Cahill United States Marshal (1973)

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Andrew V. McLaglen directs Cahill United States Marshal, a late John Wayne vehicle that isn’t without charm. The Duke would only make four more movies following this one and this is not the strongest, but it is a fair shade better than its reputation suggests.

McLaglen’s picture tries to let Wayne have his day once more. It creates drama and comedy somewhat free of the carnage and pesky adult situations of such contemporaries as High Plains Drifter and it manages to weave a tale about the importance of family and fatherhood in the process. As a result, some might consider the screenplay by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink a touch on the preachy side.

Wayne stars as J.D. Cahill, a United States Marshal and a widower. He is the father to 17-year-old Danny (Gary Grimes) and 11-year-old Billy Joe (Clay O’Brien), but the kids are starved for attention. Frustrated, they come up with a plan to rob a bank along with Abe Fraser (George Kennedy) and his gang of ruffians. Naturally, things don’t go well.

Billy Joe hides the cash from the robbery, thinking he and his older brother will be able to get a leg up on the criminals. But Fraser’s a brutal man and he’s not above putting a gun to the kid’s head, even when the little Budger has pneumonia. Cahill and his half-Comanche pal Lightfoot (Neville Brand) try to stay one step ahead of the funny business.

Cahill United States Marshal does well to look behind the locked door of a typical Wayne character. He has a family behind the dedication and he’s put aside his responsibilities to pursue bad guys across the desert. He may be a legendary lawman, but he’s a failure as a father and he knows it. When his kids show up on the wrong side of the law, his anger is tempered with guilt.

Danny and Billy Joe make for an interesting dichotomy. Danny is the typical smug teenager, a young man without a mother and full of bitterness. He’s full of piss and vinegar and wants to be a tough guy, even in the face of Fraser and his gritty cronies (Morgan Paull and Dan Vadis). Billy Joe is more innocent, but even he’s capable of standing up for himself when the robbers come calling.

It’s easy to see that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree as far as the Cahills are concerned. McLagen’s picture may not weave the most innovative sequences, but it does understand the connection between its characters. And the lads are stuck between two figures of risk, with their impressive pop on one side and the ferocious Fraser on the other.

When Cahill picks up four would-be thieves and locks them up for the robbery actually committed by Fraser and Co., Danny and Billy Joe are further tested. Innocent men are set to hang because of something they did, but they’re still so terrified of telling their father that they can’t quite make the decision.

Cahill United States Marshal suggests a world of consequences to the actions of the two young boys and it doesn’t shy away from the death and bloodshed. The adults of the world have an awful lot of cleaning up to do, with Cahill and Lightfoot taking to the woods in a fury of paternal protection. This is Wayne’s philosophy played to its no-nonsense end.

Wayne plays Cahill tough as leather. He barely flinches when he’s hurt and he gently prods Lightfoot when he defies the behaviour expected of a Comanche war chief. It’s all about brawn in this world and a man is expected to prove certain things. Of course, the hero gets it both ways. The Elmer Bernstein score is too jaunty for this sort of virile display, but it fits the broad moral thrust just fine.

This is an okay movie. It’s easy to discard it by conflating its robust values with an aging Wayne and his more insistent political views. But it pays to look at Cahill United States Marshal for what it is, with its teeming desert vistas, complex family politics and two-fisted durability. And if that’s not enough to do the trick, at least a guy gets run through with a tree branch.

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