THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART FOUR: COMANCHE STATION (1960)

This is Part Four in a four part series exploring Budd Boetticher’s 1950s Westerns starring Randolph Scott (known as the “Ranown cycle”).  The films previously discussed in the series were Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), and Ride Lonesome (1959).

If The Tall T is bleakest, and Ride Lonesome a fan favorite, then Comanche Station (1960) is the most poetic and artistically accomplished of Boetticher’s Ranown cycle of westerns.

Comanche_StationThis was the valedictory film for Ranown and was intended to be actor Randolph Scott’s as well (two years later he was talked out of retirement to make the sublime, yet slightly overrated Ride the High Country with director Sam Peckinpah and co-star Joel McCrea).

Scott emerges from a cubist landscape, first as a majestic silhouette, then as a haunted, chiseled ghost, continuing his vain, decade-long search for his (most likely dead) wife, abducted by Indians.

The native Americans here are portrayed as little more than savages, and Nancy Gates, the heroine he winds up rescuing, is a delicate object of prized beauty, rather than fully human.  These quibbles aside, once again Boetticher’s stark, stripped down sense of composition is replete with complex characters and ambiguous mores.

Randolph Scott embodies a beautiful purity here, more so even than in the other entries. His endless years of wandering through the vast, arid western desert, searching for his lost wife, echoes Orpheus searching for Eurydice in hell, or in a seemingly pointless purgatory.

Comanche Station is a brooding post-modernist work which stems from allegories found in the most potent, forceful biblical tales and mythology.  Claude Akins is the primary, King Saul-like villain; he has committed mass murder, intends to kill both Scott and Gates, does not hesitate killing his own man, and yet admires Scott and even saves him from a terrible fate.

Skip Homeier and Richard Rust are Akins’ latently homosexual henchmen (in a poignant scene, Akins complains to Scott of Homeier’s “softness”).  The scene in which Homeier carefully lifts Rust’s dead, arrow-ridden body from the creek permeates a tender fragrance like that found in the story of David and Jonathan from the biblical Book of Kings.  Homeier is touchingly simplistic, not truly wanting a life of crime, but clueless as to any other way of life.

Scott’s hero looks like a figure culled from a Cezanne canvas.  He is at first misjudged by Gates, but will eventually be her savior, reuniting her with her family, the stains and scars of her past laid to rest. There is no such redemption for Scott.  Station ends where it begins, and the tree from the finale of Ride Lonesome reappears here, symbolically haunting, in the middle of a river.

Pessimistic repetition is the Kafkaesque curse of Scott’s ghost, who will never find his wife, nor even a destination.  The final scene in Comanche Station, like the Ranown cycle itself, sears itself into memory.  These westerns are hopelessly undervalued by the bulk of mainstream audiences and critics, but for the initiated—as blasphemous as this may sound—this brief collaboration by a group of artists, lead by obsessive, inimitable auteur Budd Boetticher, rivals the best in American cinema (and, yes, that includes the films of John Ford).

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