The Naked Spur (1953) tells the adventures of five typical western characters who are stuck together on a horse trip across the Rocky Mountains. Without fancy props or grand landscape shots, director Anthony Mann drags the audience deeply into 19th-century life in the US.
Howard Kemp (James Stewart) is a ranchman from Kansas who has lost his ranch. In order to buy it back, he decides to go after the 5,000 dollar reward offered for Ben Vandergoat (Robert Ryan), an outlaw wanted for the murder of a marshall. With the help of an old gold-seeker (Millard Mitchell) and a former lieutenant (Ralph Meeker) he meets on the way, Howard manages to find the man, who was hiding in themountains with a woman named Lina (Janet Leigh). All that remains to be done is to bring him back to Kansas and collect the money. One problem, however, needs to be settled: sharing the reward. The way back to Kansas is long, and Ben sees his last chance to get away by turning the three men against one another. As he tells them from the start, “money splits better two ways”, if split at all.
The five protagonists are dragged into all sorts of adventures throughout the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. While keeping the issue of the reward in the air, Ben plays with each of his captor’s weaknesses: he uses Lina to kindle jealousy between the two younger men, while teasing the unsuccessful old gold-seeker with the prospects of a hidden stock of gold. Little by little, the three men, who did not particularly trust each other from the start, begin to think of ways to get rid of one another. Tension gradually settles among all the characters, with sentimental twists, foolish decisions, and grit.
Anthony Mann put into his movie all the elements of romanticised life in the American West of the 19th century: a great, vast and dusty background, typical characters of the Frontier era, guns, Indians, and a pretty girl. What is most impressive, however, is the psychological aspect that exudes from the plot. Despite the unsurprising nature of the characters, which are found in most western movies, the director and screenwriters give them such depth that the movie turns out to be much more powerful than one would expect. The two screenwriters Sam Rolf and Harold Jack Bloom even earned an Oscar nomination for The Naked Spur. As the story unfolds, elements of their backgrounds and past wounds become clearer and give an opportunity to take a closer look at life as it really was in “The West”.
The actors do their job beautifully, embodying their characters with great intensity,and the original soundtrack, composed by Bonislau Kaper, efficiently supports action or sentimental scenes.
With just five characters in a mountain setting, the movie manages to take the audience through a stunning range of emotions. As soon as it was released in 1953, it became a box office hit, and the duo Mann/Stewart was to make five westerns together. Not only was it tremendously successful when it came out, but The Naked Spur has also been ranked among the classics of cinema for the past 60 years. The famous critic Leonard Matlin qualified it as “one of the best westerns ever made”, and in 1997, the movie even entered the United States National Film Registry, being considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
In conclusion, The Naked Spur is a well-constructed movie, that is not only entertaining but also makes the audience reflect on other aspects of the Gold Rush era. And as in every great American film, the subtle power of love always lies underneath the action.
The Naked Spur (1953)
James Stewart……. Howard Kemp
Robert Ryan………. Ben Vandergoat
Millard Mitchell…… Jesse Tate
Ralph Meeker…….. Roy Anderson
Janet Leigh………… Lina Patch
Director: Anthony Mann
Producer: William H. Wright
Screenwriters: Sam Rolf & Harold Jack Bloom
Music: Bonislau Kaper
Running time: 94 minutes