Thunder Over the Plains (1953)
“THUNDER IN HIS HEART…LIGHTNING IN HIS HOLSTERS…”
Director: AndrÃ© De Toth
Cast: Randolph Scott, Lex Barker, Phyllis Kirk
Synopsis: In Post-Bellum Texas, an army captain tries to keep the peace between overtaxed, impoverished farmers and greedy carpetbaggers.
It’s 1869, and in post-Civil War Texas, cavalry officer David Porter (Randolph Scott) has the unenviable task of keeping the peace between impoverished farmers unable to pay exorbitant taxes, and greedy carpetbaggers who are quick to claim the farmers’ property when they fall behind on payments. The Carpetbaggers grow rich buying from the farmers at an extortionately low price, and Porter, a Southerner himself who fought on the side of the Union because of his dislike of slavery, sympathises more with the farmers than the Carpetbaggers he is repeatedly called upon to protect. Porter’s wife Norah (Phyllis Kirk) is also unhappy, not only because she seems to spend most of her time cooking, but because the post at which her husband is stationed is remote and she has no friends.
Her delight at the arrival of dashing young Cavalry officer Bill Hodges (Lex Barker) is understandable then, even though Hodges and her husband fail to hit it off due to the younger man’s brash manner. Porter’s sympathy for his fellow Texans extends, to a degree, to the outlaws who regularly ambush carpetbaggers and steal back the goods they have bought at unfair prices. One of these gangs is led by Ben Westman (Charles McGraw), alongside whom Porter fought during the war, and Porter is angered when Hodge shoots one of Westman’s wounded men in the back. Nevertheless, he swallows his enmity and welcomes Hodges into his home, where it quickly becomes apparent that, not only did the young officer know Norah when he was a cadet at West Point, he’s also nursing something of a crush on her, and doesn’t seem too bothered about her now being a married lady.
Despite its generic title, Thunder Over the Plains is another solid mid-1950s Western from Randolph Scott, but with a more serious theme — the problems faced during the post-Civil War era of reconstruction — than many of his movies. This one also boasts a stronger than usual cast. In addition to Barker and McGraw we also have Henry Hull as Scott’s commanding officer, a man who’s big on issuing ominous ultimatums to those who displease him; Elisha Cook Jr., plays a weaselly (what else?) tax collector in league with unscrupulous carpetbagger Hugh Sanders, and even Davy Crockett actor Fess Parker makes an appearance. Russell S. Hughes’ screenplay keeps things moving at a pleasingly nifty pace, and Andre de Toth, who was always an interesting director, varies his shots so that the look of the film remains fresh throughout.
The line between right and wrong, good and bad, is a little blurred. Strictly speaking, gravel-voiced Charles McGraw’s character is as much a villain as the more conventional villains, Messrs Sanders and Cook Jr. He is a thief, after all. But he’s also a principled man, cast in a Robin Hood role, who destroys his ill-gotten gains or returns them to the poor. The third bad guy is supposed to be one of the good ones, and Lex Barker gives him an arrogance built upon misplaced self-confidence. At one point he steals a kiss from Norah Porter, and when she backs away he simply takes a firmer hold of her and places an even bigger smacker on her lips. It’s as if he’s watched too many old Hollywood movies in which the woman eventually melts into the leading man’s arms after initially resisting. There are plenty of good performances in Thunder Over the Plains, but it’s Scott, as usual, who holds sway. Never wavering in his beliefs, he follows with unerring accuracy the path of the good, and we all feel a little happier because of it. In fact I live in fear of one day stumbling across a movie in which good ol’ Randy turns out to be the bad guy…
(Reviewed 2nd August 2013)