30 May 2011 | BrianDanaCamp
Easygoing western with quirky characters and great frontier flavor
THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE (1938) doesn't play like a standard Hollywood western, either A or B. It's more like what you'd get if you took two short stories based on a colorful, larger-than-life western character and merged them together and made a film out of it. It's much more character-driven than plot-driven. A handful of lively, eccentric characters with wildly varying agendas are thrown on screen together and let loose in a tiny Texas town hoping to see some growth from a new railroad station.
Harry Carey Sr. plays Bill Barker, a tall-tale-spinning westerner with big dreams but little capital. In the opening scene, set in New York in 1881, he rides a carriage at high speed down Broadway and tries to con a Wall Street tycoon who's a little too smart for him. Back in Texas, he finds himself elected mayor of Martinez, thanks to his ability to dazzle a crowd with extemporaneous big talk. He takes a local outlaw under his wing, the Tonto Kid (Tim Holt), and tries to get him to straighten out, especially after the boy takes a liking to a newly arrived young lady who happens to be Barker's daughter, a relationship she has no knowledge of, having been raised to think her father died a hero at Gettysburg. Which is exactly how Barker wants it.
There are Indians, whose movements are manipulated to benefit different factions, and corrupt ranchers seeking to deprive rivals of available water resources. There are dance hall girls whose function is never spelled out but is quite evident nonetheless. Everything happens at its own pace and if you come into this expecting—or demanding—the usual western formula you will allow the film's considerable virtues to fly right over your head.
In the few writings I've seen on this film, much is made of the central characters' resemblance to certain western historical figures, e.g. Judge Roy Bean, Billy the Kid and the Clanton Gang. As someone who's read quite a bit of western history, I find the characters presented here unique enough to stand on their own as memorable fictional figures and the tale, as spun here, more in keeping with folklore than with history.