After a hardened gang rob a bank the cavalry pursues them as far as the Death Valley salt flats, then lets them go. It would be pointless to chase them further, as they are dead men stumbling in the desert. Another thirsty passage.
They make it to a ghost town and discover a crusty old prospector and his wild, sharpshooting granddaughter. The gang figure they are hoarding gold and want to take it. This will be the end of the gang.
Superior action-and-romance western, elevated by a great director and cast, and by gorgeous photography from Joseph MacDonald. Not just in the composition, but in the texture of sand and rock and stunning use of darkness and shadow.
He produces lovely night scenes with black skies and brilliant white clouds:
I presume this is some sort of day-for-night process, but I don't know how it is done: ultra-violet filters, or special film stock like the infra-red film used in Fort Apache (1948), or some chemical magic in the darkroom?
Early in Gregory Peck's career he had a nice-guy image, so it is startling to seem him as a tough and very hard gang leader. These are not cute "bad man" in the John Ford sense of 3 Godfathers (1948), but dangerous "wild bunch" characters who show no kindness to each other. When they meet Anne Baxter the sexual menaces begin and we have two near-rape scenes.
Peck is redeemed in the final acts as the romance grows.
This is Richard Widmark's second film (or -- at least -- made during his second year in films). In those days he often played giggling psychos, so we like seeing him do something different. This time he is the intelligent villain, calculating the odds for his next move.
- They demolished another old western movie set to make the ghost town.
- Peck did the whole film with a broken ankle. He wore a little brace instead of the cast he should have had.
- The actors do almost all of their own vigorous stunt work, including Anne Baxter who roughs up Peck mightily when he jumps her. He took it without complaint.
- Alfred Newman gets score credit, but the opening and closing themes seem out of place, more of a jaunty western march. I believe that was taken from another film.
- There isn't much music in the film itself, but quite a lot of wind, still called "yellow sky wind" in the mixing booth.
The commentary track by the director's son is relaxed and sporadic, but he gives many production details, including the career of Peck's horse (Steel? Steele? Steal?) The horse could act and was a scene-stealer. It ignored all the movie-set commotion but would watch for the red light to come on and then earn its pay.
He says his father loved horses and took care that they were well treated. The rules limited them to three hours work per day in that Death Valley heat.
He was on the set when 11 years old and tried to sneak into the movie, without success. He describes watching the scenes while hiding just out of view, up in the hay loft, for instance.