In California's Death Valley, in 1892, Borax ore miners scratch a hard living until a map pinpointing the location of high-grade Borax ore surfaces, sending prospectors and crooks alike into a gold-rush-like frenzy.
A clumsy, accident-prone taxicab driver, who invented the elastic-glass, risks losing his valuable invention to a group of con-men led by a crooked lawyer but the pretty lady-owner of the Yellow Cab Co. comes to his aid.
It is 1892 in Death Valley and the yields from the Borax ore are getting so small that refining it is a losing proposition. The only thing that will save the company is a new deposit of high grade Borax, and Bill has a pouch of it that he got from a dead prospector that he buried on the road. Roper knows the value of the strike could be worth millions, but he needs Bill to find the prospectors' claim so they can record it and become rich partners. While Roper has no intention of cutting Bill in on the millions, he also has his eye on young Jean. Josie sees Roper for the scalawag that his is and it means trouble in Furnace Flat.Written by
Tony Fontana <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This film received its initial television broadcast in Los Angeles Friday 15 February 1957 on KTTV (Channel 11), followed by Chicago Wednesday 27 February 1957 on WBBM (Channel 2), and by Philadelphia Wednesday 6 March 1957 on WFIL (Channel 6); it first aired in Altoona PA 20 March 1957 on WFBG (Channel 10), in Seattle 25 March 1957 on KING (Channel 5), in New York City 29 March 1957 on WCBS (Channel 2), in Portland OR 6 May 1957 on KGW (Channel 8), in Albuquerque 7 May 1957 on KOAT (Channel 7), in Tucson 15 May 1957 on KVOA (Channel 4), in Minneapolis 12 July 1957 on KMGM (Channel 9), in Norfolk VA 22 July on WTAR (Channel 3) and in San Francisco 7 February 1958 on KGO (Channel 7). See more »
Early in the movie when Bill goes into the Saloon and orders a beer its three-quarters full when he starts to drink, but, Josie grabs it and in the next shot of the three of them and the bartender the glass is three-quarters empty. See more »
Skinner Bill Bragg:
Let's scratch some sand over him and keep the buzzards from picking him to pieces.
Pretty soon wind comes some more, blow sand off and coyotes dig him up just the same.
Skinner Bill Bragg:
Ain't you got no respect? It's the idea of the thing. Now get to scratching.
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If you enjoy the late Beery westerns made for MGM (Bad Bascome, Jack, etc) then this will be a particular pleasure. Mercifully free of the cute moppets that blight some of Beery's other starring vehicles, 20 Mule Team provides excellent entertainment value, as well as surprising quality.
As Beery grew older and took on more westerns, so he came to look much more of a natural western star. His face become more lined and resigned, until by the time of the 40's his exterior (and acting abilities) gave his western roles a weary gravitas - recalling that achieved by a similarly ageing Randolph Scott in his acclaimed cycle of film with director Budd Boetticher a decade or so later (The Tall T, Ride Lonesome etc.)
20 Mule Team must be one of those few westerns which deals with borax transportation and exploitation as a central plot point. But don't let this put you off as, despite a somewhat melodramatic plot (evil stranger preys on local virgin, claim jumpers & etc) the weaknesses are more than offset by the strength of the location cinematography for the exterior scenes, and Beery's presence and range. Here he has the opportunity to display his talent to the utmost, playing by turn a hard nosed villain, sentimental buddy, comic louse and clumsy lover all the while as the camera revels gratefully in his lumbering presence.
Overall the characters in the film are dominated by the stark landscape of desert and rocks which lays outside the Borax mining town ... a contrast of light and shade, black and white, that reflects back in turn the stark moral choices open to the inhabitants.
In the most impressive scene in the film, Beery resigns himself to death in the desert after a shoot out with the villain. His friend (played throughout with characteristic irony by familiar Beery side kick Leo Carrillo) has been mortally wounded, and dies while he watches. Wounded himself, he settles down on his own, into the scorched sand and curses the blasted landscape believing (as we do then) all hope lost. The camera watches Beery, blankly verbally assailing the wilderness condemning him for a long minute, slowly tracking back in a single take. This movement is both beautiful and moving, emphasising the starkness of his fate. Whether intended or not, this powerful scene also recalls the end of Stroheim's Greed, and is an extraordinary moment in a studio product of this sort.
Beery's Westerns are overdue for reassessment.
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