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In 1863, having escaped from a rock-quarry prison in Salt Lake, six inmates led by convicted murderer Pete Black take over a small wagon train headed by preacher Jacob Karns. Tensions and hardships grow as the travelers continue to trek toward California across dry, desolate country. Written by
dinky-4 of Minneapolis
But Jacob, the grave isn't deep enough!
It's isn't just a rule of the church...it's the law of the open trails. Graves must be six feet deep and heaped with stones to protect it from wild animals. There must be a cross. I can't leave my son like this, Jacob!
All right, then stay here and bury him yourself!
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I've seen many movies starring John Payne and Dennis O'Keefe and I have to say I found their performances in PASSAGE WEST among the strongest of their careers. Payne plays a hardened escaped convict serving time for murder, who leads a pack of five other runaway cons in taking over a wagon train of settlers heading to California. The leader of the train is a minister played by O'Keefe, who is first seen conducting a funeral service for a boy who died during the journey. Payne runs roughshod over the wagon train and jeopardizes the settlers' lives with some rash commands, earning O'Keefe's undisguised contempt. Gradually, however, the men's relationship shifts, eventually reaching a point of trust and grudging respect. The turning point is a grueling fistfight between the two (the film's only action scene), a battle that is quite rough and messy, like a real fight and not a cleanly choreographed western brawl like we'd normally find in such films. O'Keefe even executes a few unusual moves that might seem out of place in the west of 1863, but are explained, in a clever bit of dialogue after the fight, as something he learned in a lumberjack camp and as a waterfront saloon bouncer in an earlier life before he found God.
The settlers are played by dependable character actors who come across as plausible migrants from the east seeking a better life. Only Arleen Whelan's character, a preacher's daughter who falls hard for Payne after he forces a kiss on her, smacks of Hollywood contrivance, but she plays the role with conviction and redheaded fury, with a layer of seething discontent just below the surface, and I found myself believing her, despite the cliché. In the final film of his career, Dooley Wilson, best known for playing singer-pianist Sam in CASABLANCA, plays a runaway slave among the convicts. The script briefly touches on his status when the group learns of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, but otherwise steers clear of racial issues. Other than a handful of interior scenes, the bulk of the film was shot on location and has the actors enduring a sandstorm, desert heat, rain and deep pockets of mud, among other hardships. This has some thematic similarities with another excellent underrated western of 1951, THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE, in which Glenn Ford leads a group of escaped cons into a snowbound mountain settlement populated almost entirely by women, whose men have left town to work a silver mine, leading to a series of uneasy encounters as the women take great pains to keep the convicts from getting the upper hand.
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