Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.


Week 146: Denver & Rio Grande


This film has an unusual concept for a Western. Focused on the building of the railroad and conflict between two companies, it looks at a side of Western exploration not usually investigated on film. Sadly, the movie misfires and doesn’t do justice to this original idea.

The mistake, as usual, lies mostly in the script. After a dramatic opening that grabbed my attention, setting up O’Brien and Hayden as enemies, the film turns into a routine good guy versus bad guy adventure. But that opening promised more. It showed both sides as complex and not altogether good or bad. The screenwriters drop any ambiguity as the story mostly follows O’Brien and the one dimensional antagonist played by Hayden is given no further development. Because of this decision, the proceeding conflict is flat. Hayden, not given much to work with, isn’t a formidable villain because the movie mostly ignores how he thinks and feels. I wish they’d given him more guilt over the incident and shown him as a man who is fighting others when maybe all he wants to do is destroy himself. Unfortunately, his actions are meaningless and hollow.

As for O’Brien, I’ve always liked him in supporting roles (he’s wonderful in The Wild Bunch) but I’ve yet to be convinced that he can carry a picture. There’s something about him that just doesn’t fit the leading man part. Even his physical movements in action scenes are awkward. As I teach in my acting classes, you have to know your type and the action hero is not O’Brien’s!

The location photography and some of the train action makes the film a worthwhile watch for Western fans. Shooting on location makes such a difference, especially in these films from the 40s and 50s.

Watched on Criterion Channel.