By Wade Sheeler
Director Richard L. Bare may not have a cult following, but he should. First of all, the guy is 101 years old, born in 1913 and still kickin’. He directed virtually every episode of Green Acres and Petticoat Junction in the 1960s, many Mavericks in the ‘50s, as well as a handful of Twilight Zone’s — one of which is the classic “To Serve Man.” All of that should put him in the pantheon of solid workhorses, but he also helmed some pretty darn good horse oprys in the 1950s, one of which is the criminally overlooked Shoot-out at Medicine Bend (1957), recently released on DVD through Warner Archive Collection.
Starring cowboy regular Randolph Scott, the ad art trumpets the tagline: “He called himself the ‘Preacher’ … and he wrote his sermon in lead,” which is pretty far off the mark, but makes for good packaging copy. (And makes it sound like Pale Rider). I expected a standard shoot ‘em up, but was pleasantly surprised when watching and realized this was more of a cat and mouse game than a standard “oater.”
Ex-Cavalry Captain Buck Devlin (Scott), along with his cronies, Sergeant John Maitland (a young and dashing James Garner) and Private Wilbur Clegg (the ubiquitous character actor Gordon Jones) have just finished their tour of duty, and are looking to settle down with Buck’s brother and sister-in-law and some other homesteaders. As they near their destination, they can see a cabin on fire: it’s Buck’s brother’s house under Indian attack. He and his buddies, along with some of the homesteaders, drive them away, but not before his brother has been shot dead. Grief stricken, Buck discusses the attack with his sister-in-law, and learns the family could have withstood the attack, but the ammunition they were using was faulty. Buck himself tries one of the rifles, and as he pumps the action, he finds the shells are duds. He even opens the shell casings, dumps out the gunpowder, tries to light it, and it doesn’t take. He concludes it wasn’t the Indians who caused his brother’s death, but cheap, ineffective artillery. Upon further investigation, he discovers the whole town has purchased cheap tools and sundries, all broken and non-functioning. Add to that that the homestead has been robbed several times, Buck decides to head into Medicine Bend, where the materials were all purchased, to get to the bottom of the mystery.
However, on their way to town, the three ex-military decide to take a dip in a lake, and their clothes are stolen. They have to stumble through the prairie in weeds and brambles thrashed about themselves, looking for help. They come upon a caravan of Quakers, who are eager to help, and loan them clothes; albeit Quaker outfits. The soldiers learn from their religious benefactors that they were robbed by three men dressed as soldiers (their outfits).
Arriving in Medicine Bend, Maitland and Clegg want to find their clothes and weapons and “take out” the bandits, but Buck has a much more clever plan. He decides they need to continue “posing” as Quakers, ingratiate themselves into the town, and solve the mystery of the faulty equipment. They quickly learn the corrupt Sheriff has been bought and paid for by Ep Clark, who runs everything in town, including the Pioneer General Store and the Pioneer Saloon.
Under Buck’s plan, Maitland and Clegg take jobs at Ep’s store, still posing as poor Quakers in need of jobs. They quickly learn much of the stolen merchandise from the homestead, as well as their uniforms and weapons, are held under lock and key and sold piecemeal through the store. Buck takes a job with the small, competing general store run by Elam King and his niece, Priscilla (a beautiful and young as young can be Angie Dickenson). Buck sees Ep’s men come in and destroy the small store, ruining any items they sell that compete with Ep’s merchandise.
From here, it becomes a cunning cat-and-mouse game, as Buck and his buddies use what they learn about Ep and his gang against them. In the meantime, Buck grows closer to Priscilla, and Maitland takes a liking to saloon singer and only “sorta” corrupt Nell Garrison.
Eventually, the shoot-out of the title goes down, and it’s very well staged, as is most of the action. Everything turns out, of course, for the best, but the road to get there takes some enjoyable and unexpected turns.
Shoot-out at Medicine Bend is definitely a “B” picture, but as westerns go, it offers up a delightful and surprisingly atypical low-budget film.