Reprisal! (1956), The Hard Man (1957), directed by George Sherman
If judged exclusively by its treatment of interracial relations and gender roles, Reprisal! would be an outstanding Western, comparable to Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (1950). Guy Madison plays Frank Madden, a young man who buys land to become a rancher. The town and area he has chosen for this venture are fraught with tensions between three racist white ranchers, the Shipley brothers, and Native Americans who live in nearby “Indian town.” Madden tries his best to stay neutral and out of trouble but unavoidably gets drawn into the one-sided racist conflict. In fact, he himself is a marker for its racial demarcation line, since it turns out his father was a European-American hunter and his mother a Cherokee.
The Native Americans get a lot of screen time, including close-ups and sensible dialogue, and are depicted in a positive way as reasonable citizens, not bloodthirsty savages (quite common since the success of Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow , which, by the way, was completed after Devil’s Doorway, as noted by Richard Slotkin, who discusses the latter film at length in his Gunfighter Nation [pp. 366 ff.]). Even more remarkable, Reprisal! features two female protagonists, one Native American, Taini (Kathryn Grant), one European-American, Catherine Cantrell (Felicia Farr), and both of them play crucial roles for the story’s denouement; contrary to Hollywood Western conventions, the Native American woman survives. Last but not least, the film’s happy ending is an emphatic endorsement of interracial love and presumably marriage.
By (initially) denying his Native American ancestry, the film’s mixed-blood protagonist tries to apply a social strategy known as “passing” (adopted, for example, by comic-strip genius George Herriman; by Susan Kohner’s character Sarah Jane in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life ; or by Coleman Silk, the protagonist in Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain ). Hence one might suspect that the racial(ist) tensions depicted in Reprisal! are not so much based on nineteenth-century conflicts between European and Native Americans but rather reflect 1950s black/white social problems. In that regard, Reprisal! is a laudable exercise in liberal politics, but its dramatic structure and characters are ultimately too flat to make the film a great Western, not to mention its lack of thrilling action sequences.
New York City-born Hollywood all-rounder George Sherman (1908–1991) and Pumpkin Center-born actor Guy Madison (1922–1996), later star of numerous Italian productions, teamed up again for another Western in 1957, their second and final collaboration during their long careers.
The Hard Man puts into motion a sinister triangular relationship between a trigger-happy Texas Ranger, a disgruntled, desperately unhappy wife and her spouse, a crooked expansionist rancher-oligarch. All three are hardened human beings, reckless in their disregard for life and liberty. Their pursuit of unhappiness – not very pleasant to watch: The Hard Man rarely leaves town – results in death and catharsis. Madison as Texas Ranger Steve Burden, who kills too many men, delivers a tough, taciturn performance, anticipating his tight-lipped, violent Spaghetti Western characters. English actress Valerie French as Fern Martin of consumptive pallor and pretended concupiscence all but reprises her Desdemona role from Delmer Daves’s Jubal (1956). Pre-Bonanza Lorne Greene, soon forever Ben Cartwright (1959–∞), convincingly portrays Fern’s evil husband Rice. The film’s most aggressive and disturbing moment is provided by a young boy, Larry (Rickie Sorensen), vehemently urging Burden to shoot Rice Martin, whose henchmen murdered Larry’s father: “Kill ’im, Steve, kill ’im!”