Saddling Up With Serling: A Pre-TZ Wild West Detour

Got a sibling? If so, did he or she ever make trouble for you? Did you ever get into arguments? Maybe even engage in some physical fights?

It’s almost silly to ask. If you have a sibling, the answer to my other questions is a resounding yes. Even if you get along now, you probably didn’t at one time, at least not when you were growing up.

Well, no matter how bad things were, I can practically guarantee that you had it better than Steve and Tony Sinclair. They’re the oil-and-water duo at the heart of “Saddle the Wind”, a 1958 feature film written by Rod Serling.

This western is about as far away from the fifth dimension as you can imagine. Instead of stark black-and-white images on a TV set, we get the panoramic open plains and mountains of the Wild West, shot in sharp, wide-screen Technicolor.

There isn’t an alien or time-travel machine in sight. This tale is set strictly in the real world (or as real as anything we ever get out of Hollywood). No specific year is given, but it clearly occurs shortly after the Civil War. Indeed, one’s former allegiance to either the North or the South comes heavily into play more than once.

The story, in brief, concerns what happens when Tony, the impetuous, hot-headed younger brother played by John Cassavetes, comes west to join his older, responsible and more mature brother, Steve, played by Robert Taylor. Tony even brings a young lady that he wants to marry, a former saloon singer named Joan (Julie London, who sings the title track at one point).

Steve works as a rancher on some land that he rents from a man named Deneen (Donald Crisp) who owns most of their picturesque valley. The elder Sinclair is trying to live down a reputation as a gunfighter, and judging from his solid and dependable ways, doing a very good job of it — that is, until Tony shows up, ready to laugh, drink, and shoot, and starts ruffling some local feathers.

It isn’t long before Tony is complicating Steve’s life in ways big and small. He kills another gunfighter who was planning to confront Steve. All well and good, but soon his newfound celebrity has gone to his head. Then a Yankee farmer shows up to fence off some land he inherited (anathema to cattlemen like Steve), and an even more serious confrontation looms.

I won’t spoil the rest for you, because although “Saddle the Wind” is no classic, it’s still a solid, engrossing film (one that clocks in at a surprisingly brisk 84 minutes). Yes, the story trades on many of the usual western tropes, and Taylor has all the charisma of a store mannequin, but Cassavetes and the others deliver compelling performances, and director Robert Parrish gives it a polished look.

And Serling, of course, provides the words. The New York Times, which called the film “interesting rather than walloping”, found his dialogue “excellent, blunt, thoughtful and scathing, in turn. The picture is worth seeing simply to hear what these people will say next.”

At one point, for example, Deneen is talking about the Sinclair brothers with his foreman, Brick:

Deneen: “I know all about the brother and the sickness inside him. He didn’t get that from Steve. He was born with it.”

Brick: “I don’t think that Tony ever did get born. I think that somebody just found him wedged into a gun cylinder and shot him out into the world by pressing the trigger.”

But my favorite lines come when Tony and Steve are arguing at one point:

Tony: “You better open your eyes because I’m not just your kid brother anymore. I’m a full partner, and I ride abreast of you. And you’re not sitting on me anymore.”

Steve: “I never sat on you. I never tied you down. I only wanted one thing in my life, and that was to see you rise up. You only got up as high as your gun belt. And that’s a low height for a man.”

Beyond memorable dialogue, however, the film gives us something else: a look at how people respond when given difficult choices.

Many films and TV shows make it look pretty simple. They paint in high-tone blacks and whites, creating a world where moral choices look incredibly obvious. But in real life, men and women face dilemmas. What happens, for example, when following your conscience pits you against your own flesh and blood? What do you do then?

Serling, here and throughout his career, doesn’t let his characters or his audience off the hook. We weigh the pros and cons too, and even when the right decision is made, there can still be a tragic aspect to it that must be dealt with.

Perhaps that’s one reason why this movie and Serling’s later TV series “The Loner” did respectable business, but weren’t big hits. We say we want realism in our entertainment, but do we? About as much as we want to eat healthy and exercise daily, I would imagine.

“I gave better dialogue to the horses than to the actors,” Serling later quipped. Not even close. “Saddle the Wind” may not make anyone’s list of top westerns, but for those who enjoy the genre — and certainly for fans of Serling – it’s well worth the ride.

***

This post is part of “The Great Western Blogathon” over at ThoughtsAllSorts. For more posts on great westerns, check it out!

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 04/13/2018, in Rod Serling and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. He really was his own worst critic. He must have enjoyed westerns, given the TZ episodes he did. I like many of those. The one where Connie reaches from the grave is very impressive.

    • Yes, it’s really a shame that westerns fell from favor the way they did. There’s a certain dramatic purity about them that I’m sure appealed to writers such as Serling. And yes, his TZ westerns are quite good, especially “The Grave”.

      • I’m guessing the “Rance McGrew” episode was a not-so-subtle shot at the industry.

      • Yes. It’s kind of funny that Serling would be the one to take a poke at it, given his relative lack of experience in the genre, but his criticism was definitely on-point.

  2. Rumor has it that when Gene Roddenberry was pitching Star Trek to the studio execs, they couldn’t grasp the concept. Finally, he said, “It’s like Wagon Train, except to the stars.”

  3. Ah…thanks for bringing this one to my attention. I must admit, those “samples” of memorable dialogue are fantastic…I definitely want to give this one a watch. Besides, I’ve only ever seen John Cassavettes as Franko in The Dirty Dozen – I’m keen to see some other of his works.
    Great post and thank you so much for taking time to join my Blogathon. Oh…and thanks for the tip for another great western.

    • My pleasure! Thanks for hosting it. I was grateful for an excuse to talk about this project of Serling’s. It’s easy to keep writing about TZ — which, obviously, is far and away his most popular work — but I like to cover all of what he did.

      Besides, as a fan of westerns, the blogathon gave me a chance to read some good posts about other favorite movies and to discover a few new ones. I wish “Saddle the Wind” was streaming, but it’s readily available on disc — and you can probably find it online somewhere. Enjoy!

      • So glad you got to enjoy it. My To Watch list has also grown. Always enjoy discovering new movies.
        I’m a big fan of the good old DVD so will be looking for Saddle the Wind amongst some others.
        Enjoy the rest of your week!

  4. Yet another on my ever-growing “need to see” list!

  5. John Cassavetes always gave interesting performances. I hadn’t heard of this film but the plot vaguely reminds me of an episode of Rawhide that had Cassavetes on as the wild brother vs a serious brother, with a woman coming between them. I’m going to seek this film out-great review!

  6. I still like a good Western and will look this up on the library shelves, Paul.
    You did well but writing out those dialogue exchanges to “hook us in!” Have a wonderful rest of the week. Thank you for your kind stops and likes on my blog. Smiles, Robin 🌞

  1. Pingback: Gunslingers, cattle drives, bank robberies and more… | Thoughts All Sorts

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