In the opening minutes of “Westbound” (1959), fans of these films, known as the “Ranown” movies might be discouraged. After all it’s the sixth of seven collaborations between director Budd Boetticher and western star Randolph Scott, but unlike the other six films, this one is different; so much so in fact, that Boetticher himself didn’t include it as a Ranown movie. Scott owed Warner Bothers a film, and being the good friend that he was, Boetticher volunteered to direct. The result isn’t anything special, but imagine how bad it could have been without Boetticher’s help.
The film opens during the Civil War, as Captain John Hayes (Randolph Scott) is pulled from active duty in order to run gold on the Overland Stage, from California to the Union troops. On his way out west he meets another Union soldier, Rod Miller (Michael Dante), who’s traveling back home to be with his wife, Jeannie (Karen Steele), after losing an arm in battle.
Upon arriving in his hometown of Julesburg, Colorado, Hayes discovers that the Overland stop has been deserted, as most of the town is sympathetic with the Confederacy. A former acquaintance of Hayes’s, Putnam (Andrew Duggan), informs Hayes that he intends to do everything in his power to prevent the stage from being successful in their efforts to aid the Union, including having hired a gunslinger, Mace (Michael Pate), to reek havoc whenever possible. Putnam also mentions that he has married Hayes’s former flame, Norma (Virginia Mayo), which surprisingly doesn’t seem to affect Hayes much.
Without a stage post in Julesburg, the operation begins to struggle. Even the outlining posts are having their buildings burned and the horses run off. Hayes visits Rod and Jeannie, who are happy to help by offering their home to be the new post. This only enrages Putnam and Mace, who become obsessed with stopping the gold, leading to an inevitable confrontation.
It sure was nice of Boetticher to direct “Westbound”, despite the film’s obvious deficiencies. His directorial skills added so much to a production that was plagued with a mediocre screenplay and cheap overall values. The location shooting is virtually non-existent, with the typical Warner Brothers scenes filmed on the backlot, looking as fake and easily designed as possible. Boerricher’s best films always seem to be the ones where he was able to express his creativity on a large-scale. “Westbound” was filmed with Boetticher’s hands tied, and it shows.
The acting, however, saves the story from itself. Scott is so comfortable in western films that it seems like he doesn’t even have to try. Virginia Mayo and Karen Steele come through with great supporting performances that somewhat surprisingly avoid the clichéd female-western character flaws. Michael Pate does some overacting, but still pulls off a good combination of ruthless and slightly crazy.
The funniest part of “Westbound” is that I don’t think it could have been better. Some stories just can’t be great because they lack the potential upon their initial concept. This is a film that could have been really bad, but because everyone gave there absolute best, it ended up being a halfway decent film that stays entertaining throughout.