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Passage West
Western, Favorite

1951 | 4:3 | COLOR | Quality: Excellent

John Payne

Arlene Whelan



This is certainly not your average 1950s popcorn flick! After an opening sequence that quickly and efficiently sets up the story, we learn that John Payne will, unexpectedly, play one of Hollywood's very first anti-heroes! Payne leads a group of escaped convicts that take a religious group bound west as hostages, turning their lives upside down. As the wagon train that Payne and his cohorts take over makes its way to California, the usual hardships occur but they seem a bit starker than usual. A baby dies from lack of milk, its mother drifts into madness, a calf greatly valued by its elderly owners breaks its leg and must be destroyed, a schoolteacher's prize collection of seedlings gets tossed by the side of the road, a father must bury his child. All of this drama happens while being held at gunpoint by Payne's group of psychopaths. Only at the end of their journey do these pioneers find any respite from their troubles but even then there is a tragic turn of events.

A film that seems made to spit in the face of the "good guy vs bad guy" Hollywood formula, Passage West is an obscure western that offers so many satisfactions and surprises that it certainly merits the designation of "lost gem." Written by blacklisted writer Alvah Bessie (one of the "Hollywood Ten"), it is little wonder why the story and structure are so unique. This is a film WAY ahead of it's time and outside the norm, particularly with regard to Payne's character - there's no attempt to soften his image by suggesting he'd been unjustly convicted and no inference that he was abused while incarcerated. He is simply what he appears to be - a thuggish, almost sadistic criminal trying to get a second chance at freedom and if he has to abuse some folks along the way, so be it. There is also the extremely unusual inclusion of Dooley ("Casablanca") Wilson at a time when black faces were rarely featured in movies in general and in westerns in particular - his story and plight as an escaped slave are also not glossed over. Even the romantic subplot between Payne and Arleen Whelan does not follow normal guidelines or pan out like we would expect. All of these unusual elements add up to give the story a much deeper impact then other films from this era. Loyal Griggs, who later won an Oscar nomination for "The Ten Commandments," provides the cinematography which is heavily slanted toward exterior shots. In fact, the first interior, (a saloon), comes at the movie's three-quarters mark. A very entertaining western with great supporting cast to the stars!

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