An ex-civil war officer known only as Yellowleg (Brian Keith) walks into a bar to find a man hanging by a noose from a rafter and balancing on a barrel - if he loses his balance, he dies. The man is Turk (Chill Wills) and he's in this predicament for cheating at cards, but Yellowleg doesn't want to see him die, not this way at any rate. Threatening the card players, he cuts Turk down, and no sooner than he has, Turk's associate Billy (Steve Cochran) appears and fires off a few rounds. Now the trio have something in common, but Yellowleg knows more than his deadly companions: he has a score to settle...
This film won its place in movie history as being the first to be directed by action favourite Sam Peckinpah, although it was not exactly a typical work from the cult auteur. In many ways it's a road movie, but before the characters set out on their journey screenwriter A.S. Fleischman, adapting his own novel, ensures that the by no means friendly relationships are clearly brought to life, and a story of guilt and revenge is what we are treated to. It's almost quirky, and patently the work of a director showing great promise.
It's Yellowleg (we never find out his real name, that's what the others call him) who is out for revenge, but for now he bluffs that he has joined up with Billy and Turk to participate in a bank robbery at a nearby town. They show up there with the lustful Billy voicing his hope for any available women, and you get the idea that even unavailable women will be of interest to him. They go to the bar but walk in on the beginning of the sermon of the local Parson (future Peckinpah regular Strother Martin). However, one of the ladies there catches their eye.
She is Kit (Maureen O'Hara, about as unfriendly as she ever was), a showgirl with her young son, who the townsfolk believe was born out of wedlock; actually, as we discover, her husband was killed. Alas, her son follows in his father's footsteps when a different group of robbers carry out a raid on the bank and the little boy is shot by a stray bullet. Who fired the gun that did him in? None other than Yellowleg, whose old war wound - a bullet lodged in one shoulder - ruined his aim. It's here the guilt is introduced, as Billy and Turk certainly don't feel any misgivings.
So you see, this is a sombre western right from the start, and there is very little light relief from then on. Kit refuses to have her son buried in the cemetery there after the way she's been treated, and so the journey begins to a far off village with Yellowleg's conscience not allowing him to leave Kit to make the perilous trip through Apache country on her own. The other two tag along, Billy with rape on his mind, and the landscape is bleak and ashen-looking which is appropriate for the mood. After that it's one damn thing after another as Kit reluctantly comes around to letting Yellowleg help her, Billy and Turk show their true colours, and the Indians attack. There's an interesting moral here about the need for revenge and grudges because without them the injured party's life will be empty, but Yellowleg, who never takes his hat off for reasons which become apparent by the end, does gain satisfaction after a fashion. Distinctive music by Marlin Skiles.
[Optimum's Region 2 DVD has no extras, but fans will want to see the film in a nice print with its proper screen ratio intact.]
American writer and director, a hard-drinking, producer-hating maverick who was as much reviled as he was admired. After a spell in the armed forces, he moved into television with a succession of westerns, and graduated to film with The Deadly Companions and cult classic Ride the High Country. When he worked on Major Dundee, the problems started, and, as would happen many times subsequently, the film was recut against his wishes.