Released in March 1954 by Universal International Studios, Ride Clear of Diablo is a well-paced western starring Audie Murphy that provides plenty of entertainment in its tight 81-minute running time.
After appearing in a string of largely forgettable westerns for Universal during the early ’50s, notably excepting director John Huston’s MGM loan-out The Red Badge of Courage , Tumbleweed, and Gunsmoke [both 1953; the latter is not the legendary television series], critics were beginning to write off the actor’s burgeoning career.
Perhaps serendipitously, Ride Clear of Diablo became a definitive Audie Murphy film that swiftly cemented his likable screen persona and jump-started the golden era of his career during the mid to late ’50s.
Ably directed by Jesse Hibbs, who also helmed Audie’s extremely popular To Hell And Back [Author’s Note: an engaging discussion of the war drama can be found by clicking here: “When a Genuine American Hero Becomes a Star: Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back”], Ride Clear of Diablo opens with cattle rustlers murdering Audie’s father and younger brother.
Portraying a railroad surveyor named Clay O’Mara, Audie is away at the time of the killing. He is called into town by the executor of his father’s estate, only to discover that the executor and town sheriff may have something to hide.
The Congressional Medal of Honor recipient does not reveal any great acting depth in the film, yet he brings a certain authenticity to his role. Rarely showing excitement, Audie portrayed the cool, calm, and reserved cowboy to the hilt. Most importantly, Audie realized his acting limitations, and screenwriter George Zuckerman created a script that played to Audie’s strengths.
The unassuming actor always looked excellent whenever action scenes were required. In Ride Clear of Diablo, many are to be found, including the great chase sequence when Audie returns a stallion to his rightful owner, and later when Audie jumps on the executor’s horse, literally fighting the bad guy in the saddle. Incidentally, in real life the gallant soldier raised and trained quarter horses.
The scenes where Audie demonstrates his fast draw are also entertaining. In fact, it is documented that Audie had one of the fastest draws in Hollywood. When a boastful Hugh O’Brian, then star of ABC’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, offered to bet $500 that he could beat any other western hero to the draw, Audie countered with an offer to raise the stakes to $2,500, but stipulated only live ammunition could be used. Consequently, O’Brian quietly withdrew his wager.
The outfit that Audie wears, simple by early 1950’s leading man standards, consists of a white long-sleeved shirt with gray pants. Fans of his work will notice that he wore this outfit, or a similar variation, in a number of his later westerns in the subsequent decade.
Dan Duryea co-stars as Whitey Kinkade, the villain, who’s not all bad. Duryea’s character is sadistic in nature, always provoking Audie and gleefully cackling whenever something amuses him, often at the other characters’ expense.
Audie is initially sent to arrest him in the town of Diablo. Duryea gradually comes to respect Audie’s tenacity, going so far as to save his life on more than one occasion. Not surprisingly, any scenes featuring the duo are not to be missed.
In his 27-year career, Duryea appeared in approximately 110 movie and television roles. Though most often in secondary roles, the scene-stealing actor occasionally played the lead. Audiences today may recall Duryea’s many western roles, but he acted in virtually all film genres, including film noirs.
Some of Duryea’s best roles occurred in the James Stewart films Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). Several classic television episodes that are syndicated regularly and easily available for viewing are “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” a 1959 Twilight Zone episode, and “Badge Without Honor” (1960) and “Logan’s Treasure” (1964), both episodes of the long-running Bonanza.
The beautiful raven-haired Susan Cabot, in her last of three back-to-back films with Audie [the others were The Duel at Silver Creek and the exceptional Gunsmoke], has several good scenes as his leading lady. Audie was notoriously ill at ease with many of his leading ladies, but his interactions with Cabot are not stilted. Audie even goes so far as to crack a smile whenever he is in her company.
Another one of Universal’s contract players, Cabot grew tired of the roles the studio sent her and abdicated to the New York stage. The actress soon appeared in several B-movies with influential director Roger Corman, including The Wasp Woman and Machine-Gun Kelly, Charles Bronson’s first starring role. Her screen career came to a virtual standstill by 1959. After living in years of obscurity, the reclusive former starlet was tragically bludgeoned to death by her bitter, mentally-challenged son in 1986.
Abbe Lane is the second romantic lead in the film, and her scenes are strictly meant to be eye-candy, although she does sing an excellent, moody song at the very beginning of the film, before the cattle rustling occurs.
Russell Johnson, who will forever be known as the upright “Professor” on the comedy series Gilligan’s Island, appeared in many westerns at the beginning of his career, mainly for Universal. Generally playing a heavy, he does the same here, not having much to do and acting rather stiff in his delivery.
Two other individuals who went on to achieve fame were character actors Jack Elam and Denver Pyle. Both appeared in hundreds of roles, especially westerns. Here, it is interesting to see both without the full beards they would eventually grow.
