Jim Slater's father (whom he never knew) died in the Apache ambush at Gila Valley, and Jim is searching for the one survivor, who supposedly went for help but disappeared with a lot of gold. In the process, he gets several people gunning for him, and he keeps meeting liberated woman Karyl Orton, who may be on a similar mission. Renewed Apache hostilities and an impending range war provide complications. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Tough guys to spare in western with oedipal overtones
Given the pedigree of its makers--director John Sturges, producer Aaron Rosenberg, screenwriter Borden Chase and novelist Frank Gruber--one would have expected BACKLASH to be a bit grander in scale and offer more memorable action scenes. Instead, it's a more intimate tale, executed like a crime drama with the emphasis on investigation and unfolding of secrets. Richard Widmark plays Jim Slater, a Texan looking to uncover information about his father's death, particularly the identity of the man who left his father and four other men to die at the hands of an Apache war party in a remote place called Gila Valley. The missing sixth man left with $60,000 in gold, ostensibly from a mine, which means that relatives of the other dead men, including a pretty widow and the notorious Welker brothers, are gunning for the same man, but with an eye towards retrieving the gold. Eventually, Slater finds his man, only to learn a shocking secret he wasn't prepared for, propelling the drama to a whole new stage and a violent confrontation with oedipal overtones.
Much of the film is spent simply tracking down people who may or may not have known the dead men or the elusive sixth man. The final section, where all the questions are answered and all the unresolved familial issues addressed, is the most exciting part of the film and well worth the buildup. Ultimately, however, it's still essentially a contrived Hollywood melodrama punched up with expert scenes of violence. As such, it pales next to other works by the same creators, most notably the trio of Anthony Mann-directed westerns produced by Rosenberg and written by Chase, WINCHESTER '73, BEND OF THE RIVER and THE FAR COUNTRY, which placed their heroes in far more complex moral dilemmas.
Nonetheless, BACKLASH is blessed with a great cast of tough guys acting hard and drawing guns at the drop of a chair. William Campbell practically steals the show as hotshot young fast-draw Johnny Cool, looking sharp in a black hat, waist-length black leather jacket and red neckscarf. Harry Morgan and Robert J. Wilke, old hands at this kind of thing, play the ill-fated Welker brothers who have a propensity for forcing the widow, played by Donna Reed, to sit down and have whiskey with them. Onetime gangster heavy Barton MacLane appears in a sympathetic role as a grizzled army sergeant whom Widmark seeks information from and winds up assisting in a fight with Apaches. Roy Roberts turns up as a powerful rancher seeking to wage a defensive range war against the mysterious Frank Bonniwell who turned up out of the blue with $60,000 to buy up land and equipment only to start rustling other ranchers' cattle. John McIntire plays Bonniwell, adding to the actor's rogues' gallery of memorable bad guys (see also WINCHESTER '73 and THE FAR COUNTRY). Donna Reed is quite good as the opportunistic widow who can't quite determine if she's more loyal to Slater or the gold.
Trivia Note: William Campbell's character name, Johnny Cool, was the name of a 1963 crime thriller starring Henry Silva as the title character. Silva had earlier appeared in another tough 1950s western, THE TALL T (1957), in which Skip Homeier played an outlaw character named Billy Jack, which was later the name of a 1971 counterculture hit starring Tom Laughlin.
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