The Old Corral: The Westerns of Robert Mitchum

From a tenth-billed part as a heavy in Border Patrol, a 60-minute Hopalong Cassidy oater of 1943 to eighth in the cast list as the bad guy in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man fifty-two years later, with 29 Western appearances in between, Robert Mitchum took on the genre, and won.

He was Bob Mitchum, of course, so a lot of the time he went through the motions, sleep-walking through the Western parts assigned to him. He used to say they painted eyeballs onto his closed lids. One of his catchphrases (and the title of Lee Server's entertaining biography of him) was 'Baby, I don't care.' But occasionally he turned in a blindingly good performance. He was right for the genre, being tall, rangy, craggy-faced, tough and taciturn, and he suited the part of lonesome drifter.

He started with small parts in the Hoppy movies, pleased to get them after grueling work in a wartime Lockheed aircraft factory. He was in seven of these pictures in 1943 alone (nearly always as desperado, only in Bar 20 being a clean-shaven good guy). He said he didn't know the first thing about movie acting, but for a hundred bucks a week he'd be quite happy to play a young girl if required. In one of his very first scenes his six-gun fails to fire and he looks down, perplexed at it. The director let it go, Bob delivered his first ever line of movie dialogue ('Come on, let's get out of here!') and, as he later put it, 'My fortune was made.'

Mitchum's confidence grew and with it his screen presence. He won prominence, movie by movie. 'I was very pleased to work on the Hoppys,' he said. 'Supper on the ground, free lunch, a hundred dollars a week, and all the horse manure you could carry home.'

Nineteen forty-four was a big year with Mitchum getting his first Western lead. B-Western star Tim Holt went into the service and RKO needed a replacement. Nevada was very much of the Hopalong Cassidy formula. Like Hoppy, Jim Lacy (Mitchum), nicknamed Nevada, rides with two sidekicks, a 'character' and a juvenile. There was no romance in this demure (not to say juvenile) picture. It's a lot of fun, though. Mitch is tall and handsome and has learned to ride surprisingly well since his first, disastrous attempt on the set of Border Patrol the year before.

Almost immediately, it was back to the remote and hostile Lone Pine location for a sequel, West of the Pecos. Mitchum is now Pecos Smith. The style of Nevada is a rather straight B-Western, but Pecos is comic in tone and Mitch seems more confident and laid back. There's less classic cowboy action in this picture and more concentration on the romance.

The studio was happy with both films and wanted Mitchum to continue as the lead in more B-Westerns but he got arrested for a brawl and had to enlist to avoid jail time. Bob Mitchum would not be the new Tim Holt after all.

But Mitch wasn't done with oaters. Far from it.

Screenwriter and novelist Niven Busch found in some El Paso archives the story of a vicious feud in which a young boy had been brought up by the family responsible for wiping out his own, and he persuaded Warners to create a filmed version, Pursued. He added modern Freudian tinges of childhood trauma and repressed memory as well as the obligatory love interest.

Busch wanted a new, young, strong actor for the male lead, someone not immediately identified by the audience as a goody. Mitchum was tough; Mitchum was powerful, but above all, Mitchum was cool. And the picture made Mitchum a Western star.

Two very good Westerns followed in 1948 (that wondrous Western year),Rachel and the Stranger and Blood on the Moon.

Rachel and the Stranger is not a Western in the sense it possesses six-guns or stage hold-ups. It's a pre-Civil War pioneer story. Parts of it are sweetly American, bucolic. Loretta Young is the big leading name, and it had two youngish but up-and-coming stars next-billed in William Holden and Mitchum. Mitchum is the dashing, glib (if rather obviously named) Jim Fairways who charms and woos Holden's bondservant/wife. It did healthy business, earning 95,000, good box-office for the 1940s and became the studio's biggest hit of 1948.

Mitch has a sparkle in his eye. He sings for the first time on screen. He was proud of his voice and made records but, as a singer I would say he made a better actor. In Rachel he prefigures The Night of the Hunter (a splendid film though not a Western) as he arrives on horseback, singing.

We've already said Mitchum could sleepwalk through roles and he was in a lot of weak Westerns; it was a job. But every now and then he fired on all cylinders. And when he fired, boy was he good. In Blood on the Moon he is electrifying as the gun-for-hire who, as his partner says, 'always had a conscience breathin' down your neck.'

Luke Short's 1941 novel Gunman's Chance, upon which the movie is based, is a tight, gripping action-Western in the very best tradition. Veteran RKO director Robert Wise scorned horse operas -- he only made three and the other two are weak Bs -- but he loved noir. He clearly had great talent and he brought it all to bear directing Blood on the Moon.

As befits a noir, Blood is in black & white, many scenes are set in rain, at night or in shadowy interiors, and the high country snow settings are magnificent. Wise went for authentic costumes by poring over old photographs. Mitchum has stubble and greasy hair. Blood on the Moon is a seriously classy Western, one of the best of 1948 and one of the cinematic highlights of the post-War period.

At the end of the 1940s and start of the 1950s Mitchum did two semi-Westerns, the first, on a loan-out to Republic, a version of John Steinbeck's The Red Pony in 1949, with Mitch as Billy Buck, and the rodeo picture The Lusty Men in 1952.

