The Rare Breed Review

Before watching The Rare Breed for the purposes of this review, I couldn’t quite remember whether or not I’d seen it before. After watching it, I’m still not entirely sure if I’ve seen it. It’s the kind of mediocre film which evaporates in the memory while you’re viewing it and it might even be better if it was a lot worse. As it is, it’s just hopelessly dull.

Set in 1884, the film deals with the cross-country journey undertaken by two English ladies – Martha Price (O’Hara) and her daughter Hilary (Mills) - and a calf named ‘Vindicator’, one of their rare breed of Hereford Cattle which they intend to introduce into Texas. They are accompanied by veteran cowboy Sam “Bulldog” Burnett (Stewart) and devious outlaw Deke Simons (Elam) who intends to steal the calf for his own purposes. Upon arriving in Texas, they meet Scottish landowner Alexander Bowen (Keith) who takes a shine to Martha, much to the annoyance of Bulldog, who has fallen for her himself. Meanwhile, the task of introducing a new kind of cattle into the West proves more complicated than anyone had anticipated.

Towards the beginning of the film, Ben Johnson – playing a once great cowboy reduced to hobbling on crutches – surveys a scene of cattle waiting to be driven out and says, “In a few years, it’ll all be gone.” Clearly, he’s gifted with the kind of hindsight which most men living in 1884 didn’t possess. Compare this random observation (which is meaningless in the context of this story) with the moment in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch when Pike Bishop says, “These days are closing fast.” In Peckinpah’s film, it’s 1914 and Bishop has very good reasons for saying it. In The Rare Breed, Johnson’s observation is just a weak attempt to add some reflective depth to a lacklustre screenplay. This is symptomatic of the biggest problem with the film. Basically, it’s a broad piece of knockabout action with a touch of comedy, but both writer and director seem to have had an attack of the ‘messages’ and are determined to pretend that it has some significance. Andrew V. McLaglen was frequently guilty of this pose. Having grown up among the John Ford community, he fancied himself as the inheritor of Ford’s mantel but he possessed neither Ford’s visual strength not his effortless gift for narrative and character. He also lacked the complexity of Ford’s world view and his conflicting impulses of liberalism and authoritarianism. As a consequence, most of McLaglen’s films come off as unpleasantly and aggressively right wing. The Rare Breed thankfully steers clear of politics but it also steers clear of anything resembling interest.

The title, of course, refers to the rare breed of cattle being transported cross-country. But it could also refer to the superb cast who, between them, make the film just about bearable. It takes a rare breed of actor to make anything of this kind of nonsense. Having said this, the film doesn’t actually use its great actors to their best advantage. In his first few films, McLaglen repeatedly used James Stewart in an obvious attempt to echo Ford’s director-actor relationship with John Wayne. But there’s no shading or subtlety in the way he uses his star and certainly none of the probing of character which Ford attempted (often to brilliant effect) with Wayne. Consequently, Jimmy Stewart is allowed to coast on his trademark dithering and drawling to such an extent that he’s barely recognisable as the deconstructed, tortured star of Vertigo and the Anthony Mann westerns. He’s also clearly getting old and it becomes embarrassing to see how obviously he’s replaced by a stuntman and filling in with close-up process shots. Stewart still manages to be amusing to watch but that’s largely because of his presence and comic timing. The same goes for Brian Keith. One of my favourite actors, Keith found his finest hour playing Teddy Roosevelt for John Milius in The Wind and the Lion, but he had a long and honourable career in American movies and on TV. He’s hampered here by a ludicrous Scottish accent and a comedy beard and isn’t given the lines he would need to create a memorable character. Yet his skill is such that, like Stewart, he’s simply great fun to have around. The same goes for the supporting actors such as Jack Elam and the aforementioned Ben Johnson. They’re given nothing to work with but they keep the film from becoming intolerable. On the other hand, I could do without Juliet Mills – who looks a lot younger here than in Avanti! where she was positively matronly – and, stuck in the role of romantic interest, Don Galloway doesn’t exactly light up the screen. The rarest breed of all, however, is Maureen O’Hara who is a delight to watch. She has such elegance and beauty that she overcomes the obstacles put in her way by the script and manages to be effortlessly radiant. It’s a shame that she isn’t given something better to do though. This was a problem she encountered repeatedly after her glory days with John Ford and she went into semi-retirement in the late 1960s, coming out for one last nostalgic teaming with John Wayne in the amusing Big Jake and, in 1991, when she dominated all before her in the weak comedy Only The Lonely.

Other than the cast, there’s very little reason to watch The Rare Breed. It’s shot in a flat, TV-Movie style on a combination of obvious and over-cluttered studio sets and gorgeous locations which are not exploited as well as they could have been. The day-for-night shooting is dire and there are several appalling narrative errors – the appearance of the women in new outfits despite the apparent absence of luggage being one of the more irritating. The comedy is obvious and unfunny and the action is shot without any energy or enthusiasm. The central theme of a rare breed of cattle isn’t particularly promising, admittedly, but Ford and Hawks managed to make a lot more out of even less promising storylines. One element is of interest to movie fans however. You’ll note that the music score is credited to a young man named Johnny Williams who went on to make, well, a mildly successful career for himself. This score is very characteristic of his early style and contains much which he would later use to better effect in his score for Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys.

The Disc

The Rare Breed has been released as one of a set of Westerns from Universal, most of which feature James Stewart. It’s the weakest film of the lot, by quite a wide margin, but its presentation is surprisingly good.

The film has been transferred in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the presentation is anamorphically enhanced. This is, by and large, a hugely impressive transfer which is only let down by some over-enhancement and occasional problems with aliasing. Colours are simply glorious, there’s plenty of detail and there are no significant issues with excessive grain or artefacting. I can’t imagine the movie has looked this good since its first release.

The soundtrack is the original Mono track and comes across without any problems. Dialogue is crisp and the music score sounds impressively rich without dominating the proceedings.

The only extra is the original theatrical trailer which, as so often for films of this period, is much too long and over-explicit.

Subtitles are present for the film but not for the trailer.

If you’re a die-hard fan of any of the cast or simply love watching Westerns as much as I do, then The Rare Breed might just be worth a look. This transfer is certainly much better than the film deserves.

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