What I’ve Been Watching: Kansas Pacific (1953).
Who’s Responsible: Ray Nazarro (director), Dan Ullman (screenwriter), Sterling Hayden, Eve Miller, and Barton MacLane (stars).
Why I Watched It: Hayden.
Seen It Before? No.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 6.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 4.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 7.
And? If you were going to make a Western in 1953, as Allied Artists did here, you could do a whole lot worse than entrust it to Nazarro and Ullman. The former directed scores of oaters on the large and small screens between 1945 and 1960, while the latter’s rather more diverse output also encompassed such SF offerings as The Maze (1953), BOF fave Mysterious Island (1961), and episodes of such genre series as The Outer Limits (“Cold Hands, Warm Heart”). As often noted, I watch Westerns less omnivorously, so I need a hook like a particular star or filmmaker, but we need look no further than General Jack D. Ripper himself, Sterling Hayden, who would star in Nazarro’s Top Gun two years later.
Just before the Civil War, “Bleeding Kansas” is still torn apart by pro- and anti-slavery factions, while the newly formed Confederacy is keenly aware that the Kansas Pacific Railroad now under construction will form a vital supply line for the Union’s Western outposts. Neither side wants to be responsible for starting a shooting war, so the Union declines to send troops to protect the crews, while the Confederates do everything they can—short of killing, at first—to stop them. Into this powderkeg is thrust Captain John Nelson (Hayden), an Army engineer sent undercover to help boss Cal Bruce (MacLane), his daughter, Barbara (Miller), and his train engineer pal, Smokestack (Harry Shannon).
Since the true nature of Nelson’s mission is on a need-to-know basis, the Bruces are, not surprisingly, under the misimpression that he is there to take Cal’s job, and they almost head back East, but Smokestack persuades them that with war imminent, this is no time to turn quitters. MacLane—whom I first saw as the abrasive cop Dundy in The Maltese Falcon (1941)—played so many pills in his career, and played them so well, that when I saw how prominently he was billed, I assumed he would be the villain, and I was thrilled that he got to be a good guy for a change. In fact, one of this film’s greatest pleasures is seeing him slowly begin to trust Nelson…albeit faster than love-interest Barbara, natch!
In a nice touch, when Nelson first gets to town, he sees Bill Quantrill (Reed Hadley) get attacked by three ruffians who want to run him out of town; gentleman that he is, Nelson steps in to even the odds, unaware that he’s assisting the incognito leader of the very men opposing him. In an economical 73 minutes, Ullman skillfully sketches the escalation of the hostilities between the two sides; the growing camaraderie between Nelson and the railroad crew; and his rapport with the Bruces. Smokestack adds an acceptable level of comic relief, annoying Cal with his omnipresent pipe, and several familiar faces round out the cast, including James Griffith and villains Douglas Fowley and Myron Healey.