1 June 2018 | JamesHitchcock
Len Merrick, a US marshal, and his two deputies rescue an elderly farmer named Timothy Keith from a lynch mob. Keith is something of a disreputable character and freely admits to being a cattle rustler, but the leader of the mob, a local rancher named Ned Roden, indignantly denies that he would seek to take a man's life for a few head of cattle. He believes that Keith is guilty of a much more serious crime, the murder of Roden's son Ed who has been found shot in the back. In view of the seriousness of the allegation against Keith, Merrick agrees to take him to Santa Loma to stand trial, but this does not satisfy Roden who wants to kill Keith with his own hands, not leave the task to the public hangman.
The rest of the film tells the story of the journey to Santa Loma and of Keith's trial. Merrick and his deputies are pursued across the desert by Roden and his gang who are determined to administer their own brand of justice and who would have no compunction about killing Merrick in order to do so. Keith himself does not make the task any easier. Although he claims that he is innocent of the murder charge, he clearly does not believe that he can expect a fair trial in Santa Loma because he is continually trying either to escape or to persuade Merrick to set him free. He clearly does not realise that it is only the presence of the three lawmen which protects him from Roden's rough justice. Further complicating factors are the fact that Merrick is forced to take Roden's other son, Dan, as a hostage and the presence on the journey of Keith's beautiful daughter Ann. Merrick and Ann fall in love, but their romance is a difficult one because she believes passionately in her father's innocence whereas Merrick believes him to be guilty.
This was Kirk Douglas's first Western. Although he was to make many films in this genre during his long career, few of the ones which I have seen really rank among his greatest, apart from the modern-day "Lonely Are the Brave" and, possibly, "Gunfight at the OK Corral". "Along the Great Divide" does not really qualify as a great film either. The plot is a complex one, and at times too much so for its own good. The whole romantic subplot between Merrick and Ann is one of the complications which could easily have been omitted, but the producers evidently wanted to see a pretty girl in what would otherwise have been an all-male film, and in the early fifties few young actresses were prettier than Virginia Mayo. Walter Brennan seemed to specialise in playing irritating old men, and here he makes Keith the sort of irritating old man that audiences would quite happily have seen hanged, if not for murder or for cattle-rustling then for being a general pain in the ass.
This may not be a great film, but Douglas himself certainly gives an excellent performance. The film is a "psychological Western", one of a type which was becoming popular in the early fifties; in the next few years James Stewart was to make some great films of this type with director Anthony Mann such as "The Naked Spur" and "The Man from Laramie". Merrick is not a straightforward hero but a difficult, conflicted individual, torn by guilt following an incident in his past. His relationship with Keith is not eased by the fact that the old man reminds him of his father, with whom he also had a difficult relationship. His determination to save Keith from the lynch mob, even though he believes him to be guilty, is only partly due to a belief that any man, even an accused murderer, deserves the due process of law. It can also be seen as an attempt to confront his feelings of guilt and to make amends for the incident which gave rise to them. Douglas's performance gives the film a greater psychological and moral complexity than it might otherwise have had and lifts the film above the level of some of his more run-of-the-mill Westerns like "The Big Trees" or "The Indian Fighter". 7/10