Screenwriter James R. Webb was twice awarded the Bronze Wrangler by the Western Heritage Awards, in 1964 for How the West Was Won (also Oscar nominated) and 1965 for Cheyenne Autumn. The Writer's Guild of America honoured him three times with the Valentine Davies Award in 1965, the Morgan Cox Award in 1974 and the Edmund J. North Award in 1975. His 32 screenplays include a great mix of entertaining westerns, adventures and thrillers: Cape Fear, Phantom of the Rue Morgue, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!, Pork Chop Hill and Illegal. His first foray into movies was with the Roy Rogers western Nevada City in 1941. This was followed by such titles as Jesse James at Bay, South of St. Louis, The Big Trees and The Big Country.
TCMs Summer Under the Stars presented in the wee hours on Patricia Neal Day a 1951 western called Raton Pass. I didn't recall hearing of it previously, but it was a western so I set the recorder. The synopsis was rather convoluted about a rancher and homesteaders fighting his wife and her gunfighter, but if offered Steve Cochran as the gunfighter. Oh, boy! The Warner Bros. fanfare announced the start of the black and white feature which went into an unmistakable Max Steiner score. The movie might not be an epic, but Steiner always gives it that feel. As a devotee of William Wyler's The Big Country I was pleased to see the names James R. Webb as screenwriter and Edwin L. Marin (Abilene Town, Fighting Man of the Plains) as director. This, I thought, may well be worth the time.
Patricia Neal starred as Ann Challon, an extremely ambitious woman who made no secret of the fact that she wanted land and came to town with her sights set on Marc Challon played by Dennis Morgan. Both Marc and his father Pierre, played by Basil Ruysdael, thought Ann was the perfect wife/companion and new matriarch for the huge and powerful Challon ranch. Everyone was in accord, so what could possibly go wrong?
Ann was frustrated by the limited role of a woman at the ranch. Marc and his father had long done things their way and didn't want or solicit her ideas. Eventually Ann's natural greed took over and she got her hooks into a banker, Prentice played by Scott Forbes, with a plan to divorce Marc and buy him out. Pierre, on a wrong-headed generous impulse, had given Ann title to half the ranch on her wedding day.
Marc acquiesced to Ann's demand, or so it seemed to Pierre, who packed up and left town. Marc had a long range plan for revenge. Ann had no title to a strip of land called Raton Pass that Marc had leased from Jim Pozner played by Louis Jean Heydt. The homesteaders led by Pozner had long felt themselves under the thumb of the mighty Challons and forced to subsist on less than fertile land. Marc sought the help of the homesteaders, combined with his own loyal forces to box the cattle away from Challon land and drive Ann to bankruptcy. The only "in" Marc had with Pozner was Pozner's niece Lena played by Dorothy Hart. Lena had had a crush on Marc since girlhood and lied to her uncle that she and Marc were in a relationship. Her lie bought Marc some semblance of co-operation from the homesteaders.
Meanwhile, Ann had hired her own crew headed by gunfighter Cy Van Cleave (what a name!) played by Steve Cochran. They had connected when she first came to town and Ann thought she knew how to control the hot-headed fighter. Some gals were born to play with fire and Ann is at the head of the line.
Watching this work-a-day project I couldn't help but notice some similarities to the almost a decade off The Big Country. Raton Pass was based on a novel by Thomas W. Blackburn, the lyricist of the popular Davey Crockett theme, published in 1950. The Big Country was based on a novel by Donald Hamilton, author of the Matt Helm series. Webb's screenplays for both have some obvious similarities for those of us familiar (perhaps overly so) with the films.
Although the story of the all-powerful ranch owner sticking it to the little guy is nothing new in the western, it is the combined effect of the similarities which I found striking and more than a little endearing.
The Challons of Raton Pass rule with an iron fist and sense of entitlement similar to Major Terrill of The Big Country. Jim Pozner and his little guys living on scrub land and having to take it are easily marking time for Rufus Hannassey and the folks of Blanco Canyon. Marc Challon falling for the wrong gal when the right one is standing in front of him is a shadow of Jim McKay being engaged to Pat Terrill when Julie Maragon is right around the corner.
Near the climax of the feature, there is a scene where Lena and an injured Marc ride off to join Pierre as he and the remaining cowhands face Ann and Van Cleave. In an impassioned speech Lena berates her fellow homesteaders for not sticking up for themselves when it counts and off she and Marc ride alone. The music swells as eventually what is left of the Pozner gang follows. In its own small way it is a set-up for Major Terrill and Steve Leech's ride into Blanco Canyon - one of the great scenes in a western.
I'm not recommending Raton Pass as a must-see movie, but if you are a fan of The Big Country it is amusing to see parts of the epic in an embryonic stage. Dennis Morgan even sings a tune on his wedding day!