3 More Joel McCrea Westerns


Stranger on Horseback (1955) directed by Jacques Tourneur, has McCrea playing Circuit Judge Thorne, newcomer in a town totally under the control of the cattle baron Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire). Son Tom Bannerman (Kevin McCarthy) just murdered someone in “self-defense,” and now Thorne wants to try the case, so he rounds up and coaxes info out of spooked-silent witnesses and attempts to keep custody of wild young Tom in the face of a mob of angry Bannermans and everyone owned or bullied by them. Thorne isn’t just a bookish lawman, he’s also a capable shot and fighter, with a resolve that amuses players like the Colonel (John Carradine) a Federal Attorney on Bannerman payroll, and the Sheriff (Emile Meyer) who only needs this nudge to grow back his spine. They watch Thorne work and help him to a point, careful about appearances, lest Thorne be swiftly eliminated like previous do-gooders. Thorne moves his suspect and witnesses to a more “neutral” town for trial, which takes everyone on an attractive and dangerous trek through a rocky valley, and ends in an exciting showdown between Thorne and Bannerman. That climax gets suspense from a good fake-out where Thorne, valuing life over justice, pretends to abandon his quest to try Tom, just long enough to get in a better shooting position. Miroslava plays Bannerman’s feisty sharpshooting niece who’s disgusted by the wimpy banker offered her as strategic marriage partner, and goes from being entertained by her cousin Tom’s antics to revolted by his heartlessness. Miroslava, who committed suicide at age 30, right when this film was released, was the movie’s weak spot for me. Maybe I missed an explanation for her heavy accent, but that wasn’t the only reason she felt out of place; I would have loved to see someone like Yvonne de Carlo in this role. Nice repartee between McCrea and Carradine, and McIntire gets some great scenes where he explains the hardship that made him what he is, and backs down to let his son face the consequences.


The Tall Stranger (1957) is a gripping mystery, stumbled upon by Ned Bannon (McCrea), a Union soldier on his way home to reconcile with his estranged half-brother, tyrannical land-owner Hardy (Barry Kelley). While sneaking a look at cattle that shouldn’t be in that neoughbourhood, Ned is attacked and left for dead by a man with flashy rifle and spurs. Ned’s picked up and nursed back to health by a wagon train headed for California, a group including such diverse folks as Ellen, (Virginia Mayo) a single mother trying to escape her checkered past, kindly Whit Bissell and his family, and slimy Harper (George Neise). When Harper leads them all into what Ned knows to be a dead end, then suddenly talks them into staying on Hardy’s fertile land, Ned smells trouble, but nobody believes him. Harper plans to use the settlers as pawns in a war against Hardy, and take over the land once they’ve all killed each other. By the time Ned figures that out, he’s mended the rift with his half-brother, gained the trust and love of Ellen, and through a series of tragic frameups and misunderstandings, made enemies of the brainwashed settlers, and almost triggers the very conflict he tries to prevent. This movie has great pace and action, a fine and deep cast playing interesting characters who each get their moments. They’re believably fooled by Harper’s claims and, still stinging from wartime losses, also have good reason to doubt Ned’s warnings. Leo Gordon is great as Hardy’s right-hand man, and Michael Ansara plays Zarata, the dastardly head of a gang hired to spark the violence and ensure it all goes Harper’s way. Zarata threatens to double-cross Harper but gets distracted by his lust for Ellen, and stalks her to the river where she’s helped out (tough woman doesn’t quite need rescuing) by McCrea. Back at Hardy’s ranch Ellen’s befriended by wise Indian Charley (Michael Pate), and her little boy thaws Hardy’s heart. It all ends there, in a super shootout (loved the use of a smoking hay wagon for cover). Both The Tall Stranger and Stranger on Horseback are based on Louis L’Amour stories.


In Cattle Empire (1958), you won’t soon forget the name John Cord (McCrea), because it’s repeated incredulously by all who discover he’s got the gall to return to the town his trail crew ruined five years before. There’s more to that story than they realize, and the script reveals slowly that Cord was wrongly imprisoned for the crimes and damage done. Much to everyone’s shock and dismay, John Cord’s been invited back by the man he blinded, Ralph (Don Haggerty), because he’s the only one with the skills to head a crucial cattle drive. Cord assembles a new crew, mostly made up of people with reason to hate and/or suspect him of scheming with the competition, Garth (Richard Shannon). They think Cord’s driving this herd to ruination just to get even, and at first, that’s exactly what he plans, but he’s too decent a dude to kill all those animals, so he pivots, and dedicates himself instead to beating the rival herd and proving Ralph’s faith in him wasn’t misplaced. Toward the end of this arduous trek, the truth emerges about who falsely accused Cord five years ago, a revelation that cements the already growing sense of loyalty and respect toward him, right in time for a united front against an ambush by Garth who’s vengeful over losing his entire herd at a dry river. Gloria Talbott plays the young woman with a crush on Cord, Phyllis Coates is Cord’s former flame who married Ralph but on this journey rethinks her choices, and Bing Russell is the heir who learns trail boss skills from the best in the business, John Cord. A good variation on the “we hate him but we need him” plot, and made good use of McCrea being effective with few words. He doesn’t tolerate much yakking, he coolly and decisively handles dissent, and doesn’t defend himself against accusations. His silence and ambiguity keeps the viewer guessing about his intentions, until Cord clearly goes good and then chooses to let his actions and success speak for themselves.

