This is a peculiar western turned American Civil War film. William
Holden is Alverez Kelly, a citizen of Mexico of Irish ancestry, and a
gentleman cattle herd leader. He has, we learn, had involvement with
the U.S. before 1861 - 64. His father, the owner of a large estate in
Mexico, was killed in the "Mexican War" (Holden says it has a different
name in Mexico) by American troops, some of whom are now Confederates.
But he is totally uninterested in the results of the war: he is a
foreign citizen intent to sell cattle to the best payer. This means,
however, that he has to deal with the Union more than the South (at one
point he is asked if he doubts the value of Confederate currency, and
starts telling the Confederate Secretary of War what one could do now
with Confederate currency).
It is Holden's fortune that he gets a Union Army contract for 4500
steers that it takes him three months to bring up from Mexico.
Unfortunately he is met by Major Steadmen (Patrick O'Neill) at the
point where Holden felt he was supposed to deliver. Steadman is one of
the most obnoxious men one can mingle with. A citizen of Boston, he was
a lawyer before the war. He prides himself on being able to manipulate
people by his brains (an example I will give in a moment). He drew up
the contract, and in very fine print (he does apologize for it's tiny
size), he had a clause added that the commanding General in the area
that needs the meat can insist it be delivered there before payment.
That is General Grant: the cattle have to be brought to Richmond.
Holden has no choice, but he will be paid. Unfortunately this leads to
a 1,400 mile railway trip from Texas through the Midwest to Maryland
and into Virginia - accompanied by Steadman. Earlier we saw Steadman as
a stiff type - he had to wait an additional ten days for Kelly to
appear at the point Kelly thought was delivery point, and does not like
being kept waiting (even though the army would have been footing his
bill in the border town). But on the ride he tells Kelly his "war
stories" about being a lawyer in Massachusetts. The one we hear the
great tail end of is about how he trumped a judge on a legal point in a
case by use of a writ of certiorari (this legal document demands to
know from the judge what is the statutory power the judge is using that
is the grounds for his decision). I'm sure that most people would love
to hear this type of story....
I'd love to know who the Masssachusetts Judge was. Hopefully, for
Steadman's career sake, it was not Lemuel Shaw, the Chief Justice of
the Commonwealth, a man of formidable mind and presence. He looks it
from his photos. He was also the father-in-law of a one time sailor and
writer, later a customs house man named Herman Melville. Shaw, had he
been embarrassed by some idiotic glory seeking lawyer would have
swallowed and remembered the idiot. And the idiot would have paid in
the long-run throughout Massachusetts' court system.
The cattle are delivered at a plantation now in Union hands outside
Richmond. But after Kelly is paid, he becomes a target of southerners
led by Colonel Tom Rossiter (Richard Widmark). Rossiter sees all that
wonderful meat nearby and wants it for the folks in Richmond and for
Lee's forces. So he kidnaps Kelly (with the help of the plantation
owner Charity Warwick (Victoria Shaw)), and Kelly soon is in Richmond
being offered a chance to do the Confederacy a small aid by stealing
the herd back.
Rossiter is no sweet guy, but a genuine patriot who has already
sacrificed an eye for the Confederacy.* He uses methods as vile in
their way as Steadman's (including intentional minor maiming) to force
Kelly to help him. The interest in the film really centers on the
mental warfare between Rossiter and Kelly, as each tries to see how far
they can force the other back on track or off track. For Kelly sees
that Rossiter's plan is a desperate last chance - and a long shot that
he has no real concern about.
(*There actually was a noted Confederate Cavalry leader, General Thomas
Rosser, who survived the war in tact and ended his career as an
engineer on U.S. and Canadian railways. His last military action was in
1876 - he heard his pal George Custer (army differences forgiven) was
killed at Little Big Horn. Rosser took leave from his job to join the
U.S. forces seeking Crazy Horse's army)
The film is well acted and plotted actually - far better than other mad
last gasp Confederate tales are (witness VIRGINIA CITY). Kelly finds a
way to avenge his maiming through an act of kindness to Elizabeth
Pickering (Janice Rule) Rossiter's fiancé. But in the end he is the one
who wins - by getting the cattle to the right place, and finding out
his own finer senses.
Also note the performances of two favorite character actors from
television (usually), Howard Caine and Roger C. Carmel. Caine (best
recalled as the nasty S.S. Major Hochstadter on HOGAN'S HEROS) is a
northern spy who gets most of the cards in his hands, and deals the
wrong answer out. Carmel (best recalled for his role as Kay Ballard's
husband on THE MOTHERS - IN - LAW, or as Harry Mudd on STAR TREK) is
Captain Fergusson, a clever Scotish Blockade Runner (for profit of
course - like Rhett Butler was too). Both help enliven an above average