biological son Dave Waggoman or the more reliable, loyal adopted son Vic Hansbro. Alec tussles with this decision, harshly criticizing both men one moment and urging them to prove their worth the next. Alec's irrational behavior will drive both sons to take some drastic actions. Like Lear, Alec's eyesight begins to fail him. He misreads his ledger and by the end of the film, blindness has overtaken Alec. Alec doesn't descend into madness like Lear but his emotions are at times bipolar. He tells Lockhart he's dreamt of his son Dave's death, believing a tall stranger will come into his home and kill Dave. Alec fears this stranger is Lockhart but it will be someone more surprising who will do harm to Dave.
In director Mann's westerns, the good and bad guys both have shades of grey to them. Many of Mann's westerns have a violent or dishonorable character that still has a human side to them like Dutch Henry Brown in WINCHESTER '57 or Dave Waggoman in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. In BEND IN THE RIVER, Stewart's McLyntock saves Arthur Kennedy's Emerson Cole early in the film and Cole repays the favor by helping McLyntock bring homesteaders over a mountain pass but the grudge they carry between them will eventually lead to a showdown. In THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, every character has strengths and weaknesses and a psychological cross to bear.
Will Lockhart's our hero but he may be an AWOL Calvary scout, hunting for the men who murdered his brother. He is the man from Laramie, Fort Laramie, but he doesn't want to talk much about his past. He says he's a wanderer with no place but the present he calls home. Lockhart is dragged and punched and arrested and shot in the hand by Dave Waggoman but he's like a wounded dog, coming back again and again and dishing it out just as good or better than he takes it. As THE MAN FROM LARAMIE progresses, Lockhart begins to open up about his past, revealing he probably was a captain in the U.S. Army. His obsession with finding his brother's killer may lie in that he wasn't with the patrol when they were murdered, although this is never implied. When Lockhart finally confronts the man who led to his brother's death, he can't kill him. Instead, Lockhart lets him face the consequences himself which the Apaches help facilitate.
The Lear like Alec Waggoman carries the burden of knowing he left Half Moon rancher Kate at the altar to marry a fancy East Coast woman. That union bore his only real son Dave, who was spoiled by his rich mother and became the rotten son that Alec can't fully trust to give the ranch to. Dave's jealously toward step brother Vic drives him to commit terrible atrocities such as shooting all of Lockhart's mules or selling rifles to the Apaches. Vic is most loyal to Alec yet he fears because he's not blood, Alec will give the ranch to Dave. Vic's insecurity will lead him to some bad decisions that will bring about his downfall.
James Stewart once again shows his versatility in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. Mann's Westerns are physical with lots of horse riding and wagon riding and fights in the dust and Stewart as Lockhart handles it like a real cowboy. Stewart once again exhibits that ability with his eyes to show fear and desperation when he's cornered or trapped or backed against a wall, evident from MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON all the way to VERTIGO. I always think of Stewart as more of a comedic actor but after the war, drama became his forte and he looks as comfortable in cowboy boots as he does in a tailored suit.
I'm beginning to add Arthur Kennedy to my list of favorite supporting actors. His performance as Vic Hansbro, the adopted son of Alec Waggoman is complex and moving. Vic is a tough, fair man who's wanted nothing but Alec's love but because he's not family, he's never quite received Alec's total loyalty. But like every male in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, Vic has a moment or two of weakness that will be his undoing. Kennedy played a more sneaky, opportunistic character in Mann's BEND IN THE RIVER also with Stewart. More recently I watched Kennedy as the alcoholic, abusive father in PEYTON PLACE (1957) and came away impressed with his ability to play complicated, tormented men.
Alex Nicol also makes the crazy son Dave Waggoman sympathetic at times as well. Dave could have been one dimensional but we feel for Dave who should be next in line for the Barb Ranch but his temper and lack of business sense bring him down. Rounding out the superb cast in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is the prolific Donald Crisp as cattle baron Alec Waggoman. Crisp reportedly acted in over 170 films including many silent films before moving to talkies. Crisp plays Alec like a king trying to hold onto his kingdom as age and blindness begin to creep up on him. As tough as Crisp seems in LARAMIE, he would also star in family films like LASSIE COME HOME (1943) and NATIONAL VELVET (1944).
One surprise for me in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is actress Cathy O'Donnell as Alec Waggoman's niece Barbara Waggoman and fiancee to Vic Hasbro. Early in the film, she's made up to look quite spinster like, a woman one would expect to see in the west. But as the film progresses, Barbara becomes more and more beautiful. She and Stewart have some nice scenes together, subtle flirting as they both know a relationship at this time would be imprudent. Their relationship is treated honestly and a forced upon romance that many filmmakers push is avoided. Look for the great character actor Jack Elam as the creepy snitch Chris Boldt. Elam was famous for his bulging eyes (a childhood injury left his left eye unmoving) and appeared in many westerns including Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968).
|This touched up publicity photo makes THE MAN FROM LARAMIE look like it was filmed in Monument Valley when in reality it was made on location in New Mexico.|
Director Anthony Mann began his career directing film noirs like T-MEN (1947) and RAW DEAL (1948). The middle part of his career he moved to Westerns mostly with James Stewart although he also worked with Henry Fonda in THE TIN STAR (1957) and Gary Cooper in MAN OF THE WEST (1958). The twilight of Mann's career saw him making historical epics including EL CID (1961) and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964) both over in Spain and with Sophia Loren. For his westerns, Mann chose new, fresh locations that audiences hadn't seen before. BEND IN THE RIVER was filmed around Mount Hood in Oregon. WINCHESTER '57 takes place in Tuscon, Arizona. THE NAKED SPUR was filmed in Durango, Colorado and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE uses the big wide open landscapes of New Mexico. I think Mann purposefully stayed away from the familiar John Ford territory of Monument Valley, Utah.
THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is a great example of taking the western genre and twisting it to make it much more than cowboys and Indians. LARAMIE has elements of Shakespeare's King Lear and the detective genre as well as characters with deep psychological issues. Western fans expecting a Hopalong Cassidy or Tom Mix serial western will be disappointed by THE MAN FROM LARAMIE as it is a much deeper, complex film but still has its share of shootouts, cattle drives, and men on horses to satisfy any Western fan.