The Texans (1938)

Genres - Western  |   Sub-Genres - Traditional Western  |   Run Time - 92 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

The Texans is probably the best (and certainly the most ambitious) movie ever made by James Hogan -- that doesn't mean it's a great movie, just superior to the Bulldog Drummond and Ellery Queen programmers for which the filmmaker was best known during the 1930s and 1940s. Hogan usually worked on projects of relatively modest scope, and was best known for B-features such as those and also for one truly dreadful picture, 1935's Life Returns -- but here he had a very good script and cast (including the ever-reliable Raymond Hatton, with whom he'd worked before), and a surprisingly large budget for what was essentially a second remake of the story (which had been filmed in 1931 as The Conquering Horde with Richard Arlen and Fay Wray, and in 1925 as North of 36, with Jack Holt and Lois Wilson). And it is an intrinsically fascinating story (authored by Emerson Hough) on a number of levels, fully justifying those various filmed versions, though Hogan's is the best of the three, owing to his cast as well as the timing of his remake. The tale itself trades in some of the same passions, settings, and story elements that went into both Gone With the Wind (then in pre-production) and Howard Hawks' Red River, made nine years later; and this version takes the trouble to show some of the hardships of life in Reconstruction era Texas that Hawks' movie mostly alludes to in dialogue, just to stir the audience's passions. In one sense, allowing for audience sensibilities at the time, the 1938 movie could almost be considered inflammatory, depicting black United States soldiers stationed as part of the occupying force in Indianola, although the fact that it depicts significant numbers of black soldiers at all is also fairly remarkable (even if it's the white actors in uniform that get most of the dialogue). So, The Texans has a somewhat unusual and expansive vision of its setting and period, and also a certain boldness for mentioning the Ku Klux Klan by name in its final minutes -- Hollywood usually avoided even brushing up against potential controversy, even if the group is only referred to by its initials, and in a historical context. In terms of verisimilitude, The Texans also makes extensive use of the very same real-life cattle-drive footage -- of one of the very last such major drives ever undertaken -- from the 1925 production (which was also re-used in the 1931 version).

In purely cinematic terms, the movie offers us the chance to see Randolph Scott at age 35 in a bold, slightly ironic adventurer role -- somewhere midway between his portrayal of Hawkeye in the 1936 Last of the Mohicans and his postwar work for Budd Boetticher and André De Toth, when he was ten to twenty years older. We also get the decided treat of seeing two top screen sidekicks, Walter Brennan and Raymond Hatton, working in parallel roles; Hatton's part is particularly intriguing, as a frontiersman who is depicted as a near "savage," wearing animal skins and a top hand with gun, but also content to use a tomahawk and prepared to scalp anyone who gets too far on his wrong side without batting an eye. Brennan's presence is notable, as he was also in Hawks' Red River, in a similar role, if not portrayal -- his grizzled ranch foreman is like a comic Greek chorus, commenting on the action throughout in his asides. He also has one scene that challenges the Production Code in its own way -- following the outfit's arrival in Abilene, he's seen by his dowager employer (May Robson) looking very pleased with himself and says, to her outraged reaction, "I bet you can't guess where I've been." We know there are saloons there, but we've also seen a wagon-load of "business girls" setting up shop, and one wonders if he was just getting drinks where he was. Joan Bennett doesn't quite fit the part of a tough Texas ranch owner (the role needed a Barbara Stanwyck, although she might have played it so tough that further dialogue would have been needed to explain her conversion), but everything else works, and the action is spread across a surprisingly large canvas. Indeed, one gets the feeling that Hogan and producer Lucien Hubbard were consciously trying to match the work of Cecil B. DeMille, and they came close, only missing out with a cast that wasn't quite as good-looking or as big as what DeMille would have worked with, and a script that occasionally takes too many leaps of logic and chronology. The precise time-frame of the action is a little bit vague in various parts of the movie, but overall this is an unexpectedly satisfying near-epic from a filmmaker who wasn't known for his work in that genre or on that scale, and -- although no Red River in tone or execution -- one of the better overlooked Westerns of its period.