Judging by the only Zane Grey novel I’ve read, Riders of the Purple Sage, which was published in 1912, Grey was the most influential and important writer to ever mythologize the American west.
He was also a hack, and his florid prose made me wish for the more psychologically realistic and straightforward portrayals of the west I grew up reading in westerns by Louis L’Amour. Part of this is due to the era in which he was writing. By the ’40s and ’50s, passages like the following would have seemed ridiculous:
Her head was bowing to the inevitable. She was grasping the truth, when suddenly there came, in inward constriction, a hardening of gentle forces within her breast. Like a steel bar it was stiffening all that had been soft and weak in her. She felt a birth in her of something new and unintelligible.
The word “overwrought” doesn’t begin to describe the world Grey creates. His hero, Lassiter, wears an outfit that would make Richard Boone as Paladin in the TV series Have Gun — Will Travel (1957-1963) look positively conservative. Not only is Lassiter dressed all in black leather, but his black sombrero boasts a band of silver dollars, and his long-barreled revolvers are sexualized to a ridiculous degree. And, of course, the action is fast, furious, implausible, and frequently accentuated by exclamation marks. I’d be tempted to call the novel Riders of the Purple Prose if it didn’t contain such raw power in its descriptions of landscapes.
Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rose an up-Hinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.
Grey had the soul of a Romantic. In his world, emotion trumps reason and the physical world mirrors the longings and passions of the people who exist in it. For better or for worse, it is this vision of the old west that captured the imagination of the reading public in the early 20th century, and informs the western genre to this very day.
I don’t really know why I’m going on and on about Riders of the Purple Sage, except that William Berke’s film Sunset Pass, which I’m reviewing today, is based on the 1931 novel of the same name by Zane Grey, and watching it made me think back to the only novel by Grey that I’ve read. (There’s an earlier filmed version of Sunset Pass that was directed by Henry Hathaway and starred Randolph Scott. It was released in 1933. I haven’t seen it.)
Sunset Pass, which was released by RKO Radio Pictures, hasn’t gone down in history as one of the great westerns, and it certainly can’t hold a candle to John Ford’s early westerns, but it’s a sight better than the stuff P.R.C. and Monogram were churning out week after week in the ’40s. The print I watched was clean and crisp. The black and white cinematography looked great. Neither Berke’s direction nor Norman Houston’s screenplay, however, capture Grey’s febrile world or antiquated dialogue. This is a by-the-numbers oater with plenty of shootouts, fistfights, chases on horseback, romance, and a few songs.
The film begins with an exciting but nonsensical scene. A cowboy named Rocky (James Warren) and his Mexican sidekick Chito (John Laurenz) tie up their horses in a stand of trees and watch a passenger train chugging toward them. They leave their horses and run alongside the train, which appears to be moving at top speed, and hop aboard. They take their seats, flirt with the ladies, and are in place to attempt to foil a train robbery. I say “attempt,” because a young woman named Jane Preston (Nan Leslie) knocks Rocky’s rifle barrel to the side when he attempts to shoot one of the robbers, allowing him to make his getaway. The men are all masked, but it’s clear that she recognizes him, and intervenes to save his life.
It turns out that Rocky and Chito are undercover agents employed by the railroad to stop robberies. If this is the case, what was the purpose of them not only leaving their horses in a remote area but also boarding the train in the middle of its journey? If anyone can explain it to me, please do. Were they hungover and missed the train? That’s the only explanation I can think of.
With the money stolen, Rocky and Chito are in hot water with the railroad company. Rocky rides off to track down the stolen loot while Chito grabs his guitar and makes love to showgirl Helen “Lolita” Baxter (played by Jane Greer, who exhibits none of the malevolence she would exude a little more than a year later in her most famous role as the femme fatale who ensnares Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past).
Eventually Rocky catches up with the robbers, but he’s shot and badly wounded. Luckily, he’s spirited away by a young man named Ash (Robert Clarke), who turns out to be Jane’s brother.
Clarke gives the best performance of the film as Ash Preston, and when his character faces ethical dilemmas, the movie really comes alive.
James Warren is a decent hero, but his performance is more one-note than Clarke’s. Tall, lean, and blond, with a perpetual scowl, Warren is sort of a Sterling Hayden Lite.
The villain of Sunset Pass, Cinnabar (Harry Woods), is good, too, but his name sounds like a candy bar or a coffee bar chain, and the other characters in the film refer to him a lot by name, which I found unintentionally funny.
Sunset Pass is standard western fare, but it was an enjoyable enough way to while away an hour and 5 minutes.