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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Paramount's PONY EXPRESS (1953) is a reasonably good fifties western.
Produced for the studio by Nat Holt - it was made the same year as
their pivotal contribution to the genre "Shane". And while never
reaching the lofty heights of Steven's classic it was competently
written for the screen by Charles Marquis Warren. Glowingly
photographed in Technicolor by veteran Ray Rennehan and directed with a
certain flair by Jerry Hopper it was all played out by a well chosen
cast in some handsome Utah locations.
It is 1860 and Buffalo Bill Cody (Charlton Heston) and Wild Bill Hickok (Forrest Tucker) are sent to California to set up a Pony Express system that will deliver mail from St. Joe. Missouri to Sacramento in the inconceivable time of ten days beating the Stagecoach time by 16 days. Of course the Stagecoach relay station owners are not going to take this destruction of their business lying down and set out to prevent, by any and every means, this "high speed" service from ever getting off the ground. Not only must Cody and Hickok fight off many attacks by unscrupulous gangs working for the business men but also must keep the trail free for the express riders from marauding Sioux Indians whose chief Yellow Hand (Pat Hogan) has a long standing feud with Cody. The feud culminates in a fierce Tomahawk fight to the death with Cody being the victor. (This famous duel is not as well depicted here as it was in Fox's "Buffalo Bill" (1944) where Anthony Quinn as Yellow Hand and Cody (Joel McCrea) meet half-way across a river to do combat. It was a much more elaborate and exciting sequence.) However I suppose we have to be thankful it was included at all here in this version.
Performances are generally OK across the board. Heston makes a likable Cody but Forrest Tucker's Wild Bill Hickok is somewhat underwritten and in his mode of dress he looks like he just stepped off the set for a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers B movie. This is really my only crib with the film. Neither leading character looks authentic enough! Cody's hair should have been longer and where was his familiar goatee beard? Hickok's hair is short back and sides which should have been shoulder length and he is without that famous handlebar moustache as well as the three quarter length skirt coat - things the famous frontiersman was known for. However after awhile you get used to the way they look. The female lead is played by the ravishing Rhonda Fleming. An actress of limited talent she really doesn't have much to do except stand around and do what she always did best.....simply look ravishing. Better is Jan Sterling as a feisty gun tottin' tomboy, (obviously loosely based on Calamity Jane) who has the hots for Cody and vies, not very successfully, with Fleming for his attention. The best things about the movie are some good shootouts with baddies and Indians and the exciting scenes of the Pony Express riders racing across the deserted plains.
A memorable aspect of the picture is the fine score by Paul Sawtell. Sawtell was one of the busiest composers in Hollywood's Golden era. Born in Poland in 1906 he arrived in Hollywood in the forties and started scoring films at RKO Pictures. He had a voluminous output of over two hundred scores which crossed over all genres from Noirs like "Raw Deal" (1948) to the Tarzan films of the forties, the Randolph Scott westerns "Fighting Man Of The Plains" (1952) and "Comanche Station" (1960), war pictures such as "The Hunters" (1957) and the science fiction epic "Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea" (1961). His main theme from the TV spin-off of the latter gained great popularity in the sixties. His score for PONY EXPRESS has a splendid main theme. First heard over the titles it is given some spirited variations throughout the picture and excitingly used in the closing scene as Cody, at full gallop, takes off on a mail delivery across a vast open plain. There is also a stately theme to underscore the colourful Indian sequences. Paul Sawtell died in 1971.
PONY EXPRESS is not by any means a brilliant western but it is an enjoyable colourful oater that is worth watching and remains a fair addition to the genre's fifties output
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."
In 1860, Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok joined their strength
to establish a communication route with the East through a fresh and
fast relay stations of young riders on horseback...
Charlton Heston plays the legendary mountain man, buffalo hunter, U. S. Army Scout and Indian fighter and backer of the 'Pony Express' from St. Joseph to Sacramento in only ten days... Forrest Tucker plays his friend Wild Bill Hickok, an U. S. Marshal who brought order to the frontier with many encounters with outlaws among them Michael Moore (Lance Hastings) and Henry Brandon (Cooper) whose plans are to destroy the relay stations and ambush the express riders...
