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