Classic Movies

Buried Treasures: Cattle Empire (1958)


In the sleepy little hamlet of Hamilton—a cow town (literally) named after cattle baron Ralph Hamilton (Don Haggerty)—the townsfolk are taking ex-con John Cord (Joel McCrea) for a drag through the burg’s dusty streets.  The populace of Hamilton has a bit of a beef (apologies for the pun) with Cord; five years earlier, drovers from a cattle drive on which he served as trail boss got a bit tipsy and, in the words of Slim Pickens’ Taggart from Blazing Saddles (1974), “work[ed] up a Number Six on them.”  There was killing, maiming and just general destruction; by the time the drovers got through (in time for the Number Six Dance later on), Ralph was blinded and Cord was off to do his boardin’ with the warden.  (Ralph got a consolation prize in John’s fiancée Janice [Phyllis Coates], so the only real loss was his eyesight.)

Phyllis “Gypsy” Coates, Joel McCrea, and Don Haggerty in Cattle Empire (1958)

So why is John Cord back in Hamilton and getting worked over by its inhabitants?  Well, it seems Ralph sent for him; he needs a top trail boss to run nearly 5,000 head of cattle to Fort Clemson or else the town of Hamilton is finished and kaput (they’ve suffered a few financial setbacks).  Hamilton’s precarious status isn’t helped by the fact that Ralph’s ex-foreman—a particularly odious individual who answers to “Garth” (Richard Shannon)—stole half of his herd (stealing from a blind man is pretty low, don’t you think?) and plots to beat Hamilton to market.  It’s not going to be an easy trip (it’s not the ideal time to run cattle, particularly since most of the rivers are dry), but if anyone can accomplish the task it’s Cord—so while he accepts Hamilton’s proposal, bitterness over losing Janice and a burning desire to settle his score with the town’s populace (Cord maintains he always tried to stop the drovers from rompin’ and a-stompin’ in that unfortunate Hamilton pillaging incident) also inspires to him to cement an alliance with Garth, whom he’ll meet up with on the trail three days into the drive.

Cattle Empire (1958) is a fairly easy-to-take oater, but it’s a bit more interesting if you’re familiar with the most important element in its backstory: namely, it inspired director Charles Marquis Warren and co-scripter Endre Bohem to create a successful small screen Western that also dealt with the subject of a lengthy cattle drive—we know it as Rawhide.  Several thespians who scored regular roles on Rawhide turn up in small parts in Empire, notably character great Paul “Wishbone” Brinegar, who plays one-half of a brotherly duo in the film (both serve as cooks on the cattle drive) as Thomas Jefferson Jeffrey.  His brother (Hal K. Dawson) is “George Washington Jeffrey,” and on Rawhide, the Wishbone character inherited the first and name of “George Washington” (G.W. for short).  (In “Incident of the Tinker’s Dam,” we meet Wishbone’s brother—he’s the one named “Thomas Jefferson,” and he’s played by the indestructible Regis Toomey.)

The gentleman with the rifle is Steve Raines, whom Rawhide fans know as Jim Quince; curiously, his character is named “Paul Corbo” in Empire while his fellow Rawhidian Rocky Shahan (Joe Scarlet on Rawhide) plays a guy who answers to “Dan Quince.” (Thus missing an ideal opportunity to do an “identical twin” episode on a future Rawhide.)

I was surprised to see Cattle Empire turn up in full letterbox on Encore Westerns during our “freeview” weekend; the picture itself is a passable time-filler—though I’d argue the TV series was a lot better.  McCrea does well as a heel who turns out to be a hero, and there are nice contributions from Phyllis “Gypsy” Coates (as McCrea’s ex-fiancée) and Gloria Talbott (who seems to turn up in everything I’ve watched lately) as the women in Joel’s life.  Old-time radio favorite Howard Culver also has a small bit as a preacher, and the actor who plays Ralph Hamilton’s younger brother Douglas is Bing Russell…whose son Kurt didn’t do too badly for himself when he later decided to get into the motion picture bidness.

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