Monday, February 23, 2015

Movies with Alabama Connections (1): The Lawless Breed [1953]

Poster of the movie The Lawless Breed.jpg

John Wesely Hardin is a rather unusual figure in the history of the American West. Yes, he was a Texas gunfighter and outlaw who claimed to have killed 42 men, including one for snoring. Yes, he was involved in the famous Sutton-Taylor Feud. Yes, he became a fugitive from justice, hiding from the Texas Rangers for several years in Florida and Alabama. His capture in Pensacola in August 1877 was a spectacular event. Back in Texas he was tried for murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. In February 1894 he was released and soon pardoned. He obtained a law degree, but in August 1895 was shot dead in an El Paso saloon. Hardin was 42.

One thing that makes him unusual is the written legacy he left behind. The year after his death his autobiography "from the original manuscript" was published. Some of it is true. While he was in prison his beloved wife Jane had died, but Hardin had written many letters to her included in a 2001 published edition of his correspondence. 

Hardin has also left a significant trail in popular culture including novels, movies, and episodes of western television shows. The title song of Bob Dylan's 1967 album John Wesley Harding features the outlaw despite the variant spelling. And thus we come to our topic, the 1953 film The Lawless Breed. 

Released in the U.S. by Universal on January 3 of that year, the film featured the up-and-coming star Rock Hudson as Hardin and Mary Castle as his wife Jane "Brown"; her real maiden name was Bowen. Other well known actors include Julie Adams ["Julia" here], John McIntire, Hugh O'Brien, Dennis Weaver and Lee Van Cleef. For another Alabama connection, two years later McIntire played assassination victim Albert Patterson in the Phenix City StoryThe Lawless Breed is one of many films directed by actor and director Raoul Walsh.   

I watched a DVD release of this movie, and the included trailer gives us a taste of what's to come. The film is the "true story of the greatest gunfighter of them all...from his own original manuscript" and follows the "preacher's son with a deck of cards in one hand and a gun that never missed in the other. Here it is--the life he lived, women he loved, lives he took" with the "brilliant and romantic stars Rock Hudson and Julia Adams." After that billing, the film itself might seem anticlimactic. Hudson had appeared in 18 previous movies but this one may be the first in which he is the primary male lead.

The film opens as Hardin is released from Huntsville Penitentiary in Texas. Much of the action is flashback. Wife Jane is killed, and after some action in Texas friend Rosie McCoy gets Hardin out of the state when he is injured. He appears in Kansas City as John Swain, a variant of the pseudonym the real Hardin used in Florida and Alabama. 

Soon Hardin appears in "Polland" Alabama running a horse farm, and marries Rosie. They have a son named John. When Hardin goes to Pensacola for a horse auction, the Rangers arrest him. After 16 years in prison, he returns to his horse farm "Green Stables". The movie ends with Hardin being shot in the back trying to his keep his son out of a fight. Unlike the real Hardin, this one survives his saloon altercation. They all leave town as son John drives the wagon with his father and mother aboard. 

The writers on The Lawless Breed freely adapted the events of the real Hardin's life. Hardin did indeed have a second wife, Callie Lewis, a fifteen-year-old he married not long before he died. Hardin and first wife Jane had three children, two daughters and a son named John. The saloon shooting resulted in Hardin's death. John Selman, Sr., shot Hardin in the head from behind after Hardin had a dispute with Selman's son earlier in the day. Many other differences between the real and film Hardins can be found.

"Polland" is actually Pollard, Alabama, where he was based for some time while on the run from the Rangers. Jane had relatives in the area. The town in Escambia County survives today; a 2013 estimate put the population at 137. Some claim part of the movie was filmed in Pollard. Alabama's Rube Burrow robbed a train near the town in 1890. 

While in Alabama Hardin did not operate a horse farm; he worked in the area's lumber industry. He also spent time gambling; Hardin and a friend were arrested in Mobile after a card game went sour. Since they didn't know who they had, authorities quickly released him. 

If you like "classic" i.e., fantasy, westerns, you might enjoy this one, although it falls far short of the greats in the genre. The action and dialog rarely rise above the mundane. I enjoy most westerns, and the Alabama connection made this one special. The film's colors are gorgeous; the Technicolor greenery of "Polland" really pops from the screen. Rosie's green, red and blue dresses also stand out. 

Much has been written about Hardin over the years. I've published a couple of articles on his Southern years myself; the citations are below. The articles are similar, but the 1982 one has extensive references. Unfortunately, they are not available online. 

Wright AJ. John Wesley Hardin's 'Missing' Years. Old West 1981 Fall; 18(1):6-11

Wright AJ. A Gunfighter's Southern Vacation. Quarterly of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History, 1982 Autumn; 7(3):12-18

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