News & Articles
Browse all content by date.
Jay C. Flippen and Don Murray in Henry Hathaway's unusual 1958 Western From Hell to Texas.
I love a good Western but often despair that I’ve seen the best of them.
Unfortunately, there are more mediocre Westerns than there are great ones, full of stereotypes and similar situations with different actors. I’ll revisit old favorites such as Stagecoach, The Three Godfathers, Winchester 73, Red River, High Noon, The Searchers, Shane, Ride the High Country, True Grit, The Unforgiven, to name a few of my favorites.
But I was certain I’d seen all the best the genre had to offer.
Hah! How wrong I was.
While paging through a book called A Pictorial History of the Western Film, published in 1969, writer William K. Everson heaped praise on a 1958 film by veteran director Henry Hathaway that I have never heard mention of before – From Hell to Texas, which was based on a 1957 novel, The Hell Bent Kid.
Everson went so far as to say it reminded him of the unique storytelling of George Stevens' Shane. I won't say he's wrong.
Watching From Hell to Texas brought tears of joy to my eyes for its cinematic beauty and Hathaway’s well-told revenge story. Hathaway loved telling revenge stories.
From Hell to Texas stars Don Murray, two years after his film debut, the Oscar-nominated role of Beau Decker opposite Marilyn Monroe in William Inge's Bus Stop.
Murray brought more than himself to the role of hunted man Tod Lohman in From Hell to Texas – he also brought his religious principles as a member of the Brethren Church, an Anabaptist Christian denomination that eschews violence.D
uring the Korean War, Murray used his religious conviction to register as a conscientious objector, and was sent to Europe for “alternative” service, to work with refugees and orphans.
The story goes that Henry Hathaway wanted Murray to star in his Western, but Murray did not like the violence his character displayed, so the script was rewritten to reflect that Murray’s character, Tod Lohman, while being a sharpshooter with a rifle, did not want to shoot anyone.
It seems that the character was rewritten to appease Murray’s religious convictions, and in doing so, a truly original Western character was created – an honest, peaceful cowboy who eschews violence but when pushed, will use it.
Lohman is being chased by patriarchal rancher Hunter Boyd (the always reliable R. G. Armstrong), who believes Lohman killed one of his three sons, Shorty.
From Lohman we eventually learn that he was at a dance when a woman asked him to pump a glass of water for her, unaware she was the girlfriend of the apparently jealous Shorty Boyd. Lohman does as the woman asks, and then was immediately attacked by a knife-wielding Shorty. Lohman rebuffs Shorty, knocking him down. The unfortunate Shorty falls on his own knife and dies.
When Lohman tells Hunter Boyd the story and says it’s God’s truth, Boyd answers that since God was the only witness and God doesn’t talk to Boyd, he can’t accept that scenario.
Boyd does have his own sense of justice, and when he learns that his youngest son, Tom (Dennis Hopper), killed Lohman's horse, he gives Lohman a horse and the approximately four hours he lost being on foot before he and his crew start chasing him again.
Knowing there are several routes Lohman can take, he splits up his crew. His right-hand man, Hal Carmody (John Larch), tells Boyd that he has a hunch and wants to go by himself along a certain trail.There is a side story about Lohman, originally from Iowa, searching for his father, who left he and his mother years ago. When Carmody asks to set after the naive Lohman by himself, I guessed that he might be Lohman's father and they would have a reunion.
But, no. Carmody wanted to kill Lohman for his boss, and makes a good effort to do so, but loses when Lohman shoots a precariously perched rock, that when it topples, causes Carmody to expose himself and be shot by Lohman.
After killing Carmody, we get another look into Lohman’s character. Carmody’s horse starts to follow Lohman and the horse Boyd gave him. At first he yells and throws rocks at it to make it go away, but the horse just puts distance between them before immediately following again. Lohman grabs his rifle to shoot the pesky horse. The horse stares at him and appears to bat its eyelashes until Lohman can only accept the horse’s presence. I had never before seen such an empathetic scene between a horse and a human in a Western. Beautiful!
The movie is filled with people you have seen before – great character actors – even though you may not know their names.
