THESE THOUSAND HILLS looked to have a lot going for it, with a quintet of young actors all drawing attention at the time, a talented director, and a story based on a novel by a respected author. But the ambitious aim of this 1959 western misses the target thanks to a rambling script and meat-axe editing that rushes too much material too fast into an insufficient 95 minute running time. The actors are stranded in an array of vignettes that range from good to mediocre but lacking linkage, motivation and depth. One performance stands out, there are a couple of decent action scenes, and the scenery is swell, but overall it feels off-kilter, synthetic right out of the gate with an awful title song, one of the era’s lamest.
“Innocent? Well, that depends on who the jury is. I’ll tell you a couple of things I ain’t guilty of. I ain’t prayed on Sunday and bought cows cheap on Monday. I ain’t broke my word. I ain’t climbed up high on somebody else’s back or thought of myself better than another man. I ain’t double-crossed a friend or made a little tin god out of money. Sure, I’m innocent. I’m as innocent as you. Or ain’t you boys innocent?”
Montana, the 1880s. Amiable yet ambitious, cowboy ‘Lat Evans’ (Don Murray) wants to move up in the world, and has plans that reach beyond his station. Determination and a gift for winning people over moves him up, along with a good deal of help from those who trust and care about him. The price of success is balanced against the cost to those relationships and his self-respect. Scruple-free rancher ‘Jehu’ (Richard Egan) makes as much trouble as he can get away with: both men have a claim on kind-hearted prostitute ‘Callie’ (Lee Remick), until Lat sees social advancement and gentility in banker’s niece ‘Joyce’ (Patricia Owens). Lat’s rowdy, rough-hewn trail pal ‘Tom Ping’ (Stuart Whitman) gets into risky business that ends badly.
Coming off a string of successes, Richard Fleischer directed, and $1,645,000 was spent filming around Durango in Colorado and down in Mexico’s Sierra de Órganos National Park. Alfred Hayes screenplay was based on the book by A.B. Guthrie Jr., following the author’s acclaimed “The Big Sky” (a 1952 movie) and “The Way West” (on screen in 1967). The book’s sprawl had 345 pages to cover time, incidents and character shaping, but the film gallops it, and there’s a too-clean look to the sets and costumes: while the scenery provides the place, a sense of period is lacking. Saddling every scene it can get a cinch on is Leigh Harline’s saccharine, intrusive score, and that all-wrong song sung by Randy Sparks returns periodically to take you out of the wooly Wild West range and into dreamy Johnny Mathis territory, and Sparks was no Mathis. *
Murray’s playing of the conflicted Lat is at least more bearable to watch than his clod cowpoke from Bus Stop, but Lat’s too driven by ego and power-prestige to care much about. By the time he’s wised up, he’s done too much damage. Egan’s bad guy is thoroughly rotten, and Egan has the presence to provide a viable threat. Whitman has two good scenes with affecting mini-speeches. Owens has little to do but look pleasant. Remick wins the acting honors, hands down, and draws the most sympathetic character. That Callie is the prettiest, kindest, best-dressed saloon tramp in the Rockies is something you just have to accept, yet Remick’s honesty makes you care about her. Old reliable Douglas Fowley gets in some nice moments as a stable-hand fond of whisky and regrets. Early on Fleischer stages a decent bronc-busting scene and an okay horse race, and near the end manages a walloping fistfight. But the rapidity of events in between goes by like flash cards, with about as little dramatic staying power and emotional investment in the results.
A gross of $1,900,000 was not enough to cover the tab; this good-looking but cheerless, focus-splintered horse opera lagged behind the herd at 116th place for the year. With Albert Dekker, Harold J. Stone, Royal Dano, Jean Willes and Ken Renard.
* Randy Sparks, the warbler of that wretched title tune, later formed the temporarily popular 60’s group The New Christy Minstrels. Western fans with eagle eyes will note that some of the herd scenes were cribbed from the Clark Gable cattle-drive picture The Tall Men. Remick later called this “her least favorite” film. Its failure was canceled out by her drawing a hit with Anatomy Of A Murder. Egan could console himself with the success of A Summer Place. Richard Fleischer scored in ’59 with Compulsion.
Favoring the approaching “New Frontier”, 1959’s “adult” westerns were stoked with ethically conflicted characters like Lat Evans: They Came To Cordura, The Hanging Tree, Warlock, Day Of The Outlaw, Ride Lonesome, Last Train From Gun Hill. Stop jawin’ and draw, already…