Tuesday 15 September 2015

Movie Review: Kansas Raiders (1950)

A tone-deaf western, Kansas Raiders focuses on Jesse James falling under the influence of Civil War mercenary William Quantrill. In portraying one outlaw murderer as horrified by the actions of a bloodthirsty lunatic, the film has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

With the Civil War raging, Jesse James (Audie Murphy), his brother Frank, the Younger brothers and Kit Dalton (Tony Curtis) are drifting through Kansas, looking for the headquarters of renegade paramilitary leader William Quantrill (Brian Donlevy). Jesse is seeking revenge against the Union side for burning his home and killing his family, while his men are just looking for steady work and income. Near Lawrence, Jesse and the gang finally find and join the Quantrill Raiders, who are running an indiscriminate campaign of terror.

Quantrill likes what he sees in Jesse and gives him a leadership position. Jesse falls hard under the influence of Quantrill, believing all his self-aggrandizing hokum about military strategy and winning the war for the Confederates. But Jesse is soon exposed to what Quantrill really is: a deluded old man leading his ragtag band of killers on raids to murder innocent farmers and pillage their belongings. Jesse also meets and starts to fall in love with Kate Clark (Marguerite Chapman), Quantrill's maybe former lover, and she tries to persuade him to break ranks. But Jesse remains part of the raiders as the war grinds on, Quantrill's troop strength is degraded, and a showdown looms.

Directed by Ray Enright, Kansas Raiders is a low budget, low talent western loosely inspired by real events, trading on Audie Murphy's celebrity status and little else. The colours are rich and some of the scenery is not bad, and there may be a germ of a good story about the power of wily despicable charlatans to wield influence over impressionable young men. But the movie has neither the smarts nor the inclination to delve into substantive topics with any conviction. Instead the dialogue is clipped and superficial, the execution rudimentary, and the character motivations singularly basic.

Even when Jesse questions his allegiance to Quantrill, the Robert L. Richards script gives up on any interesting evolutions. Jesse and his gang stick with the Raiders but allow themselves to grumble about his methods, and that's the end of any dilemma. The rest is just about rudimentary killing and circular talk until there are no more men to kill and nothing left to say. The action set-pieces are awkward, but the romance elements between Jesse and the barely defined character of Kate Clark are even worse.

Audie Murphy gives no indication of any actual acting talent, and goes through the movie wearing the one expression of a young man trying to act older than he is. Brian Donlevy is a bit better but teeters on the edge of caricature. Marguerite Chapman provides ample evidence to vindicate her failure to successfully transition from serials to more serious roles. Tony Curtis gets a few lines in one of his many forgettable early screen appearances.

Kansas Raiders is a film as useless as William Quantrill's imaginary cause.

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