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March 27, 2023

Border River

border river.jpeg

George Sherman - 1954
KL Studio Classics

The Rio Grande seems almost incidental to Border River. Most of the film takes place in a nearby town, a part of Mexico independent of the government, run by a self-appointed general. Taking place in 1865, this free zone is made up in part by communities of Union and Confederate soldiers who may no longer be part of the military, but still carry over their respective rivalries. Clete Mattson is a Confederate major chased into the free zone by Union troops, with a plan to sell two million dollars worth of Union gold to the Mexican general in exchange for ammunitions for the Confederate army.

Aside from making a deal with General Calleja, Mattson has his eye on Calleja's, um, business partner, Carmelita. This is a western designed to play as part of a double feature package, but with pockets of unexpected humor in the screenplay, and a few touches of visual style from director Sherman. An example of the occasional snark is after several spies are captured, Calleja assures Mattson, "We will give these men a fair trial, then we will shoot them in the morning." Everything is kept within the tidy running time of 80 minutes. One scene involving Mattson and his horse seems like a digression but is revealed later to be an important plot point. The climatic fight scene, if not inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog, bears a striking similarity. I also liked that the writers Louis Stevens and William Sackheim had historical points that were not anachronisms with their references to the earlier version of the Denver Mint. Border River was made at a time when studios were grounding out modestly budgeted westerns on a regular basis as dependable money makers, with only a handful of critics who may have noticed the films that exhibited even a shred artistic ambition.

Joel McCrea, at this point exclusively making westerns, stars as Mattson. Yvonne De Carlo is the woman caught between McCrea and Pedro Armendariz as the general. De Carlo is often dressed to distract from the men, especially in a bright red dress. While the story is about the theft of gold, the real theft is that done by Alfonso Bedoya as Callejo's Captain Vargas. Even if one does not recognize the name, the face should be familiar. Bedoya is best remembered for telling Humphrey Bogart (paraphrasing), "We don't need no stinkin' badges". Bedoya does not disappoint here either. Say what you will about a performance that is arguably exaggerated and cartoonish - it is also the most entertaining part of the film.

Western genre specialist Toby Roan provides an enthusiastic commentary track, digging deeply into various aspects of the production. In addition to the better known cast members, Roan points out various supporting and stunt players, anecdotes about filming on location in Utah, and an extensive dive into the filmography of director George Sherman. Roan lightly touches on the historical setting of Border River as well with a brief history of the free zone. The source print appears to be a well preserved Technicolor print that is especially complimentary for Yvonne De Carlo's array of bright monochrome dresses and close-ups that could serve as commercials for her red lipstick.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 27, 2023 07:46 AM