The film is loaded with action scenes and amusing moments...
- When Heston stops a stagecoach and tells the coachman: 'I'm Buffalo Bill Cody.' 'Sure, and I'm Wild Bill Hickok,' replies the driver... Coming alongside and smiling, Heston says: 'Nope, You're not that ugly!'
- When Heston meets Tucker arriving in town... Their courteous words are replaced by a shooting game, a rare but funny expression of friendship, putting holes in each other's garments including Tucker's nine dollars expensive hat... 'It's fancier than shaking hands,' expresses Jan Sterling to Rhonda Fleming from the window of her hotel...
-When Jan Sterling comes into the presence of the famous 'Pair of Bills,' wishing to increase her impression on Buffalo Bill with a fancy pink dress... Seeing her, Heston notes: 'Why not you go back and put some clothes on!'
Rhonda Fleming plays Evelyn Hastings, the ravishing wealthy redhead, who falls in love with Heston, leaving alone her brother who never wanted the 'Pony Express' to get through..-
Jan Sterling plays the sincere pretty blonde who loves so much Buffalo Bill...
Filmed in Technicolor, this enjoyable Western, based on factual account, is adequately entertaining...
Directed by Jerry Hopper and starring Charlton Heston, Forrest Tucker
and Rhonda Fleming, Pony Express is adapted from a story written by
Frank Gruber. It revolves around the birth of the Pony Express and how
it linked California to the rest of the United States, thus preventing
it from becoming a separate republic. Buffalo Bill Cody (Heston) and
Wild Bill Hickok (Tucker) are the principal characters in the formation
of the St Joseph-Sacramento speed run that has long since passed into
folklore. Very much a fictionalised account of the "Express" and its
principals, this tale deals in an attempt to form a separatist movement
from the Union and the trials and tribulations that Cody & Hickok go
thru in order to successfully launch the "Express". Cue Indian attacks,
with the Indians being armed by corrupt business men, and sinister
plotting by the seemingly affable Hastings siblings (Michael Moore &
A loose remake of the 1924/25 silent film of the same name, Hopper's movie suffers from being overlong and for spending too much time with the Hastings sub-plot. It's only when we get to the last quarter that the film gathers apace, until then we are left with only Heston's gusto and Fleming's sexuality to hold our attention. Director Hopper struggles to craft any energy from the number of dialogue driven set-ups, and even a Mano-Mano fight to the death between Cody and Yellow Hand (Pat Hogan) is undeniably flat. Thank god then for Heston giving it brio. A few years away from career defining roles, he seems to be enjoying himself and puts ebullient life into the film when it starts to sag. Fleming too is a highpoint. When not asked to lead off awful films like Bullwhip, Fleming was a more than capable actress, helped enormously by her sexiness and ability to own her scenes. She raises temperatures here considerably with one particular scene as both Jan Sterling (as Tomboy Denny) and herself each take a bath.
