It is 1912 and Arizona has just become a part of the United States, but as the ink is drying on the documents, one of those present at the signing is in reflective mood. He is John Griff (Reed Hadley) and he begins to reminisce about a man who planned to own the entire territory for himself if only Griff - and an attack of conscience - had not foiled him. The story goes that back in the eighteen-seventies clerk James Addison Reavis (Vincent Price) meant to claim Arizona for himself to rule over as his own country, but it was not going to be an easy task. It would take a lot of planning, and first he had to pick an orphan girl who would be the key to it all...
The Baron of Arizona was writer and director Samuel Fuller's second film, setting him on the path to cult status with a curious story that was based on truth. There really was a James Addison Reavis and he really did claim to own the state in question thanks to a collection of documents he had expertly forged - which included, according to this, an engraving on the wall of a cave purporting to be from a King of Spain. Spain figures largely here, with the orphan he picks set up to be the last descendant of a Spanish nobleman who had rights over the land himself back in the previous century. This is all lies, but the little girl falls for it as does everyone else, and Reavis wins her undying devotion from then on.
This establishes the relationship at the heart of the plot, which in Fuller's hands turns unexpectedly sentimental in the latter stages, but this is an odd little effort all round, sort of a western, sort of a historical epic on a budget, even sort of a romance: it's no shock to learn that most viewers have trouble pigeonholing its dramatics into a simple category. This lends it considerable interest, as at first you're wondering how on earth Reavis plans to succeed, knowing full well as we do that he was thwarted or presumably Arizona would be a separate country to this day. And more than that, you wonder how he thought he could possibly have gotten away with it.
Any inkling of doubt that this outrageous scheme would not go well had apparently been banished from the anti-hero's mind as he goes to incredible lengths to have things go his way. This includes travelling to Spain and becoming a monk for three years so he can get his hands on the documents they hold there, altering the text to make it seem as if Sofia had a genuine right to Arizona, then escaping in a chase - why that did not arouse anyone's suspicion when he went public is not broached. As it is, he makes it back to Arizona, briefly pausing to alter another Spanish document and have a fling with a gypsy woman, and finds Sofia (now played by Ellen Drew) waiting expectantly for his return.
He then marries this now grown up girl, but doesn't actually love her, as she is merely part of his plotting. Price is an interesting choice for the role, but we never really trust him as he comes across as too much the schemer, which makes his reception when he announces Arizona is all his all the more believable: the citizens immediately think he is a villain. Which he is, but he does not have completely dark heart, as he has second thoughts late on in the film, which may be a bit of a letdown dramatically, but does offer the opportunity to illustrate the territory being summed up by a bunch of hard workers who think nothing of arranging a lynching rather than take up a legal battle to win their case. It's funny how we never get much of a sense of Arizona other than this, as the production is so low budget that most of it takes place on sets, so if it wasn't this state involved it could be a random one of the others as far as the depiction of it goes. Music by Paul Dunlap.
Pioneering independent director, best known for his tough 60s thrillers. Fuller began his career in Hollywood in the mid-1930s, and after a spell in the army and many frustrated years as a writer, directed his first film in 1949, the Western I Shot Jesse James. Fuller's third film, The Steel Helmet, was the first movie to deal with the Korean war and was a huge success. Other films Fuller made in the 50s include Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and Run of the Arrow.
The 1960s saw Fuller deliver dark, ground-breaking thrillers like Underworld USA, Shock Corridor and the infamous The Naked Kiss, which divided critics with their mix of melodrama and brutal realism. Fuller subsequently found it hard to find employment in Hollywood and largely worked as an actor throughout the 70s. The 1980 war movie The Big Red One was something of a comeback, but his next film, the anti-racist White Dog caused yet more controversy, and it has rarely been seen in its intended form. Fuller's final feature was the 1989 crime drama Street of No Return, although he worked in TV until the mid-90s. Died in 1997 aged 86.