3 December 2007 | JamesHitchcock
Young Man Learns Lessons About Life
Most Westerns, apart from comedies, are about conflicts- heroes versus villains, cavalry versus Indians, sheriff versus outlaws- which can only be settled by violence. "Cattle Drive", however, is different. It is the story of a spoilt teenager, Chester Graham Junior, the son of a millionaire railway tycoon, who is travelling through the West on one of his father's trains. When the trains stops briefly to take on water, Chester is accidentally left behind, but he is rescued by a gang of cowboys on a cattle drive. The men have no time to take him in search of his father; they insist that he must accompany them to their destination, Santa Fe, and that he must help them with their work if he wants to be fed. At first young Chester's arrogant and snobbish attitude alienates the men, but he soon learns the importance of humility, hard work and cooperation, and wins them over. One of the cowboys, Dan, becomes his special friend. Dean Stockwell makes a personable young hero, teaming up well with the veteran actor Joel McCrea. (McCrea tended to specialise in Westerns, although I always think of him as the hero of Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent").
The film is said to be based upon Kipling's sea-story "Captain's Courageous", but I must admit that I have never read that book or seen the 1937 film that was based on it. The plot, however, can be seen as a distilled and simplified version of the literary genre known as the "Bildungsroman", a German word which literally means "education novel" but which can also be translated as "novel of character formation". The basic plot of such a novel is "young man (or woman) learns important lessons about life", and Dickens's "Great Expectations" is a good English language example.
At just over an hour and a quarter it is a very short film, even by the standards of the time. It is, however, an example of two trends that were to mark the development of the Western in the fifties. Firstly, it is shot in colour against the background of some spectacular scenery, actually in Utah and California's Death Valley, although the action supposedly takes place in New Mexico. The generic "Wild West town" set used for Santa Fe bears little resemblance to the real city of that name. Secondly, there is a greater emphasis on character than on action, although there are some exciting scenes of a cattle stampede and a sub-plot about Dan's attempts, with Chester's help, to capture and tame a wild black stallion. There is nothing particularly deep or significant about the film; some much better character-driven Westerns, such as "The Naked Spur" and "The Big Country" were to be made over the next few years. By these standards "Cattle Drive" is a lesser Western, but it is still a watchable and entertaining one. 6/10