Chill Wills is at his genial best as Amos Bradley, a kind-hearted rancher with six daughters, the oldest of whom, a tomboy called Nita, short for Juanita (Diana Varsey), falls for Lohman.
And then there is veteran character actor Jay C. Flippen as crafty trader Jake Leffertfinger. I’ve always been a fan of Flippen’s work – especially in Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing. Whatever the character, Flippen always brought a natural affability, but he seems like another person entirely in From Hell to Texas. Although Flippen does not have a lot of screen time, he comes across here as one tough, savvy and admirable character. He dominates the screen in his scenes.
Rodolfo Acosta plays Boyd Hunter’s Mexican gunhand/ranchhand, inexplicably named Bayliss. You’ve seen him portray the Mexican villain many times.
And Harry Carey Jr., who co-starred with John Wayne in The Three Godfathers, has a very minor role as a Boyd cowhand.
There are also stories about 22-year-old Dennis Hopper bringing Method acting to Hathaway’s set, which created tension between the two. Legend has it that after more than 80 takes for one scene, Hathaway told Hopper, “You’ll never work in this town again!”
And he was right, because it was only through the intervention of John Wayne, a friend of Hopper’s late mother-in-law, actress Margaret Sullavan (who died of a barbiturate overdose in 1960), that Hopper was hired to play a role in Wayne’s 1965 film The Sons of Katie Elder, which, ironically, was also directed by Hathaway.
One other Hopper note worth mentioning – in the climactic showdown in From Hell to Texas, Hopper’s character is engulfed in flames. Studio publicity at the time noted that Hopper wore asbestos underwear for the scene.
Also, I have to wonder if the climactic shootout scene was inspired by Murray’s Anabaptist background.
Boyd has already lost Shorty and another son, Otis, who was crushed in a horse stampede that his cowboys started in a failed attempt to kill Lohman at the start of the movie.
Youngest son Tom has already been wounded in his gun arm when he foolishly pulled a hidden gun on Lohman. Lohman shoots Tom in the hand again during the final shootout, when Tom, his father and Bayliss attempt to ambush Lohman.
Tom is inside a building with a shotgun. Before they all start shooting at Lohman, who has sought cover from a horse trough, Hunter Boyd tells Tom to shoot out the gas light in the room he is in. Tom does so, the light explodes and drops burning oil onto Tom, he runs into the street aflame.
Lohman does not hesitate. To Boyd's amazement, Lohman runs into the street, exposing himself to their guns, jumps onto burning Tom and pulls sand from the street to extinguish the flames, thereby saving Tom's life and ending Hunter Boyd’s need for revenge.
Is it possible a page of Anabaptist history was used for this finale? In 16th century Holland, an Anabaptist named Dirk Willems was imprisoned for his religious beliefs by Roman Catholics. He escaped from the prison, but a guard gave chase. Willems made his way across an icy moat with the guard in pursuit. When the guard broke through the ice, Willems turned around and saved the man. Willems was again imprisoned and then ordered to be burned at the stake for “persisting obstinately in his opinion” to follow peaceful Anabaptist ways, thus becoming an Anabaptist martyr.
Perhaps Willems’ story never played in the making of From Hell to Texas, but if Murray has an actual role in shaping the story, it could be possible, with a much happier ending, of course.
And it’s made me want to visit some of Hathaway’s earlier works, such as To the Last Man (1933), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), the 1946 James Cagney spy movie 13 Rue Madeliene, the maniacal Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947), the western Rawhide (1951), which Quentin Tarantino has said inspired his own The Hateful 8; Diplomatic Courier (1952); and the gorgeous Technicolor daytime noir Niagara (1951) .
Update: I found Rawhide on YouTube, and, again, what an original Western and perspective. Tyrone Powers is an Eastrn gent learning the ropes of the mail business at a Western outpost thatis overrun by a gang of baddies, led by Hugh Marlowe. His gang includes two creepy characters expertly played by Jack Elam and almost unrecognizable Dean Jagger. Susan Hayward is the obligatory female. Another strangely told Western from Henry Hathaway.