Film Review: Law and Jake Wade,
John Sturges, 1956

"'We're sitting around here waiting like customers in a
barber shop waiting our turn to get a nice close haircut."

Law and Jake Wade

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Law and Jake Wade,
John Sturges, 1956

One of Phillip French's top twenty of Post War Westerns this action film was reviewed in the New York Times at the time as cliché ridden, and the characters dismissed as "cardboard cut outs".

One can see why both views might be sustainable, because the main characters personify good against evil, and in keeping with the development of the genre the hero ( Robert Taylor) is flawed and the villain ( Richard Widmark) a thoroughly bad lot. The good guy is a reformed crook, now on the straight and narrow. He is a strong silent type, a good man, one with a conscience. Patricia Owens is his sweetheart. Clint, the bad guy, is nasty, just for the sake of it. He captures them and forces the eponymous hero to lead his gang to a stash of loot which turns out to be hidden in a ghost town in the middle of Comanche territory.

Western Clichés abound, but this is 1958, and the night attack by the Comanche is taught and action packed. The final shoot out is engineered, but who cares, the audience demanded it.

The cinematography is pure western too. The backdrop is the precipitous, snow capped Rockies, beautifully filmed by Robert Surtees.

The script by William Bowers (The Gunfighter, Support Your Local Sheriff) delivers some great lines. One of the outlaws observes that they are sitting ducks in the ghost town:

"We're sitting around here waiting like customers in a barber shop waiting our turn to get a nice close haircut."

Another opines: "you've got us in a real mess now Clint" just as an arrow appears through the window and hits him in the chest.

The action sequence which follows is "superbly staged" (Time Out): "The guns bark, the arrows zing and the flung spears plunge deep into the wooden walls right beside the defenders' heads. Comanches leap across the roof tops, slink down the darkened back stairs and are about to fling their deadly hatchets when someone wheels and shoots them just as they let fly."(New York Times)

Wonderful for a devotee of the genre, less so when one considers what actually happened to the Comanche and object to them being depicted as fodder to be killed off for an exciting climax to the story. However disappointing this might be, it certainly reflects what was acceptable to the mainstream Anglo- American culture at the time the film was made. Jake challenges the "well known fact" that Indians don't attack at night, by asserting that this applies to Apaches, not Comanches. Perhaps if he was so well versed in native American culture he might well have questioned what the Comanches were doing in the foothills of the Rockies, miles away from their homeland.

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© Chris Smallbone September 2006

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