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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

PONY EXPRESS (1953)

Unless you were called SHANE, Paramount wasn’t a great place to be a Western in ‘53. A point confirmed by Charlton Heston with ARROWHEAD and PONY EXPRESS (a reworking of James Cruze’s 1925 follow-up to THE COVERED WAGON/’23). Both scripted by Charles Marquis Warren, a prolific Western routiner, they sport unfashionable attitudes toward Native Americans, poorly fashioned plots and precious few old-fashioned movie-making virtues. Heston & Forrest Tucker plod along as Buffalo Bill Cody & Wild Bill Hickok, advance men for the upcoming Pony Express. And they also have to fight off a confederate of California secessionists plotting against their success, a group that includes Rhonda Fleming . . . until she falls for Chuck. Paramount coughed up a decent budget for this, but under Jerry Hopper’s journeyman megging, it unwinds like a programmer. Playing a tomboy with a bad case of unrequited love for Heston, Jan Sterling does well with the character clichés. She certainly has fun bathing in a twin tub next to Fleming, letting us enjoy some serious bosomy pulchritude.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Heston made quite a few Westerns. He’d have popped for the modern deep-dish allegory of WILL PENNY/’68; Film Mavens keep hoping Peckinpah’s MAJOR DUNDEE/’66 will live up to their dreams of it; Heston agnostics opt for his supporting perf in William Wyler’s undervalued THE BIG COUNTRY/’58. Truth is, Chuck’s ‘best’ Western isn’t a Western at all. It’s Anthony Mann’s EL CID/’61.

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