Directed by Ray Enright
Written by Lawrence Hazard & Tom Reed
When someone generally thinks about Westerns, a few giant names often come to mind. Among them is John Wayne. Wayne is a huge figure in both the history of cinema and more specifically the western genre. And yet, to this point, the marathon has felt light on Wayne. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that I am covering so many different films, but by my count, The Spoilers marks just his third appearance in the marathon. That is sure to change with the coming films, as we are just getting started in his great hey day as a big time star in the genre. The Big Trail was his first lead role, while Stagecoach, was his breakout. His more legendary performances and films are yet to come, but The Spoilers is a great film and performance in its own right too, if not often overlooked.
Most westerns are set in frontier towns and landscapes in the great Old West. The Spoilers is no different, except many forget about Alaska as the great Old West. Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) is the owner the the Northern, a saloon in boomtown Nome, Alaska during the Gold Rush. She has eyes for Roy Glennister (John Wayne), but when she sees him return to Nome with another woman in tow (Margaret Lindsay), the daughter of the new judge, she becomes jealous of his affection. Soon Roy and his mining partner Dextry (Harry Carey) disagree about the new gold commissioner (Randolph Scott), who wishes to reevaluate their claim. As the town sinks into corruption, Cherry and Roy must once again find common ground, the same for Roy and his partner Dextry, or they all risk losing what they’ve worked so hard to get.
What I have found so far in watching a little more than 30 westerns in fairly close proximity to one another is that the merit of the genre comes from two places. One is a sense of tone and action, whether there are exciting chases and gunfights, etc. The other is a sense of character, which many of the past entries have lacked, save the more stellar entries like Destry Rides Again, Stagecoach, or even 3 Bad Men. The Spoilers has great characters in droves. In a truly ensemble performance, the entire cast is great, but it’s the relationships which make this film intriguing. It was so intriguing in fact that even my wife found herself distracted from what she was doing by the narrative, no small feat.
Dietrich, Wayne, Scott, Carey, the cast is spectacular. But what the screenwriters do here is magic, by interweaving the relationships here and creating true stakes in the story. Perhaps my favorite element was that of Bronco Kid (Richard Bethlemess), whose character plays but a small role in the grand scheme of things, but whose presence ties most of the picture together. Lacking for action, though there is some, director Ray Enright is able to focus so sharply on the relationships as to create all the drama, tension and entertainment necessary to make The Spoilers a success. A character driven film like this should prove to be an easy and fun rewatch. It’s serious, but also has a sense of fun with little side characters like Flapjack (Russell Simpson).
It won’t wow you with action, it’s not a particularly stunning technical achievement, though everything here is as it should be, but The Spoilers is a good film and on par with some of the other hidden gems I’ve already uncovered through this journey. Nothing about this film is really perfect, but it excels at capturing true human drama in the midst of a rather quintessential western landscape, even if Alaska gold rush isn’t the first thing you think of when you think western. It’s the frontier, it’s enterprising individuals looking to make a good life for themselves, to do so with law and order, especially in the face of corruption and lawlessness. There is a lot to like here.