More McCrea: 3 Joel McCrea WesternsWichitaThe Lost SquadronThe Most Dangerous GameThe Richest Girl in the World


18 thoughts on “3 More Joel McCrea Westerns”

  1. I loved McCrea and Mayo in Colorado Territory, didn’t now they made another western together. All 3 of these sound good-will be keeping a lookout for them. I owe it to one of my grandma’s to seek out McCrea’s movies as she told me when I was a kid, that he was one of her favorite actors. At the time she told me this, I had no clue as to who JM was, but now I do!

    1. Colorado Territory is coming soon, I haven’t seen that yet and am really looking forward to it. That’s nice, it’s always a great memory when you can connect a star or genre to a loved one like that. Something here for every taste! Thanks!

  2. Wow! Three more great McCrea westerns!
    There seems general agreement over the fine quality of his westerns for Universal. Following those, his films were released mostly by either United artists or Allied Artists, with opinions differing on some of them. For me, most were good, some very good. Personally the 3 you have chosen here are all in the latter category.

    “SOH” runs just 66 mins and beautifully shows why a movie really doesn’t need to drag on for 2-3 hours (like most films today). Jacques Tourneur was a very sympathetic director for McCrea and brings in a taut, gripping western.
    Similarly, Thomas Carr was an old hand at helming action westerns and “The Tall Stranger” fits the bill nicely.
    Now, I have read some rather ‘picky’ reviews of “CATTLE EMPIRE” and its director, Charles Marquis Warren, but I have to say it works very well for me.

    Can’t wait to see what you write up next, Kristina. You seem to like these 3 as much as I.

    1. I really liked all these, Tall Stranger best, but it’s very close. Yes a 1000x yes on the brevity and efficiency. I love a short run time generally and can fit more of these into my day! 🙂 Efficient storytelling and good examples of the great variety and styles of stories you can tell in this genre, and the variations on the characters for McCrea.

    1. Comfortable presence, and when you watch these all in a row you see his roles were different, and good variations on the noble silent type he was good at.

  3. The second trio sound even better than the first…and I’ll give anything Tourneur did a shot. I hadn’t heard of Miraslava before and now I’m wondering what was going on there…

    1. Yes all good to me! Tourneur was so good at westerns, love Wichita also with McCrea. Miroslava had attempted suicide before, sad to die so young.

  4. Great choices…yet again!

    I must however beg to differ;
    I thought Miroslava was sensational in SOH.
    Such a sad end to a most promising talent.
    I believe there was a Mexican Bio-Pic made about
    her sad life,sometime in the Eighties.
    At any rate she wields a whip with the best of them,
    outdone only by Peggie Castle who really lets Robert
    Lowery have it in COW COUNTRY;but that’s another story.
    As you may have gathered I like Westerns with whip
    wielding women! 🙂
    The only DVD available of SOH is in pretty bad
    shape…the color is way,way off towards the end,
    and that’s a shame considering the lovely Sedona
    location work.
    I live in hope some “lost” master neg will surface some
    McCrea’s most underrated Fifties Western for me
    is the grim,compelling FORT MASSACRE.

    1. Well, and thanks yet again! She didn’t bother me too much, her life story is very sad, and dying so young it’s a good thing she left a few of these memorable roles. Interesting about the biopic. That scenery would look great in a better print, nice use of the heights when McCarthy kicks the poor man off the side.
      Have not seen Fort Massacre, I’ll just run through all the ones I have 🙂 why not. Time very well spent.

  5. Prediction: You will love “Colorado Territory”. I like it better than “High Sierra”.

    My autistic/developmentally delayed son mimics his movie favourites and those around him. Our family still chuckles about a time when the kid was around 10 and in tyrant-like fashion changed the channel while I was watching “Palm Beach Story”. It seems my outcry of “I want to watch Joel McCrea!” was more on the whiny than authoritative side as my son’s impersonation was that of a querulous and upset old gal. Now the rest of them do it every time we watch Mr. McC. Sigh.

    1. haha, that’s wonderful and I’m sure I’ll think of it the next time I watch too! Just pulled another few McC’s to look at, why stop a good binge? Good to hear about Colo. Terr’y (as I’ve seen on western movie maps), can’t wait.

    1. Same here, I’d love art like that on the wall. Certainly lots of fun watching these and spreading the word about them 🙂

  6. Love Tall Stranger, good plot and cast. Especially nice to see Leo Gordon in an unusually sympathetic role.

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