2 April 2015 | BrianDanaCamp
Solid horse western with beautiful Technicolor footage of wild horses
I'm a big fan of a subgenre I tend to think of as "horse westerns," i.e. westerns where a single horse dominates the action and is the object of various humans' attempts to either raise it or catch it. These were usually in color (Technicolor, Cinecolor, Trucolor, etc.) and were made primarily in the 1940s and '50s, starting with 20th Century Fox's MY FRIEND FLICKA (1943) and including WILDFIRE (1945), THE RED STALLION (1947), THE STRAWBERRY ROAN (1948), THE GOLDEN STALLION (1949), TRIGGER JR. (1950), THE PALOMINO (1950), WILD STALLION (1952), THE LION AND THE HORSE (1952) and GYPSY COLT (1954), to name a few. These films usually included magnificent color footage of wild horses galloping en masse through the western landscape. The human stories may incite varying degrees of interest, although I tend to find them quite compelling. I would argue that THE GOLDEN STALLION, in which the hero goes to jail to prevent his horse from being charged with manslaughter and put to sleep, is the best of Roy Rogers' western features.
THE OUTLAW STALLION (1954) is quite close to being the best of the horse westerns I've seen, on a par, perhaps, with THE GOLDEN STALLION. Set in the modern era, it's got a plausible storyline in which characters we care about have conflicting positions which make one of the protagonists, an adolescent boy played by Billy Gray, vulnerable to the machinations of an unscrupulous horse trader seeking to get possession of a wild white stallion that has been caught and claimed by Billy. It all culminates in a spectacular sequence in which three massive vans loaded with illegally captured wild horses speed down perilous mountain highways toward the state line while a sheriff's posse races furiously--on horseback!--to stop them. I'm not sure I've ever seen such an elaborate horse-and-truck chase in a western before.
I didn't detect a single false note in the narrative and found the characters to be strong and believable and their actions driven by their personalities and not by the demands of genre formula. The small but solid cast is topped by Philip Carey as Doc, a veterinarian in love with Billy's widowed mom, played by Dorothy Patrick. The two adults have understandable differences of opinion about Billy's relationship with the newly-caught wild horse, which revives the mother's fear of a horse-related accident like the one that killed her husband (Billy's father). They also don't see eye-to-eye on the offer of the unctuous horse trader (Roy Roberts) to help Billy break the stallion, with Doc particularly suspicious of the newcomer. The actors are all excellent, especially young Billy Gray who went on to enter the idealized family life of "Father Knows Best" not long after finishing this film. The supporting cast includes Gordon Jones and Trevor Bardette as Roberts' shifty henchmen and Morris Ankrum as the dyspeptic sheriff.
The director is Fred F. Sears, a B-movie auteur if ever there was one, who turned out 49 films in a wide variety of genres (and only four in color), nearly all for Columbia Pictures, in the years 1949-58, before dying an untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 44 with five films yet to be released. (OUTLAW STALLION was one of five films of his to be released in 1954.) Even when the scripts were at their most ludicrous, Sears always turned in a polished, professional job that made low-budget mass-produced formulaic films much more enjoyable than they might have been.
My only reservation about this film is the staging of a fight between two stallions midway through it. The fight looks awfully real, with the horses battering each other with their hooves and biting each other. I can't imagine that the producers would jeopardize the health and safety of their prize horses (and two of the real stars of the film) in such a manner, unless they simply waited till the last day of shooting to get the fight on camera. There is no Humane Society disclaimer on the film, not that such a thing was standard practice yet in 1954, but I would like to be reassured that the fight wasn't real.