Thankfully the finale doesn't follow suit with what has gone before it, with Hopper gaining a little redemption with this action quarter. The momentum is built up as we approach the first "Express" run, a gunfight is well staged and the shots of the horses bolting along the plains are a joy; in particular one shot as man and beast speed off under a blood red sky (well done cinematographer Ray Rennahan). Then it's the inevitable showdown where Heston flexes his gun toting muscles and a surprise development earns the picture an extra plaudit. So a real mixed bag for sure then. Well worth a watch for Heston purists and Fleming lusters. And indeed for Western fans who are versed in the lower grade genre entries so prominent in the 1950s. But it clearly doesn't fulfil its potential and the snippets of good only further make one feel a touch annoyed once the end credit booms out from the screen. 5.5/10
The story of the Pony Express is one of the most interesting and fascinating stories of the west. California at that time was totally isolated, and would get the news from the government many months later, thus many people would be for secession, because they did not believe they could be governed like that. There was no telegraph, so they decided to pick those skinny guys, the equivalent of today's jockeys, and make them alternate, also switching horses, so in ten days the express mail would get from St Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento. Now you might ask what Buffalo Bill (Charlton Heston), Wild Bill Hicock (Forrest Tucker) and a sort of Calamity Jane named Denny (Jan Sterling) fit into this and the answer will be marketing. Famous western names would please the crowds. I would have wished for a more serious film, but I can't deny the film is entertaining, fast paced, colorful and with a lot of action, The scenes where the pony express is shown are very good. I just was hoping for a more historical and serious film, but who knows, one day they will make it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Want to win a bet with your know it all movie buff buddies? ask them in which film does Charlton Heston play a swaggering gun-nut who has violent and voluble exchanges with Michael Moore, but actually comes off the better! The answer is PONY EXPRESS, a rip-roaring Technicolor western made in 1953. Heston plays Buffalo Bill and Michael Moore, a 1950's second feature actor, is Rance Hastings who plans to split California from the Union and sabotage the newly formed Overland Pony Express mail route. After winning a battle with some Indian braves, Heston even gives us a precursor to his "Cold dead hands" NRA salute, as he taunts the very caucasian-looking Indians. Jerry Hopper, the director, later directed a few episodes of the TV hit "The Rifleman", which starred another Chuck with a gun, Chuck Connors. PONY EXPRESS, like SECRET OF THE INCAS, Hopper's next feature film, also includes a bath tub scene involving the red-headed leading lady who is engaged in dialogue about her different culture/background with the second female lead. The final few moments of PONY EXPRESS are great fun, the express riders gallop from post to post in frenzied fashion, Heston has the obligatory gun fight, and then rides off into the sunset, to a rousing musical score. A perfect mythical ending to a tongue-in-cheek western that upholds the legend of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickock. The movie finishes with the words of Abraham Lincoln, "A grateful people acknowledges with pride it's debt to the riders of the Pony Express. Their unfailing courage, their matchless stamina knitted together the ragged edges of a rising nation. Their achievements can only be equalled ... never excelled."
Does anyone remember The Young Riders television series? Though that
one got into the never never land of our old west mythology eventually
at least it got it right about one thing. The Pony Express riders were
in fact young teenage boys. William F. Cody was all of 13 when he was
riding for them. James Butler Hickok, later nicknamed Wild Bill, was in
his early twenties.
So when we see Charlton Heston doing all he's doing as Buffalo Bill in this film Pony Express, he's really playing a thirteen year old living out a fantasy dream of having both Rhonda Fleming and Jan Sterling chasing him.
Pony Express may in fact be one of the last of that grand tradition of B westerns where famous characters from the American frontier are taken and put into plots that had nothing to do with reality. Cody's famous fight with Cheyenne chief Yellow Hand is also included here although that in fact took place in the 1870s not in 1860.
In this film, Charlton Heston and Forrest Tucker as Wild Bill Hickok stumble upon a plot to detach California from the United States while the north and south sectional conflict edges closer to civil war. Part of that plan is stop the Pony Express and its promise of quick mail delivery. Rhonda Fleming's brother is part of the dastardly scheme and Jan Sterling plays a Calamity Jane like character who has eyes for Cody, but Cody has them for Fleming.
This film also marked the farewell appearance of Porter Hall who has a small role as another frontier character, legendary mountain man Jim Bridger. It's possible that Bridger, Cody, and Hickok may have all met at the same time, but I doubt it was under the circumstances shown.
Don't let the A list cast fool you. What you have in Pony Express is one of that dying group of B westerns which were getting a new life on television at this time.
