A Western that comes across as quite amiable and genial, funny and cheerful, in spite of dealing with quite dark material. Joel McCrea stars as a saddle tramp who in his own words, at the very start of the film, and in first-person narration, tells us, ‘Earth and sky and a horse…what more could a man want?’ Well that’s all he wants but that is precisely what the narrative will deprive him of.
At the start of the film, he goes visit an old friend of his, a widower with four children who instantly gets killed in an accident after borrowing McCrea’s horse – a rodeo horse who tends to buck at the sound of gunshot — and so our saddle tramp gets saddled with four young boys. In order to feed them, McCrea goes to work in a ranch. But the rancher won’t hire anyone with children so the kids have to hide out in a camp. They are soon joined by a young girl, an orphan who’s run away from her uncle’s because – and it’s as clear as Hollywood film of that era can show – he’s been sexually abusing her. There are other strands to the narrative, the rancher who MaCrea works for is involved in a dispute with his Mexican neighbouring rancher (played by Antonio Moreno, the silent film star) over the theft of cattle; the developing romance between the runaway orphan, who conveniently turns out to be nineteen, and McCrea; all get resolved in the end.
Ehsan Khoshbakht, in his write-up on the film for the Ritrovato catalogue offers several insights into the film: it’s a rare example of first-person voice-over in a Western; it belongs to a small cycle of westerns in which the cowboy’s time in the blissful presence of children chimes with the end of the frontier and the beginning of settlement (3 Godfathers); the way the McCrea’s horse functions in the film as a source of comedy and tragedy.
For me, what makes Saddle Tramp stand-out from a run-of-the mill B Western is how a film full of so much darkness – a death that leaves four children orphaned, an orphan that has to run away from home due to sexual abuse, racial hatreds between whites and Mexicans that blame each other for something caused by someone else; and ultimately the hero’s choice of responsibility and resultant loss of freedom – can all result in something so cheerful, so likeable, so amiable. Therein lies Fregonese’s art. And MaCrea’s, who must surely be amongst the most amiable and genial leading men of the Classic period. How the film’s ending finesses the loss of American culture’s most prized quality –Liberty – and how that’s contextualised with a continued longing for it that puts in tension with sex, education, home, civilisation, the past and the future – all aspects of a pursuit of happiness — and this at the height of the McCarthy era, is worth an essay in itself.