Elam, blind in his left eye, was born to play menacing and vicious killers to great effect. He finally had a comedic role in James Garner’s Support Your Local Sheriff. Denver Pyle eventually went on to portray “Briscoe Darling” on The Andy Griffith Show and “Uncle Jessie” on The Dukes of Hazzard.
This film was made at a time when there were well-delineated good guys and bad guys, although Duryea’s character tends to blur that line. With non-stop action that is not gratuitous, no swearing, or sexual situations, Ride Clear of Diablo is recommended for Western fans, or anyone who wants to spend an entertaining hour and a half away in an innocent far-away land.
At the dawn of the new millennium, Universal released Ride Clear of Diablo on VHS as part of their Audie Murphy collection. In the ensuing decade the western was largely forgotten until it was finally made available on DVD stateside in 2011 by Turner Classic Movies via a unique manufactured-on-demand program licensed by Universal (several international DVD releases have floated around for years).
American Movie Classics (AMC) and Encore Westerns occasionally screen the film for television audiences. The latter channel actually has an online page where folks can see when it will be airing next, sign up for email alerts, or view the original, gripping trailer. As of this writing, the complete shoot ‘em up has also been uploaded on YouTube for good measure.
An informative Facebook page, Audie Murphy American Legend, promotes the memory of America’s most decorated combat soldier during World War II. The fan-friendly group offers the latest news, unseen photos, and daily Audie discussions in splendid style.
Last but not least, don’t forget to browse the 20-image slideshow accompanying this article. Unveiled for the first time, the eye-opening set depicts the July 15 – August 11, 1953 filming of Ride Clear of Diablo in rustic locations including Burro Flats and Apple Valley, California. Of course, fans of Audie Murphy, Dan Duryea, Susan Cabot, and westerns will find plenty of surprises.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! Handsome actor Jack Kelly costarred with Audie in three films – Gunsmoke, Column South [both 1953], and the critically-acclaimed To Hell and Back. A few years later, Kelly was finally freed of his Universal contract and became a household name when he costarred with James Garner on the seminal comedy western series, Maverick. To read a wide-ranging interview with his biographer [“More Than Bret Maverick’s Brother: Remembering Jack Kelly On His 85th Birthday”], simply click on the link.
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Further Reading: A Canadian-born actor unusually adept at portraying average Joes facing seemingly insurmountable circumstances, Glenn Ford possessed an effortless grace and undeniable charisma readily apparent during a distinguished 50-year celluloid career. The World War II veteran once mused why fans kept coming back for more: “When I’m on camera, I have to do things pretty much the way I do things in everyday life. It gives the audience someone real to identify with.” A criminally neglected Western in the Ford canon deserving far greater notoriety is 1968’s Day of the Evil Gun. Click on the highlighted link to learn why the downbeat, unusually brutal film rates among Ford’s top five best Westerns of all time.
Further Reading No. 2: Charles Bronson appeared in an impressive 160 television and film productions, and he never received proper credit for his understated acting and screen presence. To read an extensive profile detailing exactly who the star was behind his hardened tough guy persona, featuring anecdotes from costars such as James Coburn, James Garner, Tony Curtis, actress Lee Purcell, and Elvis Presley’s Memphis Mafia, head on over to the following link: “A Face Like An Eroded Cliff…”
Further Reading No. 3: Bonanza is still going strong in syndication some 55 years after its uncertain debut on NBC as television’s first 60-minute western filmed in color. A new article, “50 Years and Counting: Revisiting Bonanza, TV’s Second Longest Running Western,” gives a detailed synopsis of the show and argues why Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Pernell Roberts, and Dan Blocker gained pop culture immortality for their definitive portrayal of America’s favorite frontier family. And in case you prefer the arguably more authentic Gunsmoke, consider pulling up a chair to devour “Get Outta Dodge: Toasting ‘Gunsmoke,’ TV’s Most Critically Acclaimed Western.”
- Exclusive Interview: Michael Landon had an unprecedented television career, starring in “Bonanza”, “Little House on the Prairie”, and “Highway to Heaven”. In a wide-ranging conversation [“The Brother That He Never Had…”], Kent McCray, Landon’s best man, friend for 30 years, and production manager on all three series recalls meeting his friend for the first time, Landon the practical joker, visiting a terminally ill teenager and ensuring her controversial last request happened, and what happened when the actor didn’t have a driver’s license at an L.A. airport…
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Lee Marvin made many a cowboy hero quiver in their dusty boots, including drinking pal John Wayne in The Comancheros and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In a refreshing conversation [i.e. “Battle Scars and Violent Interludes: Point Blank with Lee Marvin’s Biographer”], author Dwayne Epstein focuses on Marvin’s World War II experiences, revealing why he believes Marvin suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He also presents the venerable tough guy’s surprising connection to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, why one of his favorite projects, Hell in the Pacific, is a bold, experimental failure, and the chilling tale of a Silver Star recipient and future Marvin co-star who briefly wound up in a California mental hospital.
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