Burt Lancaster was one of my favorite actors when I was growing up. He was such a dashing and extremely athletic actor. He worked in a wide range of film genres from adventures, period pieces, and Westerns to war movies, comedies, and dramas. Many film fans will know Burt from some of his meaty drama roles in films like From Here to Eternity, Elmer Gantry (for which Burt won an Academy Award), or Birdman of Alcatraz. But my favorite Burt Lancaster films were always the adventures especially The Crimson Pirate. Sadly, The Crimson Pirate is not in the Public Domain but it is an excellent and exciting pirate comedy adventure. Burt runs, climbs, jumps, and swings rings around the bad guys with the help of his co-star and longtime friend Nick Cravat. Burt and Nick met when Burt was only 19. They learned to act and perform circus acts together and made nine films together. Burt was fiercely loyal to his friends and he kept Nick on his payroll for life, both as a co-star and as a trainer. The Crimson Pirate does a fantastic job of showcasing the duo’s exciting acrobatic skills and comedic timing. Too bad it’s not in the Public Domain.
Just one year before he made The Crimson Pirate, Burt Lancaster made Vengeance Valley. While Burt made many great adventure films and thrilling dramas, nearly a fourth of his films were Westerns and Vengeance Valley was his very first Western. Stuntmen later said that Burt was a “fairly weak” rider while making Vengeance Valley but it certainly does not show on film. Burt appears totally at ease in the saddle and his rough hewn good looks fit perfectly with the Western genre. Burt plays Owen Daybright, foreman on a sprawling cattle ranch owned by Arch Strobie (played by Ray Collins). Arch had taken in and raised a young orphaned Owen much to the dismay of Arch’s own son Lee Strobie (Robert Walker). While Owen is honest, upright, and fiercely loyal (much like Burt himself), Lee is an affluenza poster child: spoiled, scheming, mean, and treacherous and absolutely positive he is entitled to whatever he wants. While actor Robert Walker was no affluenza boy, he was possessed of a real life controversial reputation. Robert grew up emotionally scarred from his parents’ divorce. He married his first wife Phylis (later known by her stage name Jennifer Jones). Robert considered Jennifer the love of his life but Jennifer was more interested in producer David O. Selznick who “discovered” her, groomed her for stardom, and eventually became first her lover and later her second husband. Robert went into a downward spiral that lead to him being institutionalized for several nervous breakdowns and arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Robert plunged into a wildly turbulent marriage with Barbara Ford, daughter of director John Ford, which lasted only a few months. After his second divorce, Robert was treated for a psychiatric disorder at the Menninger Clinic. Two years later, Robert made Vengeance Valley. During production, there was considerable backstage tension between Robert and actress Joanne Dru who played his onscreen wife and between Robert and actor John Ireland who was Joanne’s real life husband and played one of the villains in Vengeance Valley. Joanne had been best friends with Robert’s second wife Barbara and she was not happy with his behavior. She and her husband John would have nothing at all to do with Robert once the cameras stopped rolling. This tension also trickled over into the film and Robert and Joanne have no chemistry at all together and make a most unconvincing couple. Robert had no tension at all with Burt Lancaster. Even though they were playing rival brothers, Robert and Burt immediately hit it off and became fast friends for the rest of Robert’s life. Sadly, Robert’s life only lasted six more months. Robert’s housekeeper allegedly found Robert in a drunken and highly emotional state and called his psychiatrist. The psychiatrist arrived and insisted Robert be sedated. Apparently the combination of the sedative and the alcohol caused Robert to lose consciousness and stop breathing. Efforts to resuscitate him failed and Robert was dead at only age 32.
Vengeance Valley was released on February 16, 1951. Filmed in color, the film runs 83 minutes. Vengeance Valley is in excellent shape. Audio is great and the picture and color are also in great shape. The film was based on the novel Vengeance Valley by Western author Luke Short. The film is a sturdy Western movie but never quite manages to be more than so-so. Burt Lancaster is, of course, wonderful and Robert Walker does a great job (Robert has a wonderful eerie “pause” later in the film when Burt questions him and asks how he thought he could get away with all his nasty schemes while he, Burt, was around to reveal all). But the two female leads, Joanne Dru as the unhappy wife (just why exactly did they get married?) and Sally Forrest as Robert’s cast off girlfriend and new baby momma really have nothing to do. Sally has a couple of minutes where she almost gets to be a tough mother but Joanne just kind of wanders around lost, does she love her husband or does she not, does she love Burt or does she not, does she know about the girlfriend or does she not and, again, just why exactly did these two characters get married? There really is no good reason. Burt Lancaster saves the movie because he is just so natural; whether or not he could really ride when he made the film, his first ever Western, he just seems made for the wild West. Vengeance Valley is one of a handful of MGM films whose original copyright never got renewed so it is now in the Public Domain and available to watch online or download completely FREE at the Internet Archive. IA has four versions available. I had some problems with the various versions. Two download attempts I made were broken and one version has sound but no picture. But I persisted and was able to watch Version #1 online. Two of the versions also have French subtitles. Click on the following links and enjoy a good Western adventure:
– Version #1 (this one has the most views and I watched it online but my download attempt did not succeed)
– Version #2 (French subtitles and this download attempt failed but online seems OK)
– Version #3 (also has French subtitles)
– Version #4 (avoid this one because sound is OK but there is no picture)
For more Western fun check out: