Directed by Raoul Walsh. Written by Sydney Boehm, Frank S. Nugent and Heck Allen.
A misplaced romance gets in the way of cowboy worship in Raoul Walsh’s The Tall Men, an otherwise compelling story of an epic cattle run across an America still fractured by civil war tensions.
Clark Gable, Hollywood legend getting on in years at this point, stars as Ben Allison, former confederate army colonel turned highwayman. A native Texas son (and damn proud of it), he finds himself far from home together with his baby brother Clint (Cameron Mitchell) as they descend on a Montana mining town.
They attempt to rob a man, who instead offers them the opportunity to go in on a deal with him. He’s headed to cattle country to buy cheap heifers and bulls and bring them back up to Montana, where they’ll sell for much, much more, but he needs men to lead the herd, and the two brothers seem capable. He’s a yankee, they’re proud southerners, tensions are palpable.
On the road south, they come across Nella Turner, played by Jane Russell. She and and Ben hit it off, but his modest dreams of owning a small ranch down in Texas don’t align with her big dreams of better things, and their initial blazing romance turns sour quickly as she instead takes a liking to the Montana man destined to own half the territory once the cows come home, so to speak. Tensions worsen.
The Tall Men is a rare western that for the most part devotes itself to actual ranching elements and the undertaking at hand. Where others would simply use the cattle run as pretense for gunfights, Walsh is dedicated to it.
Shot in CinemaScope and on location for the most part, The Tall Men has some breathtaking sequences as the herd rumbles through valleys and mountain passes, the raw beauty of the scenery competing with the technical mastery of marshaling hundreds of cows for long shots. Walsh doesn’t just do it once, he has several sequences that look to emphasize the scale of the endeavor, and in doing so, he embiggens our protagonists more than any daring shootout ever could.
The romance that becomes the point of tension The Tall Men is regrettably misplaced. Gable was in his mid-fifties and Russell twenty years younger during shooting, so it’s greasy to watch, moreso because the nature of their will they/won’t they-courtship is strangely juvenile, combatant and petulant. As a wrangler and leader of men, Gable fits right in, but in courting Russell, he looks every bit the middle-aged man out of his depth in the dating pool. The script tries to overcompensate by lionizing Ben in every other aspect, either by the overdone adulation by the men in his employ, or the gushing from his peers, as if a woman can fall in love with a man because of how others see him.
Opposite him, Russell proves why she could star opposite Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and not have the title be a foregone conclusion. She’s introduced as a firm caretaker who doesn’t shy away from a gunfight, but Walsh subsequently takes every opportunity to let her smolder and put men in their place if they start to feel entitled. Gable initially tries to belittle her by calling her “Grandma”. He later gleefully stoops to help her take off her boots. That should tell you all you need to know.
The Tall Men is a bracing watch because of the landscapes and how Walsh clearly admires it, as well as the devotion to the realities of the movie’s plot. It’s refreshing, this attention to things other than saloon fistfights or shootouts, but the arranged marriage of the film’s two romantic leads is an unfortunate distraction.