The first is a film Mitchum was happy to do as a lifelong Steinbeck reader, and the script is by the author himself. The picture has music by Aaron Copland and is in Technicolor (Mitchum's first color movie), so it was a prestige project.

Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men is altogether different. Hollywood was rather good at rodeo pictures. But tall in the saddle above them all is this last classic picture by RKO, a film with a few flaws but which comes close to being a masterpiece. It is a later page in the history of the Western in the sense that it deals with the sadness of the passing of the old ways and the beat-up Westerner with nowhere to go.

Mitchum towers over this, literally in the sense that he seems much taller than anyone else, but also in the authority and impressiveness of his portrayal. It is one of his finest roles. Tough, mean, hard as nails, he hints at having the heart of a marshmallow. He is, in some ways, the perfect Western hero. You believe in every one of his broken bones and erstwhile triumphs. He's down on his luck, all broke up, an ex-champ with nowhere to go, but he retains one trait in spades, and that is integrity.

River of No Return in 1954 was planned by Fox as a quick, low-budget B-Western but it grew like Topsy becoming Otto Preminger's only Western and featuring Marilyn Monroe. It's a raft story, as Bob 'n' Marilyn battle rapids, mountain lions, Indians and badmen, sometimes all on the same afternoon, on their way downriver from their cabin burnt by Indians to the safety of Council City. It should have been a wow, with its dramatic Canadian Rockies locations in Cinemascope, and indeed it did well at the box office.

Mitchum loved the movie The Ox-Bow Incident (he claimed to watch it every year) and that was based on a story by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, directed by William Wellman. Now, Mitch was loaned out to John Wayne's Batjac company, to make another Wellman/Clark picture, for Warner Bros., Track of the Cat. Wellman and his talented cinematographer William Clothier made a black & white picture in color: they used color film for a palette of blacks, whites and grays. It is a visual masterpiece (though Jack Warner, who was paying 00,000 extra for color, was furious). Mitchum is again superb. As growling brother Curt Bridges, 'a cheap dirtymouth bully,' it was the most unsympathetic role he attempted.

A true Western followed in 1955, the town-taming marshal story Man with the Gun, Mitch's first after leaving RKO. The film is a B-Western, yes, but it's tightly directed and well put together. The acting is perfectly adequate and there's a tension throughout. When he hears that his daughter is dead, he teeters on the edge of madness, losing his usual icy calm by shooting the owner of the Palace Saloon, then burning it down.

Robert Mitchum finished the 1950s with two Mexican pictures, Bandido and The Wonderful Country. He always loved Mexico, spoke passable Spanish and so was more than happy to make movies there.

Bandido is a fun, noisy actioner done with gusto. Its limited length keeps the rhythm tight: a lot is packed in. Mitchum is not quite on autopilot this time. He is naturally insouciant and nonchalant (those words were probably invented to describe him), but there is a certain electricity to him too. He is clearly enjoying it.

Right at the start of the movie he is in a white suit, a glass of whisky on the balustrade, lobbing hand-grenades (nonchalantly and with insouciance, obviously) from a hotel balcony down on the troops of the side he didn't care for (the federals) even though it is the federals who would have paid him more for the arms he could get. Mitchum is excellent: his character is a hard-drinking, womanizing, contrary outsider.

Twelve years later Mitch was back in Mexico in Villa Rides! in which he's a gringo gun runner with Pancho Villa but that movie was a dud. It is a great might-have-been, in fact, because Sam Peckinpah was to have written and directed it, but that never happened.

Before then, Mitchum was back south of the border to make The Wonderful Country. From one point of view, The Wonderful Country is a slow-paced Western with too little action. And certainly if you are expecting another Mitchum gringo-in-Mexico picture with revolutions and machine-guns you are going to be disappointed.

But the film is an intelligent, subtle, introspective story about a man in search of himself. Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck were considered for the part, but turned it down. Mitchum always thought of himself as a renegade adventurer. He is just right in the role of Martin Brady, an American who flees across the Rio Grande when young and becomes a Mexican, but who will always be regarded as a gringo there and a Mexican in the States.

As for his later Western career, Robert Mitchum led or co-starred in seven in the 1960s and early '70s, starting with two in 1967, The Way West (which he only took so he could go fishing on-location), and El Dorado with John Wayne. El Dorado is Howard Hawks saying, if all else fails, remake Rio Bravo. Mitchum was professional in it but he thought the movie poor. It is said he had this conversation with Hawks:

'You know you're the biggest fraud I've ever met in my life,' said Hawks.

'How come?'

'You pretend you don't care a thing...and you're the hardest working so and so I've ever known.'

'Don't tell anybody.'

In Tombstone in 1993 Mitchum was to have played Old Man Clanton but tragically was injured and his part written out. He gets to speak the voiceover prologue and epilogue, though. He did that ruthless mine-owner cameo in Dead Man in 1995 and for Westerns that was all she wrote. Robert Mitchum died in 1997.

Jeff Arnold is the author of the blog Jeff Arnold's West as well as several Western short stories and novels, researching the subject extensively for many years. A traveler of the American West, Jeff currently resides in France.