Terror in A Texas Town

(1958) Joseph E. Lewis.

A Swedish immigrant defends the Texas territory that is rightly his from a Long Horn Boss Tweed.  It may seem unlikely territory for a Scandinavian whaler, but America is both welcoming and prejudiced to everybody.  The paradox is clear at the final showdown, where justice is served by the thrust of a harpoon over the draw of a sixshooter.

With no gun and no attitude, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden) is first introduced as a bit of a simp.  George's father Sven Hansen has retired from the high seas to the deserts of Texas, where he has been murdered and robbed of his land.

Actor Sterling Hayden wrote a late-career sailor adventure novel called Voyager (1976), and the salt and madness of the sea inform the character of young Hansen, who is the sort of troubled big man which Sterling Hayden has played in movies with such ironic brawn, like the the impotent General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove (1968), the bigot NYC cop executed by the mob in a Bronx pasta joint in The Godfather (1972), and the whiny tankard-swigging beach house writer Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye (1974).

In this Texas town, the saloon is empty and without bluster. The exchange of dialogue is slow and pauses are like winds in the arroyo. The town sheriff is a flunky and argues that the town is civilized and upholds the law, yet disregards George Hansen’s proof of probate records and urges him to get a lawyer to defend his claims.  “You’re not in some foreign country now where a man has no rights at all…. You’ve got a right to justice.”  But justice slings guns in the court room.  It is the sort of gringo jingo not so long ago jabbered by a migrant Texan in the Oval Office.  Founding fathers argued likewise at their both best and worst to manipulate concepts in favor of greed and power.

Yet rancho ward boss Ed McNeil is not so powerful. He is obese, smarmy, corrupt, rapacious, and disregards the sacred unwritten law of the South against burning a man's barn and killing his livestock.  

Like a WPA photo, farmers look on as their property is burned up by badmen.
His victims are honest farmers who do not want to disobey the law when baited to by the brigandage of McNeil, but who also do not want to give up without a fight.  McNeil ties up the idea of justice like the tails of a rat king.  He hires an aging gunfighter to do the dirty work of clearing people off his stolen property.  The assassin, who wears all black from hat to boots, is eager to stay in the game.  Johnny Crale has lost the use of his shooting hand but has since relearned to blast with accuracy using his left, and can draw on five chandelier candles with exact precision.  But his marksmanship is naught because he is only a killer of unarmed men.  Johnny preys on the weak so is drawn to the life of the freebooter.  There is money to be made for a hopeless cripple with a good trigger finger and cold conscience.

The true advance of civilization is upon the frontier, and a new era makes way where the law of the gun loses to the law of the speculator. New immigrant settlements, “popping up like jackrabbits,” must be taught eradication.  The Swede George Hansen befriends Mexican sharecropper Jose Mirada, whose family is expecting a third child and victimized by Boss McNeil.  Terror is played out as the political act of violence against innocent civilians in the interest of acquiring property.  It is no surprise that the script is credited on IMDB as written by blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo.  The man in black, a villainous icon of dime westerns, is a terrorist.  George Hansen shoulders the brutality of civil liberties as he does his father’s harpoon, with the whole town in tow eager for the spectacle of blood.

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