Return of the Bad Men was the fourth and final film in a series of westerns that director Ray Enright made with legendary horse opera star Randolph Scott. The previous three were Trail Street (1947), Albuquerque (1948), and Coroner Creek (1948).
Most modern viewers will know Randolph Scott primarily for his final role — in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) — and be blissfully unaware of the roughly one hundred films he appeared in prior to it.
Ride the High Country is a great western (it co-stars Joel McCrea), but it’s not Scott’s only claim to fame. The westerns he made in the ’50s with director Budd Boetticher are highly regarded among connoisseurs of western cinema. He also appeared in plenty of workmanlike westerns like the ones directed by Ray Enright that aren’t great works of art, but are well-made entertainment, and a cut above the average B western.
Return of the Bad Men takes place in 1889, in the Oklahoma Territory. The U.S. government has just opened up two million acres of prime land for settlers. At high noon on April 22, 1889, the great Oklahoma Land Rush will begin. On the tails of the settlers, however, are a bunch of no-good outlaws (the “bad men” of the title) who only hope to prey on honest folks.
The land run sequence is exciting, although I suspect that most of the footage is taken from an earlier RKO picture, the Oscar-winning Cimarron (1931).
One of the settlers is a beautiful young widow named Madge Allen (Jacqueline White) who has a young son named Johnny (Gary Gray). She also has a boyfriend, Vance Cordell (Randolph Scott), who only wants to marry his sweetheart and move her and her son out to California.
But when Madge’s father, John Pettit (Gabby Hayes), the folksy and tough-talking president of the local bank, picks up stakes and moves from Braxton, Oklahoma, to Guthrie, Oklahoma, Vance, Madge, and Johnny follow. Once in Guthrie, a cavalry officer appoints Vance U.S. Marshal. As a former Texas Ranger and peace officer, he’s the most suitable man to keep order.
Madge just wants her son to grow up in a peaceful, law-abiding world. Her deceased husband was a peace officer killed in the line of duty, and she refuses to marry Vance until he puts things right in Guthrie, trains officers to take his place, and retires.
Meanwhile, a whole mess of outlaws is amassing against the peaceful homesteaders of Guthrie. They’re led by Wild Bill Doolin (Robert Armstrong) and there’s even a woman among them, Doolin’s niece Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys). When the rough-and-tumble bad men tell her that busting banks is man’s work, she responds that Belle Starr did OK.
The crew of outlaws includes plenty of famous names — the Younger brothers, Cole (Steve Brodie), Jim (Tom Keene) and John (Robert Bray); the Dalton brothers, Emmett (Lex Barker), Bob (Walter Reed), and Grat (Michael Harvey); Billy the Kid (Dean White); the Arkansas Kid (Lew Harvey); Wild Bill Yeager (Tom Tyler) — but the only member of the crew who has much of a chance to distinguish himself (besides Cheyenne) is Robert Ryan as the Sundance Kid.
Sundance is the most vicious of the lot and becomes Vance’s archenemy over the course of the film. Robert Ryan was on his way to becoming a big star after his memorable role in Crossfire (1947). There’s nothing particularly remarkable about his role in Return of the Bad Men, but he plays a charming villain well, and the growing antagonism between Ryan and Scott provides the dramatic push of the film.
Enright keeps the pace fast in Return of the Bad Men. The editing is quick, and the camera frequently moves within shots, which is not the case with a lot of B westerns. For a B western the production values are good, the acting is solid, and the characterizations are well-done.
Below is a clip from the film. I suppose I have to put a spoiler warning on it, since it’s the climactic fight of the film. I think the biggest potential spoiler about it is a single line of dialogue that alludes to the fate of a couple of characters, because if you consider finding out whether the guy with the white hat or the guy with the black hat wins the final fight in a B western a “spoiler” … well … let’s just say I envy your childlike naïveté: