If there’s one name synonymous with the film western, it’s John Wayne. The Duke! His career in Hollywood lasted longer than most stars. In the 1930’s he made tons of low-budget westerns, including a bunch for Republic Pictures. He was the studio’s biggest star, so it’s appropriate that he stars in today’s film…the first ever released by Republic. It’s 1935’s “Westward Ho.”
The film opens in the 1840’s as a family, including it’s two young sons John and Jim, are making their way west. Their wagons are full, they’ve got several head of cattle, things are looking up. At least until they are attacked by Walt Ballard (Jack Curtis) and his gang of outlaws. John ends up thrown from the wagon in the attack and both parents end up dead. However, little Jim is found by the bandits who take him off to raise as a part of the gang. John ends up alone in wilderness.
Fast forward several years. John is now the imposing figure of, you guessed it, John Wayne. He has decided to devote himself to getting rid of lawlessness in the west, so he puts together a band of men, all of whom have suffered loss at the hands of the outlaws, to go after the evil doers. They are vigilantes, but that’s not all! They become known across the land as “The Singin’ Riders.” Yup, they sing!
After successfully taking care of Black Bart and his gang, they hear of some folks driving a herd through the area who would be a prime target for some bandits. John takes it upon himself to join up with the herd owned by Lafe Gordon (James Farley) and his daughter Mary (Sheila Manors). John quickly becomes trail boss and catches the eye of Mary. After all, he sings for her! Don’t worry hombres, the Duke lip synchs this one.
Sure enough, some bandits are eyeing the herd. As a matter of fact, it’s Walt Ballard’s gang, with the now adult, and very Cumberbatch-ish, Jim (Frank McGlynn Jr) leading the charge. He also gains the trust of Gordon and joins the herd, but he’s setting things up for an ambush. Soon, he starts to see that John is an obstacle who must be eliminated and plots a way to eliminate the man he doesn’t know is his brother.
This is a very black and white sort of western. I’m not just talking the film…I mean there’s no mistaking the good guys and the bad guys. Heck, all the good guys even ride around on white horses. Of course, there’s no greater good guy than the Duke himself. He’s maybe not as hard-as-nails as he would be later on, but he’s still a joy to watch. I’ve also got to give some credit to McGlynn who manages to be a pretty intimidating figure in his own right. No easy task alongside Wayne.
The film does struggle a bit, though, with the action sequences. There are several moments where the screen is just filled with men on horses but with the camera positioned in a way that simply can’t capture everything that is happening. It’s a bit sloppy, but I guess I figure that in 1935 there was still a lot to learn about effectively staging an action sequence. There are a few moments that show some hints of creativity, such as a fist fight atop a speeding wagon that the Duke takes part in late in the film. For the most part, though, the action scenes lack focus.
Still, the star power of the Duke is impossible to ignore. This is an early film in his long career and far from being one of the best…but it’s still a film that commands a fair degree of respect. It’s John Wayne, after all!