BURNING HILLS, THE(director: Stuart Heisler; screenwriters: Irving Wallace/from book by Louis L’Amour; cinematographer: Ted D. McCord; editor: Clarence Kolster; cast: Tab Hunter (Trace Jordan), Natalie Wood (Maria Colton), Ray Teal (Joe Sutton), Skip Homeier (Jack Sutton), Earl Holliman (Mort), Claude Akins (Ben Hindeman), Tyler MacDuff (Wes), Eduard Franz (Lance), Hal Baylor (Braun), Frank Puglia (Tio), Tony Terry (Vincente Colton ); Runtime: 93; Warner; 1956)
“What remains solid is the revenge motive, it never strays from that theme.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Trace Jordan (Tab) comes across his dead rancher brother, John, after he was gunned down while chopping wood, by three desperadoes who don’t even give him a chance to draw his gun. All the audience sees of the outlaws is from their belt buckle down to their boots–as the lame Wes (Tyler), the fancy Mexican spur wearing shooter named Mort (Earl), and the vicious cigar chomping Jack Sutton (Skip), who is the son of Joe Sutton (Teal) the big boss and cattle baron who hired them to do the shooting. They nonchalantly kill Trace’s brother and then head back to the town’s bar. The reason Mr. Sutton orders the killings, is because he doesn’t want any settlers coming into the valley; his plan is to own the whole valley and not give the settlers a chance to squat on the land, as he knows before long the land will be properly deeded and those squatting on the land will then legally own it. So begins this hearty revenge Western, that was scripted by Irving Wallace before he went on to become a successful novelist.
Trace goes after the killers and forces his way into Mr. Sutton’s ranch by overtaking the guard, Braun (Hal), and marching him into the office where the boss is discussing business with his ranch foreman, Ben (Akins). When Trace speaks to the boss privately he accuses his hired hands of killing his brother and stealing his horses, and wants them turned over to the fort in the next town for a military trial. With that accusation out of the way, Sutton denies it and then pulls a gun out of his desk drawer and wounds Trace; but, Trace is able to fire back and severely wounds the old patriarch.
Trace goes on the run being chased by all of Sutton’s hired hands, but he manages to escape and is found by a stream near the abandoned mining shaft where the beautiful and spunky Mexican half-breed, Maria (Wood), lives with her weak-willed uncle (Puglia) and her cowardly brother (Tony). Her father was a white settler who took a Mexican for his wife, and he was shot by Sutton’s men so that he couldn’t settle on the land. But there was no proof who did it and since there’s no sheriff in town to investigate the crime, Sutton gets away with his claim that it was the Comanches who did it.
This is fairly shallow water we are treading on, the only minor twist to the story comes about when the loyalty of Ben is questioned by the Suttons and when Ben refuses to let Jack beat it out of Maria where Trace is hiding. For his troubles, Ben is shot in the back by Jack. There is disloyalty on Maria’s side also, as her brother is afraid of what the men might do to Maria and himself and tells the killers where Trace is hiding. But Maria outfoxes them and spikes their coffee with jimsonweed and they conk out while she escapes to warn Trace. I think the writers got their facts mixed up about the effects of the poisonous weed — as I believe it acts as an hallucinogenic or as a poison that can kill you, but it doesn’t necessarily cause drowsiness and especially not when put into caffeine.
The killers force a tracker (Franz) to get them to Trace and he agrees, but will not agree to be a participant in the shooting of Trace. When challenged by Jack to find Trace or else, this half-breed — his father was a Dutch settler and his mother a Ute — leads the posse into an ambush where the Comanches pick off all of the men except for Wes and Jack and the tracker.
By this time, Trace and Maria have found love on-the-run. The story was trying desperately to say that interracial love was okay, and by having the heroic figures of the story be halfbreeds this 1956 film is going as far as it wants to go with that tolerant attitude. It is just too bad that Tab is such a vanilla actor and Natalie is earnest but unconvincing in her role as a halfbreed. Their romance has no fire in it, it was almost like it was a pedantic exercise in virtue. With more suitable actors in the starring roles, this could have been a much more relevant film.
The only actor with some life to him was Skip Homeier, but he was too much of a caricature of evil for his character to be anything but a cardboard-like villain. The action fight scene at the film’s end was classical Western stuff: a shoot-out, a fist fight on the rocky hillside, and then a fight to the finish in the fast-current stream.
Eduard Franz added dignity to his role as the noble tracker, sharing his wisdom in the art of tracking. But despite the beautiful photography and gripping action scenes, the story covered no new ground. What remains solid is the revenge motive, it never strays from that theme.
REVIEWED ON 11/3/99 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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