Blu-ray Review: The Ranown Westerns: Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Budd Boetticher | CAST: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, John Carroll, Karen Steele, Craig Stevens, Barry Kelley, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, James Best, Lee Van Cleef, Nancy Gates, Claude Akins, Skip Homeier
RELEASE DATE: 7/18/23 | PRICE: Blu-ray + 4K UHD $108.66
BONUSES:  Introductions to the films by filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Taylor Hackford; new featurette by film critic Farran Smith Nehme on actor Randolph Scott; audio commentaries featuring film scholar Jeanine Basinger, film historian Jeremy Arnold and Hackford; archival programs featuring interviews with director Budd Boetticher; audio conversation with Boetticher and film scholar Jim Kitses; super 8 home-movie version of Comanche Station
SPECS: NR |  380 min. | Western | 1.85:1 / 2.35:1 | monaural |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio   | Video  | Overall 

In an era when the Western has disappeared from movies and television, it’s instructive to rediscover the greatest examples of the genre. Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah and Eastwood (in Leone’s and his own Westerns) are the best-known Westerns “auteurs,” but those who’ve dug deeper also revere the A-budget horse operas of Anthony Mann and the superbly crafted “B” Westerns made by Budd Boetticher with Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown. (Thus, the “Ranown” company in the title of this box.)

Although Boetticher made seven Westerns together, only five appear in this box. 7 Men from Now (1956) isn’t here because it was produced by John Wayne’s Batjac Productions and Westbound (1958) wasn’t included because it was made for Warner Brothers, and Boetticher directed it solely because he was Scott’s director of choice in the late 1950s. (Both of the aforementioned were distributed by Warner Bros.; the five in this box were distributed by Columbia.)

Of the five films here, three are considered bona fide classics: The Tall T (1957), Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960). The other two are quite good but not quite classics (Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone). The link between the three outstanding films is that Burt Kennedy wrote the scripts. Kennedy was an integral part of the Ranown cycle, along with cinematographers Charles Lawton, Burnett Guffey and Lucien Ballard. (Lawton shot the trio of classics.)

The Tall T (1957)

The elements that unite the films are all quite impressive. The first of these is Scott himself. A bit long in the tooth at 59-62, Scott still had a uniquely heroic presence that made him different from John Wayne and Gary Cooper — he spoke with a Southern drawl and played a cowboy who could admit that he was scared and took very seriously the bad guys he faced off against. Boetticher liked to state in interviews that Scott brought “class” to the Western, but he also noted that Scott’s character always “had a problem and he had to solve it” by any means.

Another element that distinguished all the Ranown films are the visuals, which are brilliantly shot, but which also benefitted by the use of Lone Pine, California, as a location. Just as John Ford made Monument Valley his home for Westerns, Boetticher made Lone Pine his own, although it had been used in past vehicles for the likes of Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and even John Wayne.

The only odd note struck in the Ranown cycle pics are the day-for-night sequences, which are incredibly dark, presumably to hide the paucity of means. This does contribute an odd noir feel for certain night scenes.

The films are also linked by their tight scripting by Burt Kennedy and Charles Lang (who wrote Decision and Buchanan). As the films range in length from 73 to 79 minutes, the scripts artfully condensed a full-length film’s plot details via familiar Western set-ups and much exposition contained in the dialogue, which Kennedy in particular kept light and breezy.

The last and arguably most important aspect of the Ranown films is the presence of sympathetic, often charismatic villains. This pattern started in 7 Men From Now, with Lee Marvin playing a smooth, wryly funny villain. In the films included here Richard Boone (Tall T), Craig Stevens (Buchanan Rides Alone), Pernell Roberts and James Coburn (Ride Lonesome), and Claude Akins (Comanche Territory) fulfilled a similar function, playing bad guys who commit crimes but are essentially “honorable” thieves. There’s a mutual respect between them and Scott’s lead character, which foreshadows the relationship between William Holden and Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch. (Sam Peckinpah’s first hit feature was Ride the High Country, an “old cowboy” opus with Scott and Joel McCrea, which picked up right where Boetticher’s Ranown pictures ended.)

Boetticher and Kennedy in fact did the unthinkable in Ride Lonesome — at the film’s end, the law-breaking villains of the piece, played by Pernell Roberts and James Coburn, are set free by Scott, who realized from the start that they are just misguided cowpokes, searching to capture the real villain (James Best) to receive amnesty for old crimes.

The only featurette made for this box set is a discussion of Randolph Scott by historian Farran Smith Nehme. Nehme notes that Scott was one of the Hollywood stars who didn’t crest downward as he got older; his films were popular (and critically heralded) until the end. She also is the only person heard from on the discs who addresses the rumors about Scott living with his friend Cary Grant — although her mention of it (accompanied by happy pics of Scott and Grant as a domestic couple) is the carefully worded “Some have always seen this domestic arrangement as basically a matter of convenience; others have always seen it as something else, a relationship going on in plain sight in the 1930s.”

Although Nehme’s analysis of Scott’s career is enlightening, there is one surprise in this featurette — clips from other features than those that are included in the box. Criterion-made featurettes ordinarily only show clips from the films that are licensed for the release (or have been otherwise released by Criterion, or are from public domain trailers). Something has clearly changed in the licensing process, as this featurette includes moments from several other Scott films, including My Favorite Wife, Fritz Lang’s Western Union, Abilene Town, and 7 Men From Now.

