Tall in the Saddle (1944)

Directed by Edwin L. Marin
Written by Michael Hogan & Paul Fix

It has been a while since I’ve spent time on the trail that is my Westerns marathon, so I am very thankful to return to the project with a film from John Wayne, the quintessential Western star that everybody knows and loves. Previously, I had mentioned how it felt as though at this point in the marathon that Wayne had not quite “broken out” in stardom quite yet. Sure, his turn in Stagecoach was memorable, but he hasn’t featured in as many film, or had as many truly memorable roles you would expect from The Duke. He’s also quite good in The Spoilers and A Lady Takes a Chance, but Tall in the Saddle just feels like his breaking out party in what I have come to know as John Wayne’s persona. He’s rough, tough, and well, rides Tall in the Saddle.

While on a overland coach, driven by a colorful old man (Gabby Hayes), to his new job Rocklin (John Wayne) discovers the ranch owner who hired him is a fellow passenger’s (Audrey Long) great uncle, and that he has recently been murdered. After arriving in town, Rocklin is confronted by Arly Harolday (Ella Raines), who resents how he treated her brother in a poker game. He seems to suspect the town lawyer (Ward Bond) of suspicious activity. And he even gets shot at. After the cold welcoming to town, Rocklin sets out to uncover the cattle rustling plot that left his employer murdered and Arly and her ranch at great risk.

What stands out most about this western is John Wayne, more specifically his character and on screen presence. He won’t take anything from anybody. After walking into town right into a poker game where he’s being cheated, Rocklin simply goes upstairs, grabs his guns, and demands the money that’s rightfully his. In what is probably the best scene of the film, the day after the poker game, Arly comes at Rocklin, threatening to shot him, but he just keeps walking, even as Arly fires a few warning shots near his head. Rocklin is such a memorable and completely unflappable character; the type you would easily associate with John Wayne, which is where I get the idea, after seeing Wayne work within this marathon before, that this film might be where the legend of John Wayne begins to truly skyrocket.

That claim, of course, will play out and we’ll see just how right (or wrong) I may be. As for the rest of the film, the cattle rustling plot has been seen many times before. It is quickly becoming a staple western tale in this marathon, so I suppose I should just get used to it. As far as cattle rustling plots go, Tall in the Saddle is one of the better ones in how it sets up the dilemma and as the culprit is slowly revealed. It may be a quick read in terms of the audience being able to figure it out, but the characters are smartly constructed and performances are delivered quite well from the cast, even if Ella Raines is too girlishly beautiful to pull off the fiery cowgirl rancher.

Tall in the Saddle is very clearly a John Wayne vehicle, as director Edwin L. Marin’s filmography shows a very craftsman like career. The film is also devoid of pretty much any other major stars. The closest thing resembling one is Ward Bond, who is a more than capable character actor who has shown his face here before, and will again. I wouldn’t call Tall in the Saddle a lasting western film, but it is one of the better “throwaway” westerns that we will see here on the trail. Come for John Wayne, stay for John Wayne, celebrate John Wayne. This is his film through and through. Definitely worth a look for fans of The Duke.

*** – Very Good

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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