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Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok join forces to establish a mail route that can get mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in ten days. Along the way they must battle bad weather, hostile Indians and outlaws intent on robbing the mail and shutting down the entire operation. Written by
Forget the History Lesson. Just Sit back and Enjoy...
Just because "Pony Express" is a western and the Indians are characterized as the bad guys, does not mean it is without merit. Certainly viewers who insist that their movies must be politically correct learning experiences or must have educational value like a two hour university lecture will abhor its lighthearted approach and historical inaccuracy. Yet it is precisely this lighthearted approach that makes this movie so much fun.
The four principals, Charlton Heston (Buffalo Bill Cody), Forrest Tucker (Wild Bill Hickok), ravishing Rhonda Fleming, and hoydenish Jan Sterling serve up a potpourri of good-natured banter (and seem to have a lot of fun in doing so) that makes the running time of 101 minutes and incidental plot just whiz by. If nothing else, this movie serves to remind us that most people do have a sense of humor and that life is not all a funeral dirge.
California, led by a group of businessmen, wants to secede from the union and become an independent republic, citing the country's general apathy towards it as the primary reason. Eastern businessmen and politicians, on the other hand, feel that, by improving communications between Washington and California, they can discourage the citizens of that remote state from making such an irrational move. To this end they seek the help from Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok to organize a "pony express" which will deliver mail and news from East to West and visa-versa in double-quick time. In attempting to implement the scheme, the two friends must first overcome violent opposition from the owner of a stagecoach line who stands to lose a cross-country mail contract if the plan succeeds, hostile Indians who see the advent of the white man as yet another encroachment to their way of life, and the California businessmen themselves whose interests extend beyond Californian independence.
Of course, the story is full of historical inaccuracies. Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, for instance, barely knew each other. Hickok handled a six-gun much better than Buffalo Bill. "Pony Express" riders were mostly teenage orphan boys who had to be "willing to risk their lives every day" (Even in those days, businessmen knew how to protect themselves against lawsuits.). But so what? I first saw this movie when I was eight years old and loved it so much that I immediately went to the library to read up on these historical characters and events. Was I upset when I found that so much of the plot had been fabricated? Not in the least. I was grateful that the story was interesting enough to have piqued my interest in this specific chapter of American history. Any movie that induces you to want to learn something more cannot be a bad movie.
On the plus side, it does have some good action sequences (this was in the days before horses learned to gallop in slow motion), and uses the Indians as enemy only for dramatic effect and not as a source of derision. In fact, the chief, represented by white man, Pat Hogan, is probably the film's most admirable character. "I have never known Yellow Hand to lie or go back on his word," says Cody at one point and it is not without good reason that he shows some remorse after he is forced to kill him.
It also gives us a look at a young Charlton Heston, before he became a staple of the large, big budget biblical epics. At this point in his career, Heston was still experimenting, trying to find himself as actor by taking on such varied roles as a circus boss, President Andrew Jackson, a South American plantation owner, a soldier of fortune, or a surgeon. Just the fact that he doesn't have to deliver each line as if he were speaking from a pulpit makes his work more interesting, if not necessarily better.
Best of all, it was here that I saw Rhonda Fleming for the first time. I fell in love with her immediately and wanted to marry her when I grew up. When I watch this movie today, I still think it was a good idea.
Despite its overall low ratings, I cannot help but like "Pony Express". It has amiable characters, snappy dialogue (which emphasizes just how much modern screenwriters have lost their sense of humor) and a plot that moves briskly to its predictable conclusion. If the movie hearkens back to simpler, more clear-cut times, it is at least nice to see heroes who genuinely like each other and who can get the job done while having some fun doing it, rather than today's friendless, dour-faced loners with chips on their shoulders who spend every waking minute searching for "the truth."
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