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March 13, 2020

The Rare Breed

Belgian poster

Andrew McLaglen - 1966
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The Rare Breed could almost serve as a proxy for Andrew McLaglen's life. The plot revolves around the attempt to introduce the British Hereford cattle to the United States, cross-breeding with the American long-horn. It is so easy to forget that with the many westerns he's directed, that Andrew McLaglen was born in England and raised in the United States. The Rare Breed was second of four films McLaglen made with James Stewart and certainly the lightest of their collaborations.

Much of the film depends on the screen personas of the three leads - Stewart, Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith. They each bring a certain amount history from previous roles either with each or their connection, along with that of McLaglen, with John Ford. The cast also includes Ford stock company actors Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. in supporting roles. The cast does not quite transcend the episodic nature of the script written by Ric Hardman, whose credits are primarily from 1960s television series. As such, the film is packed with a barroom brawl, a stampede, a fistfight between Stewart and Keith, and a couple of romantic entanglements, plus a running gag with the Hereford bull only responding to the whistling of "God Save the Queen".

O'Hara, and Juliet Mills as her daughter, bringing the British bull to America, are almost caricatures of 19th Century Englishwomen adrift in the wild west of 1884. Brian Keith, as a Scottish cattle baron, is even more exaggerated, introduced with a mop of flaming red hair and a lengthy beard, speaking with a noticeable burr. It's up to Stewart to provide the gravitas, again playing a man obsessed, in this case with the idea that the crossbreeding will succeed in spite of the nay-sayers, going as far as seeking out the bull in a snow storm to check on its survival, putting his own life in jeopardy. Admittedly, this is not quite like the revenge seeking Stewart of the Anthony Mann westerns, or the search for Kim Novak's doppelgänger. The film was the last credited to actor turned producer William Alland, whose credits include several inspired B pictures and modestly budgeted films as a house producer at Universal. It seems possible that The Rare Breed may have been intended as programmer at a time when the traditional western was fading away, only to have benefitted from casting of iconic stars and genre director on the rise.

Andrew McLaglen has positioned himself as the last of the traditionalists, rising from working as an uncredited 2nd Assistant Director on John Ford's The Quiet Man, to Assistant Director on several films with William Wellman. It was John Wayne who had McLaglen direct a couple low budget films for the star's Batjac Productions. Following several years primarily directing the television series Gunsmoke and Have Gun will Travel, McLaglen's career got a boost when he served as director on McLintock!, essentially a western remake of The Quiet Man with Wayne reunited with O'Hara, with an overload of broad humor primarily at the expense of Ms. O'Hara. McLaglen's cinematographer, both on The Rare Breed and his other early features was William Clothier, who had also worked on several of John Ford's last films. Clothier also was cinematographer on Sam Peckinpah's debut feature, The Deadly Companions, starring O'Hara and Brian Keith. The Rare Breed appeared at about the same time as McLaglen's Batjac peer, Burt Kennedy, was making westerns that tweaked the genre.

As if there wasn't enough previous history among the actors, Maureen O'Hara had previously acted with Juliet Mills in a TV version of Mrs. Miniver. Not only did O'Hara play the part of Mills' mother in The Rare Breed, but she was the onscreen mother of Juliet's sister, Hayley Mills (as twins) in The Parent Trap, with the onscreen father played by Brian Keith.

Simon Abrams discusses some, though not all, of these various relationships in his commentary track. Maureen O'Hara's autobiography and Gary Fishgall's biography of Stewart are primary sources, along with some reviews and news articles from the time of production. Abrams is particularly helpful in pointing out a sequence that was primarily the work of stunt coordinator, and future director, Hal Needham. The information that the budget was two and half million dollars would place the film at the low end of what was considered a mid-budget film at the time of production, Universal still being the most tight-fisted major studio. There is also information on the real history of introducing Hereford cattle to America, as well as the ways The Rare Breed ignores geography both in the narrative and filming locations. The Rare Breed may be of greatest interest to genre historians as an unintended representative of a genre that seemed to be coming to end, only to be revitalized by crossbreeding done by unknown filmmakers with unpronounceable names in a west created in film studios in Italy and Spain.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 13, 2020 07:04 AM