Vengeance Valley (1951)


Owen Daybright (Burt Lancaster, Elmer Grantry) is the easy-going foreman of his adoptive father’s (Ray Collins, The Magnificent Ambersons) prosperous ranch. Owen runs the ranch alongside the cattle baron’s only biological son, Lee Strobie (Robert Walker, Strangers on a Train). Unbeknownst to everybody, Lee, who has become increasingly jealous of Owen, has devised a plan to get rid of his foster brother.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“There are some things and some people you can’t run away from.”

I’m willing to bet that the Bible has inspired more movies than any other book in the history of cinema. A case in point is Vengeance Valley, a picturesque Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer western that attempts to reimagine not just one, but two famous biblical stories: The Parable of the Prodigal Son and the story of brothers Cain and Abel.

Although stuffed with Christian themes, Vengeance Valley is actually based on a novel written by Luke Short. The book was adapted by Irving Ravetch (Hud). The film was directed by Richard Thorpe (Knights of the Round Table), whose lack of personal style is a bit too apparent — while it’s true that there isn’t anything terribly wrong with the film, there really isn’t anything special about it either.

Vengeance Valley is an entertaining if unremarkable western that is held together by some good ideas and fine performances. Aside from the interesting biblical allusions, I particularly liked how the movie showcases the cowpoke culture. You get to see the good, the bad and the ugly of life on a cattle ranch. There is also an interesting subplot about an unwed mother, something that’s unusual to see in a film from the ’50s.

The film allowed actor Burt Lancaster to cross two things off his bucket list: He always wanted to be in a western, and the actor was eager to make a film for the almighty MGM. Lancaster acquits himself admirably well in his first western — Vengeance Valley is a nice first try for someone unaccustomed to wearing cowboy chaps.

Robert Walker steals the film, however. Contrary to popular wisdom, Vengeance Valley, not Hitchcock’s thriller Strangers on a Train, gave Walker his first opportunity to play a villain. It’s hard to believe that this is the same actor who made a name for himself playing the prototypical boy-next-door in films like Since You Went Away (1944) and The Clock (1945). Walker, who tragically died less than a year after making the film, demonstrates here an uncanny ability to portray a sociopath.

Joanne Dru, whose film credits include Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, is (naturally) perfect as Walker’s strong-willed wife. Dru’s then husband, actor John Ireland, also a veteran of many great westerns (My Darling Clementine and I Shot Jesse James), plays a troublesome gunfighter. Hugh O’Brian, who would later star in the popular TV show The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, plays Ireland’s brother.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Vengeance Valley is one of several Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer productions — Till The Clouds Roll By, Royal Wedding, The Last Time I saw Paris, etc. — that are currently in the public domain. After an annoyingly long search, this is the best-looking print I found on YouTube. Anyhow, this is a fun little western that provides a perfect way to battle boredom at home. Recommended. Color, 83 minutes, Not Rated.

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