When you discuss the Western, there’s three shadows that loom over the main street at noon — John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Gary Cooper. The sturdy Randolph Scott (who made dozens upon dozens of Westerns) doesn’t warrant much of a mention except in exhaustive compendium books about the genre.
I suspect this is because a lot of his Westerns were the muddled, bloodless movies most people associate with the genre. He didn’t really have a script that would allow him to stretch out and strike an iconic pose like Wayne or Eastwood. The makings were there, though.
To quote THE BFI Companion to the Western (by way of Scott’s Wikipedia page): “In his earlier Westerns … the Scott persona is debonair, easy-going, graceful, though with the necessary hint of steel. As he matures into his fifties his roles change. Increasingly Scott becomes the man who has seen it all, who has suffered pain, loss, and hardship, and who has now achieved (but at what cost?) a stoic calm proof against vicissitude.”
It’s true. Scott was, in a weird way, his own icon or character — this stalwart and sad survivor of many a gunfight. I think this is what makes Ride the High Country so affecting. Like The Shootist or Unforgiven, Scott is looking back at the long and dusty trail, and wondering what it all meant and whether it mattered. It seems particularly poignant for him since he was so overshadowed by successors and competitors.
None of that really touches on Fighting Man of the Plains though, except that it’s a typical 1940s Western, and the kind of muddled picture Scott seems to have found himself in more often than not. He’s always really good. Scott is always giant, melancholy figure who just does his best by the townsfolk and his audience.
Fighting Man of the Plains has a great concept behind it. Scott plays Jim Dancer, an outlaw with a bad reputation and blood on his hands. He’s apprehended by Detective George Cummings (yes, there’s hardboiled detectives in this Old West) who suffers death by horsekick. Dancer is forced to chop off Cummings’ hand to escape his handcuffs, and assumes Cummings’ identity. Dancer thinks he can just duck out of town, but his good side gets the better of him when a gang of rough riders gallops into town. Before he knows it, he’s made Marshal … and those who push him to accept his star know his secret.
The film veers into film noir with many of its elements. The West is filled with hardboiled detectives (oddly not called Pinkertons), Dancer is being doublecrossed, the town is being run by a corrupt businessman who might as well be named Al Capone. While this genrebending has the potential to be cool, it’s not handled particularly well, and clashes up against the homespun Western flourishes.
What’s really sad is that Fighting Man seems to be going in a particular and predictable direction — the town will learn of Dancer’s real identity, but forgive him due to his turning a new leaf — it manages to actually get lost. At the end, Dancer seems to have absolutely nothing to do. It’s possible they could still hang him since he’s still running around on a murder charge.
There’s so much potential here for a good character arc. I think Scott was capable of it — a rough outlaw who is slowly tamed into civilization and regret — but Fighting Man just keeps him looking a bit worried and halfheartedly pursuing romance. It would be especially nailbiting if he fell for the girl whose father he murdered right in front of her … but that doesn’t happen either.
But Fighting Man does have one thing that was new to me — Jesse James! I’ve heard a lot about the films, shows, and dime stories that throw in this good old boy and cast him in a favorable light. But this is the first one I’ve actually seen. James is a pal of Dancer’s, and respectfully doesn’t rob his town’s bank. At the end, he rides in to save the day, and promises to rob the corrupt Capone character to the delight of all. It’s presented as a humorous and delightful Robin Hood moment that scrubs away all his association with Civil War massacres. He’s so handsome! So much nicer than the corrupt townsfolk!
Fighting Man isn’t really worth watching, except as a curiosity piece as to what might have been for Scott and the film. We tend to get very caught up in our own cultural moment — So many bad movies are made! It’s the worst filmmaking period ever! — that it’s good to remember that the Golden Age of Hollywood wasted plenty of money and talent in popcorn clunkers. Audiences like Westerns, Jesse James and Scott. Don’t worry about the fine points! Just shoot the picture! Sometimes you get a Stagecoach out of that … and sometimes you get Fighting Man of the Plains.