** out of ****
Fairly ordinary 1860s Western tells a fictional account of how the Pony Express Mail Delivery System was founded, helped along by Buffalo Bill Cody (Charlton Heston) and Wild Bill Hickok (Forrest Tucker). A young Heston's determined and self-assured characterization makes for some enjoyment early on in the picture, though the second half becomes somewhat routine with typical "Cowboys and Indians" confrontations. Forrest Tucker doesn't invest as much in his Hickok personage. The leading women are Rhonda Fleming and Jan Sterling, both of whom are rivals who are sweet on Buffalo Bill. Sterling's is the more engaging of the two, and we can't help but feel sorry for her as the young tomboy whose infatuation for Heston goes unrequited.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film may feature some real characters they weren't involved in the
founding of the real Pony Express... still as a work of fiction it is
entertaining enough. The film opens with 'Buffalo' Bill Cody left
stranded in the middle of the prairie after his horse is killed in an
Indian attack. Luckily for him the stage coach passes by not long
afterwards and he gets on board. There are two people inside already;
Evelyn Hastings and her brother Rance. They haven't been travelling
long when they meet what appears to be a group of soldiers; they claim
that they have been sent to arrest the Hastings for treason but Bill
realises that they aren't who they claim to be. The Hastings do however
wish for California to break away from the United States as they
believe their state is too distant from the rest of the country to be
cared about. Bill, and his friend 'Wild' Bill Hickok, however are doing
something about bringing it closer to the rest of the Union... not in
distance but in the time it takes news to get through. They are working
on setting up a string of relay stations across the country so that
news may be passed from rider to rider rather than relying on the slow
stage coach. Rance Hastings and his collaborators are determined to
prevent the express running, and to make matters worse a local Indian
chief is determined to kill Cody. Not surprisingly there is also a
romantic subplot; tomboy Denny Russell is clearly in love with Cody but
gets jealous when he appears to be more interested in Evelyn.
Charlton Heston was not yet a major star when this was made although he is clearly the star of the film; he puts in a solid performance... although I don't know how somebody in 1860 could have a smile like that; he looked like he was in a toothpaste commercial with his brilliant white teeth! Rhonda Fleming, playing Evelyn, was clearly meant to be the leading lady however she was upstaged by the short-haired Jan Stirling who played the feisty Denny. There was a good amount of action spread throughout the film including plenty of gunfights, a fight between Cody and an Indian chief using tomahawks and even an explosion. The story is fairly standard with separatists and Indians clearly meant to be viewed as the bad guys, although the latter are at least bad guys with honour; while those wishing to do their bit to preserve the Union being obvious heroes; the final shoot out did feature one surprise but I won't spoil that here. At a hundred and one minutes it is clearly too long for a B-western however it does have a B-western feel to it; it might be best looked at that way as it passes the time well enough but it will never be a classic of the genre.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although the Pony Express, a mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri
and Sacramento, California, only operated for 18 months between April
1860 and October 1861, it has become part of the legend of the American
West. Previous mail services had relied upon the stagecoach, but the
Pony Express used relays of horse riders which made it during the brief
period of its operation, before it was replaced by the telegraph, the
fastest means of communication between California and the eastern
The film, set in 1860, tells a highly fictionalised, historically inaccurate, account of the origins of the Pony Express. It credits the formation of the service to "Buffalo Bill" Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, two real-life western heroes. In reality, although both men (at least by their own accounts) rode for the Pony Express, neither of them played any part in its creation, and both were considerably younger than the characters portrayed here; Cody would only have been fourteen in 1860. Cody, Hickok and their men have to battle not only hostile Indians but also separatists who are promoting California's secession from the United States and who try to sabotage the mail service in order to achieve this end. There is also a love-triangle involving Cody, his girlfriend Denny Russell, and Evelyn Hastings, the beautiful sister of one of the separatist leaders.
This was one of Charlton Heston's early films, made at a time when he had not yet established himself as a major star, and it is far from being one of his best. Although there are some decent action sequences, "Pony Express" never really rises above the level of the average Western. One reviewer describes Charles Marquis Warren as one of the worst western scriptwriters. I will not comment on the general truth of that allegation, as I have only seen two films for which he is credited as writer, but I must say that both of those films are mediocre ones. (The other was "Only the Valiant"). The script for "Pony Express" is a poor one; the story, especially towards the end, is difficult to follow and the sudden tragic ending to a romantic action/adventure film strikes a jarring note. As was common (although not universal) in Westerns from this period, "Only he Valiant" being another example, the Indians are cast as villains with no attempt to understand their point of view, and the importance of the Pony Express is perhaps over-emphasised; it is hard to credit, as we are asked to accept here, that California could have been persuaded to take the momentous step of seceding from the Union by the late arrival of a mail delivery. 5/10
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