Ride Lonesome (1959)

The other supplements found in this package review Boetticher’s career and personal life. Boetticher was a grand storyteller (full disclosure: this reviewer interviewed him in 2000 about many aspects of his career), and so, one does hear a few stories repeated in different extras here. But the stories are told with such passion that they withstand more than one airing.

The most comprehensive documentary included in the set is Budd Boetticher: “A Man Can Do That,” the 2005 documentary by Bruce Ricker that previously appeared in the 2008 Sony Pictures DVD box set of the Ranown films. The doc, produced by TCM and Paramount Home Video, includes an impressive array of talking-head filmmakers and critics: Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Towne, Paul Schrader, Larry Cohen, Taylor Hackford, and Andrew Sarris. The always jumpy and over-eager Quentin Tarantino holds forth in the presence of the much calmer Clint Eastwood (who was a friend of Boetticher’s); the latter has direct reflections on Budd’s difficulties with studios and the near-mythic period of time that Boetticher spent in Mexico trying to finish his bullfighting documentary Arruza (1972).

The doc moves from Boetticher’s rich upbringing to his time as a high school and college athlete. From there it covers his life as “the gringo bullfighter” in Mexico. The various periods of his filmmaking are discussed, from the initial B-features to the Ranown cycle and his sole gangster picture, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). Along the way, the filmmakers interviewed reflect on Boetticher’s filming in Lone Pine, the moral codes of his lead characters, and the sympathetic villains found in his films. Also tackled is the fact that, when he returned from his self-imposed exile in Mexico at the end of the Sixties, he was deemed “too old” to direct again. (Boetticher was in his early fifties; his friend Clint is, of course, still directing at 93.)

The 1971 PBS documentary “Budd Boetticher: A Study in Self-Determination,” hosted by Taylor Hackford (who produced; Allan L. Muir directed), is excerpted several times in “A Man Can Do That” but is also included in its entirety in this box. Shot on video, the doc features ample footage of Boetticher riding his horses and demonstrating bullfighting techniques. He also openly confronts criticism of bullfighting, agreeing that it is “cruel” and “medieval.” By the time of this doc Budd was practicing a bull-free form of horse-riding called rejoneo, which is shown at great length in the doc.

Along the way Hackford has the “old” and extremely fit Boetticher (then 55, some months after his return from Mexico) discuss his directorial career. He classifies his time spent south of the border as a “great” ordeal (in which he lost much money, tanked his marriage by starting an affair with his Mexican female lead, was unable to finish his film, and wound up in prison at one point in a legal skirmish with a producer).

The most unusual supplement is the 1995 French TV documentary “Boetticher Rides Again.” The doc begins with the filmmakers in Lone Pine, hoping to chart Boetticher’s career as an extension of his characters’ struggles. But Budd changes the trajectory of the piece by pulling the filmmakers aside and telling them that he is not a cowboy in real life, and they should spend time on his career in general and his love of his horses in particular. The scene has a bizarre tone because Boetticher doesn’t seem furious or even all that cross, but he definitely did have things he wanted to convey in each interview, and clearly he was feeling that the filmmakers’ view of him was off-kilter.

Once he is at ease again, he discusses some special moments in his career, such as the time that he shot two endings for Ride Lonesome (one where Roberts and Coburn are brought in by Scott; another where they are let go to start their own ranch). He notes he demands “complete artistic control” on any film he works on, and that his next film will be a script he had worked on for years, called “A Horse for Mr. Barnum.” (Like many other latter-day projects Budd hoped to get off the ground, “Barnum” never went into production.)

Comanche Station (1960)

The 1999 German TV doc “Visiting Budd Boetticher” presents a fully composed Boetticher, again hoping to get a new project off the ground. In the process he discusses the best advice he ever received from a mentor (George Stevens told him to pay attention to his characters, so that the audience will as well) and the fact that he learned best how to make films by seeing how many mistakes he made in his first 19 pictures.

“Visiting” also includes a sad mention of another opportunity that disappeared: Clint Eastwood scored Budd a meeting with Warner Bros executive Bill Gerber. The executive assured him that the studio wanted to work with him, but whatever his next project was, it *had* to star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Budd walked away from the deal instantly.

The single most unusual supplement is the one most likely to be overlooked, since it is audio-only. Film historian (and Western expert) Jim Kitses spoke with Boetticher back in 1969 during a festival of the Scott films and Budd’s underrated final Western A Time for Dying (1969). Budd was in his storytelling prime and Kitses asked great questions, so we hear a bunch of stories that were not told so frequently.

While Boetticher does touch on his stay in Mexico —  which he outlines as being an intended six months, which extended itself to eight years —  he also does directly address his films with Scott. He talks of how the 18-day shoots for the films kept him primed and ready (whereas an A-budget picture with a 90-day shoot would lull a director into complacency) and how 7 Men From Now was greeted with applause at its sneak premiere at an L.A. theater (where the audience had just finished watching the Mario Lanza melodrama Serenade).

Kitses asks a key question —  namely, how did 7 Men result in the Ranown cycle of films? Boetticher replies that Scott wanted him to be his only director from that point on (and he was, with the exception of two 1957 B-features and Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country).

Budd also supplies a story about how people in fast turnaround situations didn’t spot certain things, as when he was in the editing room to see how music would fit into an action scene with two stuntmen in Decision at Sundown. The scene had already been shot, the takes selected and cut together, and Boetticher was starting to fall asleep due to boredom, until he saw… a plane clearly flying right through the top part of the frame.

Buy or Rent The Ranown Westerns: Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”