In Western Films: A Complete Guide (1982), Brian Garfield extols Royal Dano’s performance but otherwise comes down fairly hard on Saddle the Wind (1958). He thought the actors had not received much direction, New York-born John Cassavetes was miscast, and the story familiar and clichéd. Yet there is much to give pleasure in this film, especially for film aficionados who can put the whole shebang into context. Familiarity with the entire corpus of film allows one to enjoy almost any movie.
The Colorado scenery is captivating, the gunplay choreography judicious, the music by future master of western scores Elmer Bernstein, and the character actors backing up Robert Taylor and Julie London rather stunning: Dano as the fanatical, perhaps unhinged Union army veteran who shakes a deed to the verdant valley into the faces of Sinclair (Robert Taylor) and Deneen (Donald Crisp) and dares them to run off him and his small group of sodbusters, Jay Adler as a bedraggled saloon worker, gravely-voiced Charles McGraw as the extremely nasty Venables come to town to test himself against former gunman Sinclair, Douglas Spencer as the ranch hand incapable of chaperoning the increasingly violent Tony (Cassavetes), and Ray Teal as Deneen’s major domo.
The dialogue is also sparkling, and it’s easy to see why. Rod Serling was the screenwriter. He’d written Patterns (1955) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) for TV. The year after Saddle the Wind he was narrating and writing his ground-breaking TV series, The Twilight Zone.
Some of the movie’s pithy monologues:
“Looking after your brother is like poking hot butter in a wildcat’s ear. It just can’t be done.” (Douglas Spencer as Hemp Scribner)
“Sonny, I got the guts and the know-how to puncture your belly six times before you can take a breath of air.” (Charles McGraw as Venables)
“I’m no slut, Mr. Sinclair. He didn’t buy me like he bought that gun.” (Julie London as Joan Blake)
“Yes, but not to a man. I’m telling it to a dirty, little, trigger-happy jackal without a heart in his body. I can’t say it much plainer that that, Tony.” (Donald Crisp as Dennis Deneen)
Beyond the sociopathic behavior of Tony, larger issues emerge. Like Shane (1953), in Saddle the Wind we observe characters embroiled in an imbroglio from which neither side can claim a fully satisfactory outcome. Who should control the valley, the farmers or the cattlemen? Both have solid arguments. Human detritus from the Civil War is also in evidence, with the Union veteran (Dano) being taunted by “Dallas” (Richard Erdman). Consider Cassavetes’ Tony the incarnation of Shane’s gun-for-hire Wilson (Jack Palance) who insults and blows away Elisha Cook, Jr.’s Reb. Or maybe Charles McGraw’s Venables is the parallel, although we don’t learn anything of his backstory.