The Hero’s Journey in “The Tall Men”

There’s a good deal of talent involved with the 1955 Western “The Tall Men”. The legendary Raoul Walsh directs Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan and Cameron Mitchell in a film that should have amounted to more than expectations might have anticipated. That isn’t to say “The Tall Man” isn’t good. It’s a reasonably entertaining film but it doesn’t come close to matching the impressive content of so many truly great Westerns that were produced during the mid-to-late 1950s. The story opens in Texas in 1866 with brothers Ben (Clark Gable) and Clint (Cameron Mitchell) Allison drifting aimlessly and licking their wounds from being on the losing side of the Civil War. Both served with the infamous Quantrill’s Raiders, notorious for their bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas, though the incident is never addressed in the film. Apparently, the very fact that the brothers rode with Quantrill was deemed enough to alert the audience that these were tough men. Indeed, when we first meet them, they are on the wrong side of the law, an unusual place to find a character portrayed by Clark Gable. They end up kidnapping local cattle baron Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan) with the intention of robbing him but Stark is a cool cookie and talks them out of it by offering them jobs on his ambitious cattle drive to take Texas steers 1500 miles to beef-starved Montana. He also promises to split the considerable profits with his kidnappers if Ben agrees to serve as trail boss. Soon the antagonists are business partners.

En route to San Antonio to arrange the drive, they encounter some pilgrims stranded in a blizzard. Among them is Nella Turner (Jane Russell), a courageous and free-spirited young woman who Ben and Stark immediately find themselves smitten by. The men slaughter a horse and make sure the pilgrims are fed and safe before traveling on. However, the next day with Sioux activity in the area, Ben rides back to check on the group only to find them under siege. Nella is conveniently the only survivor and she and Ben bunk down and hide in an abandoned cabin in the midst of a blizzard. Sparks immediately fly and the two share a romantic night (at least by the self-imposed studio censorship of the day.) The next morning, they start planning a life together but immediately hit a brick wall. Ben wants a low-key life as a rancher while Nella has only bad memories of her hardscrabble childhood on a ranch. She wants to tour the world and live a lavish lifestyle. The two feud even as Ben delivers her safely to San Antonio, where the opportunistic Stark woos her with his bankroll and promises of a grand life. Making matters more uncomfortable for Ben, Nella is invited by Stark to accompany the cattle drive to Montana, thus setting in motion predictable sexual tensions. 

The first half of the film is devoted to a lot character exposition and squabbles between Ben and Nella, who are still clearly still enamoured by each other, probably because they look a lot like Clark Gable and Jane Russell. There are also plenty of exploitation scenes that find Nella in water, thus showing off a wet blouse. We also see her improbably taking a bathtub on the journey so we can indulge in her singing and soaping up. The second half of the film, when the cattle drive finally begins, picks up steam and cinematographer Leo Tover captures the grandeur of the action in CinemaScope. The big set piece finds the cattle drivers having to make their way through an Indian death trap inside a narrow canyon. The resulting battle is exciting and well-staged, leading to a climax with a double cross that has a clever outcome due to a fine twist by screenwriters Boehm and Nugent. 

For all intents and purposes, “The Tall Men” is a run-of-the-mill Western of the period, distinguished by a fine cast who are all in good form and the impressive visuals of the enormous cattle herd.