Judge Paul Corupe reckons that covers durn near the entire state of New Mexico.
"A man's got to take care of herself"—Rill (Barbara Hale)
The most famous tumbleweed author who ever lived, Zane Grey wrote more than 100 books in his lifetime, virtually pioneering the western fiction genre and becoming a major figure in pulp writing. He was such a successful figure that in the 1930s and '40s, studios found that simply attaching Grey's name to a quickie low budget western would always garner an interested audience, no matter who the stars were. Released by Lionsgate as part of their "Zane Grey Western Classics" line, West of the Pecos is a pretty standard 1940s B-western based on one of Grey's novels, a cross-dressing oater most notable for being an early vehicle for Robert Mitchum.
Facts of the Case
Leaving Chicago behind for the good of his health, Colonel Lambeth (Thurston Hall, Hawaiian Nights) and his daughter Rill (Barbara Hale, Airport) are on the way to his Texas ranch when they're robbed by bandits, and their stagecoach driver is shot dead. Pecos Smith (Robert Mitchum, Thunder Road) and his sidekick Chito (Richard Martin, Four Fast Guns) offer to help out the troubled travelers make it to their destination, but only after Rill disguises herself as a man to stop the uneducated cowpokes from leering at her. While Pecos tries to figure out why Rill keeps blushing when he takes off his shirt, he is fingered for the stagecoach murder and must clear his name by outing the real culprits, a rowdy gang of vigilantes who virtually run the town.
Cross-dressing stories are a dime a dozen, and West of the Pecos is no different. This is yet another hackneyed tale that requires a healthy suspension of disbelief, as grizzled trail rider Pecos Smith is unable to discern the difference between a duded-up cowboy and a prim, proper lady who has unconvincingly shoving her generous tresses underneath a Stetson. Though it's logical and well paced, Grey's lazy plot is as well worn as a cowboy's saddle, so it's far more interesting to delve into the film's hilarious gay subtext. After unknowingly meeting the cross-dressing girl of his dreams, Pecos' rough and tumble ways have him offering to share his bed to what he assumes to be a 15-year-old boy, inviting the young kid to cuddle to save heat, wrapping his arms around the him as he rolls a cigarette, and commenting on the smoothness of Rill's hands. Of course, it's all played for laughs, forcing Rill into uncomfortable situations where she might be discovered, but the implication here is far less Rocky Mountain than it is Brokeback Mountain.
Action occurs pretty infrequently over the film's scant 66 minutes, with just a few shoot-outs and only one or two well-placed punches that connect with square-jawed baddies. Instead, the story is far more focused on the developing romance between Rill and Pecos, as they predictably drift towards each other after he inadvertently takes off her hat and discovers her true gender. Unfortunately, their love is complicated by the fact that Rill's hand has already been promised to the Colonel's strapping attorney. But when the young lawyer witnesses his fiancée's true feelings, he gladly steps aside, even defending his rival from the false accusations of the law—now that's chivalry!
In his second major screen role, Robert Mitchum plays Pecos Smith with aplomb, balancing the character's western swagger with a firm moral anchor. He's always appealing in the role, and it's not surprising that he was on the cusp of A-list stardom when he finished this picture. Equally talented is Barbara Hale as the gender-swapping Rill, who really pushes herself to the front of the picture by simultaneously swapping macho talk with Mitchum and exuding pure class as a kept western lady.
Originally released by Lionsgate as part of a double feature disc along with Mitchum's earlier western, Nevada, the full frame, black and white West of the Pecos looks like it's been on the trail for far too long. It's pretty fuzzy, with nicks and scratches that constantly crop up throughout the running time. The mono soundtrack gets the job done, but little more—underlying hiss and distorted high frequencies detract somewhat from the dialogue. You wouldn't think that Lionsgate would have included any extras on this release, but perhaps the short length of the feature twigged their conscience. To help beef up this disc, they've served up three side orders of varying interest. "Outdoor Adventures" is a tedious, 45-minute travelogue of Grey's fishing excursions narrated in excitable newsreel style. It's introduced by the author's son, Loren, but it's completely skippable, especially considering that the "Fisherman's Pluck," a short nine-minute film about pretty much the same thing is much easier to digest. Finally, there's a decent biography of Grey called "An American Legend" that traces the infamous author's life and love of the outdoors. It's not in the greatest shape, since it was shot for TV in the 1980s, but it's relatively interesting, clocking in at about half an hour.
An innocuous tumbleweed programmer, West of the Pecos is a fine Wild West timewaster that is sure to appeal to Mitchum fans. It never rises above the fundamentals of pulp storytelling, but that's all it ever aspired to anyways.
Not guilty, kemosabe.
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