Garden of Evil is a 1954 western that for many years languished beyond the purview of cinema aficionados. It gained some traction after its first TV broadcast on Saturday Night at the Movies in 1961, but Brian Garfield may have been the first to resuscitate it in his 1982 book, Western Films: A Complete Guide. He especially admired the landscape that in its harsh majesty overwhelmed its puny human interlopers. That scenery was “The Lost World” of Mexico, specifically the blasted heath around Paricutin, a volcano that spouted from a farmer’s field in 1943 and continued erupting until 1952 by which time its effluvium had submerged two towns. The tops of the spires of San Juan Parangaricutiro Church were all that remained of human habitation, and these are featured in the film.
The story: When their ship to the California gold fields puts up for repairs on the Mexican coast, the disillusioned Hooker (Gary Cooper), the card-sharp Fiske (Richard Widmark), the rambunctious Daly (Cameron Mitchell), and the formidable hombre Vicente (Victor Manuel Mendoza) are enticed by the promise of treasure they won’t have to dig for when Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward) offers gold if they will accompany her to the mine where her husband John (Hugh Marlowe) lies trapped by a cave-in. They ride deep into the interior, find a lava-strewn landscape and an abandoned town before entering the mine and dragging John into the light of day. He is not sanguine about the future, telling his rescuers that it is the time of the “White Man’s Moon” and their lives are in mortal danger from a savage tribe whose members didn’t kill him because they couldn’t imagine a better torture than letting him rot under the mine’s fallen beams. Will the gold-seekers allow Leah to tend the fire while they take John and sneak away? Will Leah give herself to Hooker? Fiske? Daly? Will any survive the White Man’s Moon?
There is much to recommend in this 20th Century Fox production, obviously made on location to lure TV fans back to the big screen. Fox had introduced CinemaScope the previous year with The Robe. Garden of Evil’s exotic locale was just as suitable for this new process. The cast was topnotch: long-time superstar Gary Cooper; the multi-Academy Award-nominated, extremely popular and CinemaScope-ready redhead Susan Hayward; and the one-time king of movie psychopaths Richard Widmark, branching out into non-criminal genres. Philadelphia-born Hugh Marlowe was in the midst of a golden age as supporting actor at Fox, having featured prominently in Twelve O’Clock High, All About Eve, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Rawhide and Monkey Business. Veteran director Henry Hathaway was at the helm. Master composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Day the Earth Stood Still) supplied the variegated score that wouldn’t find its way to CD until the 1990s. If any of these elements had been less than sterling, so we suspect would have been the movie.
Compare and contrast: Gary Cooper starred in another quality western filmed in Mexico that same year: Vera Cruz. The Tall Texan, an exemplary black & white, 1953 B-movie with Lloyd Bridges and Marie Windsor, follows a similar path but with obviously less grandeur, philosophical musings, or star power.