No genre can equal the western in terms of its ability to showcase America’s vast and impressive landscape. Arguably the highlight of Raoul Walsh’s Clark Gable-starring 1955 film The Tall Men is the plethora of breathtaking Cinemascope shots of snow-covered forests, wide-open plains, rocky gorges and fast-flowing rivers that regularly punctuate the studio-based scenes. While watching the film I made a note that read ‘the American frontier is Gable’s co-star here’, and I was all ready to praise the virtues of the big country in this review until I discovered that most of it was shot in Durango, Mexico. Ah well.
Gable plays Ben Allison, an ex-Confederate soldier in search of gold with his younger brother Clint (Cameron Mitchell). They opportunistically rob and kidnap a Texas businessman named Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan) following a poker game, but Stark convinces them to join him on a cattle drive up to Montana in order to make more money. Along the way they come across a party of settlers that includes Nella Turner (Jane Russell), who Ben subsequently saves from a raiding party of Sioux Indians.
Turner joins the Allison brothers and Stark. She initially has a fling with Ben when the pair get stuck in a cabin during a snowstorm, but subsequently rejects him as he ‘dreams too small’. Ben’s intention is simply to live a quiet life on a ranch in his hometown, but Nella is convinced that is the road to ruin after the break-up of her parents’ marriage under similar circumstances. Instead she gravitates toward Stark, a rich man who is motivated by the idea of becoming even wealthier. As the cattle drive gets underway the party comes under attack from more Native Americans, as well as a gang of Jayhawkers. Meanwhile Ben and Nathan both vie for the ambitious Nella’s affections.
This was actually an unusual role for Gable. After his 1930s heyday he appeared in a few westerns (for example Honky Tonk, Boom Town, Across The Wide Missouri, Lone Star) as they became more and more popular, but despite all his leading man experience this was his first alpha male / John Wayne-style part. Clearly he enjoyed making these films, as he appeared in eight in total prior to his early death in 1960. The experience of working with Walsh – a veteran director who first rose to prominence during the silent film era – must have been a positive one too, as he made two further films with the director in 1956 and 1957 (The King And Four Queens and Band Of Angels).
Gable has a magnetic presence that his co-stars simply fail to match, although the idea that Stark is a love rival is plausible enough given Nella’s attraction to wealth and those who dream and think big. Unfortunately even he cannot save the film from its dreary, plodding plot, which is based on a novel by Clay Fisher. The screenplay by Sydney Boehm and Frank Nugent lacks any spark and – despite one or two exchanges between Ben and Nella – it often stalls and regularly grates due to its stubborn refusal to go anywhere. At just over two hours it feels overlong, and could easily have been shorn of 30 minutes or so.
Part of the problem is the vast amount of time spent leading up to the cattle drive. Whole seasons seem to pass as Nella shuffles from the side of Ben to Nathan to Ben to Nathan to Ben to Nathan, but once the group sets off for Montana it finally picks up. This is where Walsh’s cinematographer Leo Tover shines: the shots of the huge herd and the cowboys controlling it are excellent, particularly when shown from a distance. At times The Tall Men looks as good as any western you could care to mention, and despite one or two scenes looking a little washed out it is often a visual treat.
The cattle drive – basically the last thirty minutes of the film, give or take – is quite exciting, particularly when the party comes under attack. The shootout with the Jayhawkers is impressive, as is a set-piece with another Sioux raiding party at the end. The trouble is these are but brief flickers of life that feel like the last bleeps of a body that has otherwise been flatlining, and as with most westerns of this period the Native Americans are painted in a depressingly negative light – interested only in aggression and attacking any strangers they happen to come across.
Its attempts to grapple with certain simple concepts are fine, and the movie explores themes of success and the future adequately. Lines like ‘you dream big Mr Stark’, ‘Big dreamers need big money and I dream small’ and ‘I have no interest in being a small man’ are commonplace, and Russell even gets to sing a couple of songs that fit well with the ideas at play.
Unfortunately The Tall Men is overly-occupied with its love story, which is a very boring one indeed, as there isn’t nearly enough tension between the three leads involved. Russell’s vaguely feisty knee-slapping heroine is incredibly irritating, and the outcome of all her to-ing and fro-ing between Ben and Nathan is inevitable, which makes sitting through two hours of it rather dull. Greater balance between the lulls and the thrills would have been preferable, and as such it does not compare favourably with Howard Hawks’ Red River, another film dealing with a cattle drive. A shorter running time would have helped too, but it contains a good performance by Clark Gable and there are many scenes of American – or rather Mexican – beauty. If you are a fan of Gable or westerns generally it’s worth a watch on a rainy day.
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Written by: Clay Fisher, Sydney Boehm, Frank Nugent
Starring: Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan
Running Time: 122 minutes