Sierra Baron
20th Century Fox (1958)
In Collection
Seen ItYes
IMDB   5.6
1 hr 20 mins USA / English
DVD  Region 1   NR
Brian Keith
Rick Jason
Rita Gam
Mala Powers
James B. Clark

This is one of my personal favorite movies, and one of the first to develop the life of the Californios on film, before and during the coming of the United States as visitors, settlers, invaders, enemies and later overlords. It was shot in some real locations and is quite colorful to my eyes; it has a coherent and consistently moving script, I suggest, due to the logic of Tom Blackburn's darker novel and Houston Branch's intelligent screen-play plus the intrinsic drama of the story-line. The story in fact opens just at the time the United States is winning its war against Mexico and General Santa Ana and annexing California. One man, Rufus Bynham, has jumped the gun and established a town on the land belonging to a Spanish grandee, young Miguel DelMonte, who has just taken over the Princessa Grant territory upon the death of his father. The new patron, found drinking with his co-eval friends in Mexico by a ranch-hand, sobers as he hears the news of his father's death. They ride home and encounter some of Bynham's men. The toughs try to beat them up but instead DelMonte defeats their instigator and tells the other interlopers to get off his land. He hastens home to find his sister awaiting him; Felicia is anxious but very glad to see him. A man helped him when someone tried to pull a gun, and Miguel has borough the man, Jack McCracken, home with him. So there are three fascinating strands going on simultaneously: the lives of those living at the important rancho and especially its three lead characters, the activities of Bynham and the townspeople who bought lots from him in good faith, and later a wagon train filled with desperate folk whom he allows to stay on the land to sow a crop and to whom he sends aid, including a young woman, Sue Russell, who has lost her husband on the trek west, with whom he falls in love while she does not want to think of love that soon at all. The strands are each followed and developed quite intelligently, I suggest. Jack teaches Miguel how to use a swivel draw of a gun while facing away from an opponent. The townspeople talk among themselves and the sensible ones refuse to join a mob that Bynham tries to stir up after DelMonte rides through with his men and reminds them they are on his land. The fact that he helps the train's folk and allow them to stay is used against him. Riots occur in Sacramento, California's capital, when the government of the United States recognizes the old Spanish land grants after all. The mob that confronts Miguel are not all bad men. Bynham's men have beaten up Jack for siding with Miguel, and Felicia has been nursing him as he falls in love with her and tries to tell her the truth about himself, in some very moving scenes. Miguel defuses the situation by telling the townsfolk their claims are theirs; they can stay--his quarrel is with Bynham and he will take it to court. Realizing the jig is up Bynham flees, pursued by angry men of both sides. He finally turns up at the rancho and gets the drop with his six-gun on Miguel and Jack. Miguel kills him, using the trick that had been taught to him, but the villain has time to kill Jack. As he dies, he lies to Felicia and tells her he was plotting to kill Miguel and take over all along; she does not believe him. Because she so nearly lost him, Sue Russell accepts Miguel's love, and he understands. "A heart can hold many kinds of love," he acknowledges, and promises never to leave her. The scene shifts--perhaps brilliantly--then to the modern day. A group of sightseers is visiting, discovering the grave markers on the old DelMonte property. In this clever way, we learn the fate of the participants in the historical drama. The last to be accounted for are Sister Felicia of the Cross and Jack McCracken. One of the young women, also named Felicia, finds it odd that "She was a nun...yet they're buried side by side!..." With this unforgettable ending, the fascinating historical drama ends. The film has beautiful cinematography by Alex Phillip and fine art direction John B. Mansbridge, plus a successful and well-paced direction by James B. Clark. The music composed by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter supports the progress and many moods of the complex deeds and events I believe very unobtrusively. Also, the costumes designed by Georgette Somohano are unusually fine as are the period set decorations. Scenes such as the formal served dinner where Jack sits at one end of a long table, Miguel at the other and Felicia in the middle being served by deferential servants is very memorable; so is the dance that Miguel does with Sue to draw her out of her shell, the slow ride into town by Miguel's mounted troops, the refusal of some of the townsmen to join the mob and many other scenes. In the main roles, handsome Rick Jason is likable and more-than-acceptable. Mala Powers and Brian Keith bring intelligent interpretations to their roles; Rita Gam steals the film as the lovely underplayed Felicia; and Steve Brodie is properly ruthless as Rufus Bynham. Also in the cast are Lee Morgan, Alan Russell, Reed Howes, and many others, in minor roles. I find this film very affecting and its every scene interesting. I recommend it to any viewer as a period piece, an historical drama, a romance, and a lovely example of "B" film-making from beginning to end. By the way, the novel is quite different; I prefer the filmed story.
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