One of the most unusual short Westerns ever made is the 1957 Copper Sky. Running only 77 minutes, it has a very small cast and much of the screen time is devoted to the two leads, played by Jeff Morrow and the lovely, unusual Coleen Gray.
The film opens with an unabashedly romantic song which has extremely little to do with the movie that follows it, but after 1952`s High Noon and its unforgettable song, it became the fashion for Westerns to feature a song somewhere (usually during the opening credits), and Copper Sky seems determined to meet those requirements with a melodic flourish.
Next we are plunged into the story of Hack Williams (Hack being short for Haxon), who comes into town and is quickly condemned to be hanged next morning, due to a very horrible case of circumstantial evidence. (It`s obviously necessary for plot purposes, but surely Hack could have done more in his own defense? Needless to say, this variation on the Western and noir archetypal situation of “innocent man framed for something he didn`t do“ is painful to watch.) But the next morning, angry Apaches sweep into the town and murder everybody except the imprisoned Hack. Soon afterwards, Miss Hayes, a young schoolteacher who has come from Boston determined to do her duty to the town`s children, drives into the place and is confronted with the terrible scene. Williams, who has emerged from prison and made straight for the whisky bottle (he`s something of an alcoholic), makes her acquaintance, but neither takes any great fancy to the other. Williams sees Miss Hayes as an inexperienced nuisance, and she sees him as an uncouth, unfeeling, and barbarous drunk. Yet they must travel together to safety, and so they begin a dangerous journey across the plains and the desert in an open wagon.
It`s an odd but worthwhile little film, using many of the Western`s tropes and standard elements while putting a unique twist on them. (IMDb notes a marked resemblance which the plot bears to that of the 1951 The African Queen.) Some of these twists are intentional, while others may be purely accidental. For instance, the film`s pace is strangely slow at times; one almost gets the feeling that this is a film from another and earlier decade; it has something of the early talkie`s artless deliberation. The edgy, disillusioned tone which distinguishes countless 50s films is nowhere to be found; indeed, the film`s religious elements hearken back to an different brand of cowboy picture altogether (such as 1947`s Angel and the Badman). Jeff Morrow`s acting style also situates the film in a different frame of reference than the one we might expect for a 1957 movie, for he alternates between a fairly straightforward, realistic sort of acting and an older, rougher, far less subtle style, this latter especially in evidence during the early stages of his relationship with Miss Hayes and any passages calling for a comedic touch.
The script, it must be admitted, may be responsible for this uneasy dichotomy, since it relies to a great extent on the obvious contrasts between a prim and rather priggish young schoolmistress fresh from Boston and a weathered, alcoholic ex-Cavalryman with a troubled past. The conflicts that arise between the two when they are thrown together are nothing very new; much of their effect depends on the chemistry between the two actors and the likeability they are able to create through their delineation of these characters. In this department, however, both Miss Gray and Mr. Morrow score very highly. It is to their credit that we come to like Nora Hayes and Hack Williams despite their little quirks, and hope that these two will come to like each other as well.
Another problem which the script does not seem quite certain how to navigate is the alternation between the frontier`s shocking, seemingly inexhaustible violence, and the often humorous conflicts between the schoolteacher and the weathered soldier who unwillingly becomes her protector. One scene featuring a sole Indian attacking does bring home the reality of violence and death in a manner perhaps unrivalled in most older Westerns, as does a scene in a log cabin with a newly-laid dinner table, but there still remains an imbalance between the reality of the things the two see and their attitudes toward them. These problems, however, are due mostly to the script`s palpable uncertainty as to how to balance these horrors with ordinary life (a problem not uncommon in real life, certainly), and might have necessitated a longer running time to be addressed properly.
A few of the film`s most telling sequences are silent, or almost so, which again calls to mind the film world`s first crops of Westerns. The two river scenes, for instance, are very effective, but manage to communicate their point without much dialogue (perhaps, it is true, due to their concern with romance, archetypal situations and feelings being easy to represent through image and action alone).
In sum, this is a charming film, which manages to weight more than the sum of its parts, or at least of its weaker parts. The warmth which Coleen Gray (especially) and Jeff Morrow bring to their roles compensates for the script`s weaknesses and makes for a most enjoyable–while suspenseful–hour or so.