Not all movies are created equal. There are some great movies, movies which make the “Greatest Films of All Time” lists or are hailed as “underrated masterpieces” or labeled as “hidden gems.” Other films–maybe even most films, if one were to look at this in terms of numbers–can lay no such claims to fame. Designed to tell a story as straightforwardly as possible, these movies may be enjoyable and well-produced, but they tend to bear a marked resemblance to each other.
This may explain why the 1953 movie The Vanquished seems so familiar even upon a first viewing. The film is generally categorized as a Western, but this seems due more to its cast (star John Payne often headlined Westerns) than to its setting, which is very much a Southern one. Set in 1866, The Vanquished sets forth the story of a corrupt civil adminstrator (Lyle Bettger as one of his frequent villains) who outrages the little Southern town he rules with a despotic and cruel hand. Despite being a native of the town, this administrator, Roger Hale by name, jumps at the chance to enrich himself by taking advantage of the military governance which the North is imposing on the recently conquered South. He finds like-minded accomplices in the rascally Northern soldier Captain Kirby (Willard Parker) and Rose Slater (a lovely red-haired Jan Sterling), who was born on the wrong side of the tracks and knows it.
Into this troubled setting comes Rock Grayson (John Payne, the hero of the picture), who fought for the South during the war but now has been sent by higher authorities to investigate complaints from the citizens about their new government. Also a native of the town, Rock surprises his Southern friends and fellow-townsmen by refusing to join them either in their nostalgia for their lost cause or in their dislike of Hale. On the contrary, Rock accepts a position as Hale’s right-hand man and helps him to depossess farmers who fail to pay their taxes, all the while keeping a close eye on Hale and his tricky ways. But his faithfulness to orders and refusal to dwell on the past also imperils his relationship with Jane Colfax (Coleen Gray), the doctor’s daughter, who grew up while he was away at war and still loves him… And the plot continues to unfold rapidly along these lines during the entire 84 minutes, as Hale discovers Grayson’s true colors and seeks to protect his ill-gotten gains at all costs.
The mark of a second-class film, as many have noted down the course of film history, is a concentration on simple action as opposed to character. Plot is, of course, a good way to show character, but that requires a story complex and nuanced enough t0 satisfy an audience`s desire to understand fully the people on screen. The Vanquished, however, relies mostly on the skill of its actors to convey a sense of reality to its characters. That is not to discount the presence of some nice touches in the writing; there are good lines now and then, and the story progresses smoothly and satisfactorily. But it misses its chance of becoming a really top-notch film by failing to take advantage of the interesting possibilities latent in its material. The relationships between Rose and Hale, and Rose and Grayson, could be explored further, although Jan Sterling is both beautiful and effective as the money-loving Miss Slater; Coleen Gray is good as Jane, but she has little chance to do more than play the ultimately devoted and understanding sweetheart; and the ambiguities of Grayson`s position, as a Southerner who returns to his hometown a loyal American and enters his former home only as a guest, could have been used to heighten the tensions of the story.
Were these and similar issues examined, the movie could do justice to its title and take on finer shadings, becoming a unique and thoughtful film. Instead, the filmmakers made an obvious choice in favor of action and excitement, and so we have event following upon event, in somewhat predictable fashion. There is a considerable amount of footage showing people riding furiously up or down dirt roads, especially towards the end, and we have no shortage of wild escapes into the night and people being knocked on the head or shot or betrayed. Also present is the astonishingly swift ending and concluding romantic clinch (prefaced by the customary remark) which unfailingly characterize the ending of this kind of movie.
Still, these criticisms are made less to depreciate the film than to describe it. The Vanquished was probably designed to entertain audiences who wanted a lively and exciting hour and a half showing situations and problems which would divert them while not causing them too much of a strain. And in this it succeeds very well; the Technicolored world it represents is meticulously rendered in the most pleasant way, with the interiors and costumes being particularly noteworthy, while the actors fulfill their roles with admirable zest. John Payne is often described as “dependable“ or “reliable,“ but I suspect that is because he is often confused with the dependability of the character he so frequently played in this kind of movie. If we switch out the setting, the leading lady, and the supporting actors for other ones, we get a typical 1950s John Payne movie. Not that that`s a bad thing; on the contrary, it guarantees a well-made, colorful, fast-moving little picture, and sometimes that`s exactly what one wants. And after all, how could we have a great movie if we didn`t have so many that were only good against which to compare it?