Comanche Station

English Title: Comanche Station

Country of Origin: USA

Studio: Columbia

Director: Budd Boetticher

Producer(s): Harry Joe Brown

Screenplay: Burt Kennedy

Cinematographer: Charles Lawton Junior

Art Director: Carl Anderson

Editor: Edwin Bryant

Runtime: 74 minutes

Genre: Western

Starring/Cast: Randolph Scott, Richard Rust, Skip Homeier, Nancy Gates, Claude Akins

Year: 1960

Volume: American - Hollywood

A rider leads a packhorse through rocky terrain. Suddenly surrounded by Indians, he dismounts and displays goods for trade. Refusing two horses offered in exchange – ‘Please yourself’ – a threatening lance halts his departure. So begins the story of Jefferson Cody, a man still searching for a wife, ten years after her capture by Comanche. On this occasion, he trades for Mrs Lowe, and will escort her to her home in Lordsburg. But, at the titular stagecoach station, Lane and his two young sidekicks arrive, chased by a group of Indians. Together, they can survive the attack. In the ensuing exchanges, it is revealed that Cody and Lane have a bitter history; Cody having given evidence against Lane in a trial for a massacre in an Indian village. Mrs Lane at first turns against Cody when the duplicitous Lane reveals that her husband has posted a considerable ransom for her return – dead or alive – though Cody denies knowledge of it. Lane plots to return the woman for the ransom himself, though his ‘young guns’ are less attracted by the potential consequence to kill both Cody and Mrs Lowe (‘My ma didn’t raise me to kill no woman’) in order to do it. On the journey together towards Lordsburg, there will be further Indian attacks, and twists and turns in loyalties and affiliations among the group, before Mrs Lowe can safely return to her family.

Comanche Station is the last, but certainly not the least, of a cycle of seven celebrated minor Westerns, all directed by Budd Boetticher and starring the genre icon, Randolph Scott. Known critically as the Ranown cycle (named after the production company formed by Scott and producer Brown), they are supreme models of variation on the genre’s classic theme of a man alone tested in lawless conditions. In others in the cycle (mostly scripted, as here, by Burt Kennedy), Scott’s isolated heroes are bitter characters, psychologically damaged by traumatic experiences before the film starts or made so during it by confrontations with brutal acts of villainy. In Comanche Station, Scott’s Cody is simply a man whose emotional state has been destroyed, not only by the absence of his wife but also by his refusal to accept her likely loss. The search for her comes to define both the purpose of his life and the film’s pervasive sadness.
Despite that dominant mood, Comanche Station develops with exciting narrative logic. Boetticher’s construction of likeable but threatening character relationships, fuelled by Kennedy’s laconic and often witty dialogue, is realised by a skilled team of central performers, not least by the underrated actor that is Scott, whose way with steely looks and laconic asides define the hero’s resistant honour and dignity.
Like the hero in other Ranown films, Cody knows that his life is precarious, whether in the vain search for his wife among unpredictable Indians or among wandering bands of bad men. At any moment he could be killed, yet that knowledge serves only further to narrow and make more resolute his purpose. Despite the threat posed by the villains, they are nonetheless presented as likeable and human. Claude Akins’ Lane gets the best lines, by turns verbally seducing Mrs Lowe and taunting Cody, refusing to mask his foul intentions. Critics invoke the flirtatious rituals of the bullfight’s corrida to explain the nature of the hero’s relationship with the villain in the Ranown cycle. Andrew Sarris considers them ‘floating poker games’.
But it is not just the central antagonism that defines the quality of Comanche Station. Even secondary roles are distinctive. We are saddened at the loss of the ‘young guns’ riding with Lane, so poorly educated and unknowing that an admission of friendship in their relationship comes as a surprise. Here, as in other films in the cycle, a villain will risk death rather than continue a task he loses faith in. Richard Rust’s innocent Dobie will fatally turn his back on his gang leader, tempting the shot that finally comes. Villains die ignominiously. Skip Homeier’s Frank will be left floating down a river, an arrow in his back, Dobie’s body – foot trapped in a stirrup – will be dragged by his horse across the rocky terrain. Lane could ride off free but a sense of honour and a shared integrity force him to confront Cody. Though villains, men like these are too likeable to deserve such an end.
Jim Kitses considers the Ranown cycle ‘comedies, deeply ironic works… bitter-sweet reflections on the human condition’ and thus ‘parodies of the morality play’ in which ‘violence and injustice are less the property of malignant individuals than of the world itself’ (Kitses 2004:96). Despite the enforced and unlikely happy endings to these films – Comanche Station is no exception – the Ranown cycle offers about as dystopian a view of its wilderness world as the Western can imagine.

Kitses, J. (2004), Horizons West, London: BFI Publishing.

Author of this review: David Lusted