Horizons West (1952) & Wings of the Hawk (1953)
DIRECTED BY BUDD BOETTICHER/1952, 1953
Several years before Oscar “Budd” Boetticher Jr. would etch his cinematic legacy with a cycle of stark Westerns starring the aging Randolph Scott, he toiled as a contract director at major Hollywood studios. Among his early big runs was one for Universal International in the early 1950s, where he found himself pigeonholed as a maker of Westerns and other action-based films. It helped that he was darn good at it, though he’d always rather be working in a more personal idiom.
Nevertheless, his Universal Westerns are very worth a look, particularly among them 1952’s capitalism-run-amok dark portrait Horizons West (starring Robert Ryan) and the 3-D proto “Mexican Western”, Wings of the Hawk. Both manage to get at uncommonly progressive themes that Boetticher ascribed to, and both star the lovely Julie Adams, who would go on to screen immortality with 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. (In both films she is credited as “Julia Adams”).
Horizons West and Wings of the Hawk have both been made available on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Here’s a look at each release…
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MAY 11, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Early on with Horizons West, you might be tempted towards complacency. Don’t be lulled. Though the ambling tale of two brothers, both wandering back into civilization early on sporting battered and dirty Confederate uniforms seems initially inconsequential, seeds are being planted before your eyes. The viewer’s inclination towards “There’s no conflict here… Why am I watching this…?” gives way to an uneasy revelation that Horizons West is in fact the story of our protagonist losing his soul.
Robert Ryan, looking uncommonly long in the tooth circa only forty-two years old, plays Dan Hammond, co-heir to his parents’ struggling ranch. Uninterested in picking up his father’s (John McIntire) plight, Dan sets out on a quest to build a self-proclaimed cattle empire of his own. He turns to pure Trump-ism, recruiting the downtrodden members of society (in this case, all manner of displaced Civil War veterans) and exploiting their bruised sense of masculinity to his own ends.
Dan carves his empirical niche by means of illegal cattle rustling- a high crime back then, though often difficult to prove. Does it matter that the main victim of his theft is a ruthlessly rich villain type (a fully humorless Raymond Burr) who has it comin’? Or that his dolled-up wife (Julia Adams) would rather be with Dan? (The final answer: No). Soon enough, as his cronies and followers ramp up in dunderheaded violence, his younger brother Neil, who is made sheriff, is forced to go after him. It might be considered odd that Neil’s reluctant hero arc occurs mostly off-screen as the film opts to stick with the increasingly corrupt downward spiral of Dan. Hindsight being 20/20, it’s even more odd considering that Neil is portrayed by a just-starting-out Rock Hudson. The following year, Hudson would snag the lead in Boetticher’s Seminole.
Hailing from 1952, the overt morality of Horizons West spotlights the consequences of the gross extremes of greed-driven capitalism. (Which some would argue, is really just plain “capitalism”). The film reflects how the waning days of the Truman administration (when the film was made) and the chronic displacement of war veterans struggled to give way to an Eisenhower-era “conservative collectivism”. It’s impossible to fully label the studio-generated work-for-hire Horizons West as “Boetticher-esque”, but, as his other Universal International efforts demonstrate, the progressive filmmaker managed his share of thematic “smuggling”. (For example, see his unusual WWII film The Red Ball Express).
Though the Blu-ray transfer of Horizons West is far from perfect (the color registers appear to be slightly mis-conformed in many scenes, resulting in telltale hairline edges), the hues looks great throughout, and certain scenes look downright beautiful. Film historian Toby Roan does an optional audio commentary track that is literally beginning-to-end biographical information of everyone involved. Not my cup of commentary tea, but I suppose there’s an audience for it. (I.e., people who don’t know about IMDb and Wikipedia). There are also trailers, including one for Horizons West.
Horizons West is one of those movies that can really stick in your mind. In the moment, it doesn’t seem all that compelling. By the end, it’s fully engaging. The film is bold and smart, even uncompromisingly unsettling with some of its ideas and directions. Though Boetticher could be dismissive of his Universal films, we should not be.
Wings of the Hawk
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 9, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
In what turned out to be the waning moments of the 3-D movie craze of the early 1950s, Universal Studios set forth Wings of the Hawk– a stereoscopic Western from director Budd Boetticher. Notably, the action-heavy film is a solid precursor to the advent of the “Mexican Western” sub-genre. Despite the title, there are no wings nor hawks nor even mentions of either one in the entire eighty-one-minute affair. While not a success at the box office, the film nevertheless proves to be not half bad.
But then again, this review is relegated to covering only the 2-D version of Wings of the Hawk, so it’s quite likely that any such other half of the movie’s goodness lies in the 3-D experience. (Both 3-D and 2-D versions are included on the disc, the 3-D restoration courtesy of the diligent folks at 3-D Film Archive). Regarding the inevitable 3-D exploitation within the film, it appears to remain rather subtle. Meaning, don’t come expecting a lot of things on screen to brazenly hurl towards you. We do get a climactic burst of fire in our faces (clearly meant to be in our laps), but even that token “3-D moment” is justified by the importance of the incident depicted.
It’s 1911, Mexico. Van Heflin plays “Irish” Gallagher, an upright American who’s literally sitting on a gold mine. When his mine is taken over by a corrupt local colonel (George Dolenz, father of Monkee Micky Dolenz), he falls in with a pack of freedom fighters led by Raquel Noriega (Julia Adams once again, here playing Mexican). Naturally, she catches the eye of Gallagher, whose blunt unwanted advances are uncomfortable by contemporary standards. Still, she not only wears the pants when it comes to leadership, she wears her own riding pants awfully well. Though there’s never any doubt whether she’ll eventually cave to him, the broader resolution of the story is something of a surprise.
Frankly, this 2-D transfer is a very mixed bag. While this is no doubt the best possible result based upon resources, budgets, and whatnot, there’s an unevenness about the picture quality in certain sequences. It’s never pristine, though some scenes look more impressive than others. At its worst, it can appear very rugged and blotchy.
Do not, however, let this deter you from checking out this disc. Quite clearly, it is an “above & beyond” work of love. The feature is paired with a 3-D Woody Woodpecker cartoon short, Hypnotic Hick, also from 1953. Despite this cartoon being a very pricey undertaking for Walter Lantz Studios, Hypnotic Hick is not their best work. But, it’s still swell to have it here (in both 2-D and 3-D), as it originally played before Wings of the Hawk in theaters.
This Kino Lorber Studio Classics disc is, all things considered, a wonderfully and uniquely curated package. In terms of audio for the feature, we get both the 3.0 original 1953 high dynamic range theatrical mix and a newer 5.1 Surround mix (“2020 Compressed 3.0 Midnight Movie Mix”). Topping things off are not one but two new audio commentary tracks by dedicated experts. The first is a brief one by 3-D aficionado Mike Ballew. It clocks in under thirty minutes and simply plays over a still image graphic. Ballew is upbeat and enthusiastic in his detailing of the film’s production, with an expected focus on its stereoscopic-ness.
This 3-D special edition release is rounded out with a full-length audio commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold. Arnold delivers a picturesque and engaging track with all kinds of information on the key players and crew members, as well as Boetticher himself. It helps that Arnold knew Boetticher and got his information straight from the director. With this inclusion, this Blu-ray love letter to Boetticher and his singular 3-D effort truly pops.
The images used in this review are present only as a reference to the films and are not meant to reflect the actual image quality of the Blu-rays.