Two-gun toting Robert Mitchum reunited with "Nevada" director Edward Killy for their second and last Zane Grey western "West of the Pecos," with Barbara Hale portraying Mitchum's leading lady. This rugged, black & white, RKO oater boasts solid production values despite being made during World War II when rationing of everything from food to lumber was the rule of the day in Hollywood. Of course, when the characters are in the desert, the scenery is stunning, but the outdoor scenes set in sound stages appear ersatz. Career conniver Harry Woods makes a despicable villain with a mustache who will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. The flirtatious romance between Mitchum and Hale lurches off to an uneven start with Hale posing as a boy. Mitchum and Hale make a credible couple. Meanwhile, our Stetson clad hero struggles to corral the vicious varmint who liquidated his best friend during a stagecoach hold-up. "West of the Pecos" could be classified as another one of those young men who venture out west for medicinal purposes. The difference, however, is that the young man turns out actually to be an older gentlemen who plans to rehabilitate him in the climate of the old West. Since I haven't read Zane Grey's novel, I have no idea how closely "Stagecoach War" scenarist Norman Houston adhered to Grey's book.
The story unfolds in Chicago in 1887 with Colonel Lambeth's physician, Doc Howard (Bryant Washburn), urging the meatpacking entrepreneur to alter his lifestyle or suffer the consequences. "You've got more lard around your middle," Howard observes, "than one of your own hogs." Lambeth says he hasn't exercised in 20 years. "You better take time. Use your arms and legs. Walk miles. Ride a horse. Get yourself a job as bricklayer if you have to." Lambeth dreads such activities. "Me?" Howard shrugs, "Anything to keep you from creaking in the middle," Howard asserts. Moments later the doctor advises Lambeth's daughter, "You must get him away from this city, far away, where he can be kept physically active." Rill decides to take her father out west to Texas to a ranch named the Ranch of the Oro. Lambeth's attorney Clyde Corbin explains the hacienda requires a lot of work to get it back up to snuff. The Colonel's headstrong daughter Rill (Barbara Hale of TV's "Perry Mason") goads him to travel to their sprawling hacienda in Texas. "You're going to Texas, father," she points out, "you need a change."
It seems that the attorney and Rill have eyes for each other and plan to get married. "West of the Pecos is still a wild and lawless country," Clyde assures Rill, "I won't let you go." Killy superimposes a map over a long shot of the Lambeths riding through the arid southwest. Incidentally, the stagecoach is drawn by four horses. Pecos Smith (Robert Mitchum) rides up to the stagecoach and insists that shotgun guard Tex Evans (Bill Williams) pay him his salary and save him a trip into town. No sooner has Pecos ridden away with his loot than outlaws attack the stagecoach and kill Tex. The outlaws take the stagecoach strongbox, blast it open, and clean it out. No sooner have the robbers ridden away than Pecos and his hybrid Mexican sidekick Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin) ride up and tend to Tex. In town, the Colonel clashes verbally with evil Brad Sawtelle about vigilante justice. "This is no country for civilized people, let alone women," Lambeth bemoans the cruel nature of the west. Rill learns more about these cruelties later when two men accost her and mistake her for a prostitute.
Meantime, before he dies, Tex tells Pecos that Sam Sawtelle (Perc Launders) shot him. After two men treat her like a whore, Rill adopts the western outfit of a young man. She masquerades as a boy during the trip that her father and she embark on to their remote ranch. When their wagon breaks down, stranding them in the middle of nowhere, the Lambeths and Suzanne, Rill's French Maid (Rita Corday) cross trails with Pecos Smith and his sidekick. The campfire scene when Pecos tries to persuade Rill to cuddle up with him in his bedroll so they can share their bodily warmth is hilarious as is the cigarette rolling scene.
"I don't do what people expect me to," Pecos (Robert Mitchum) observes at one point to a villain. Mitchum and Hale make a believable couple, and their shenanigans before Pecos realizes Rill isn't a young man are amusing. He discovers quite by accident that she is a woman when they are crossing the river on horseback. The relationship between Pecos and Rill is uneven. She is an heiress and he is a $30 a month cowhand when he isn't riding the stage. Eventually, Sam Sawtelle confesses his crime, and Lambeth refuses to turn Pecos over to the authorities. Meanwhile, another gunfight erupts with the Colonel shooting it out with Brad Sawtelle's vigilantes. Pecos catches Brad before he can flee. Pecos winds up with Rill, while her former fiancé heads back to Chicago.
"West of the Pecos" amounts a mischievous, little B-horse opera with usually strong performances.