The third of four "Three Mesquiteers" Westerns released to Blu-ray by Olive Films, and the fifth of eight such films co-starring John Wayne, The Night Riders (1939) is extremely entertaining, though entirely in the B-Western sense. It's outrageous, frequently ludicrous, and juvenile (though B-Westerns could be surprisingly adult, too), produced for a different kind of audience than the bigger, A-Westerns with which today's audiences are much more accustomed. But if one is willing to suspend disbelief and accept this sub-genre's different set of rules and iconography, movies like The Night Riders can be enormous fun.
As with Olive's three other Mesquiteers titles, the high-definition transfer is spectacularly good. Concurrently, Universal's Blu-ray set of mostly 1930s-era monster movies is deservedly receiving heaps of praise for its picture quality, but transfer-wise Olive's titles are very much in that same league, earning very high marks, too.
Unlike Overland Stage Raiders and Red River Range, The Night Riders is a period film, set in 1881. It also has an atypical story and structure, and this break from the routine series Western adds to its appeal.
Stony Brooke (John Wayne), Tucson Smith (Ray "Crash" Corrigan), and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune) are traveling aboard a riverboat due to the latter's "taste for the sea," though now he's hopelessly seasick. A cardsharp also aboard, Talbot (George Douglas), is caught cheating by yet another cowboy (an uncredited Glenn Strange). He stabs Talbot in the wrist and the rat is thrown overboard.
Talbot makes his way to a lonely, isolated house where Hazelton, a disgraced former U.S. Mint engraver, resides with Soledad (Doreen McKay). Hazelton pegs Talbot as a crooked gambler right away and hatches a plan to have him pose as Spaniard Don Luis de Serrano. Using Hazelton's counterfeited land grant, supposedly dating back to the Spanish Occupation, together they seize a whopping 13 million acres of prime real estate (nearly 17 times the size of Rhode Island).
From here the story turns into something closely resembling Robin Hood. Crippling taxes are imposed on settlers and ranchers (look fast for Hank Worden), many forcibly evicted by the "Spaniard's" hired thugs (led by future Mesquiteer Tom Tyler, as Jackson, and whose numbers include Yakima Canutt, George Montgomery, and stuntman Dave Sharpe; Kermit Maynard also turns up as a sympathetic sheriff). Even the Mesquiteers lose their Three M Ranch. They can start over, but what about helpless settlers like Susan Randall (Ruth Rogers) and her kid brother, Tim (Sammy McKim)?
Stony appeals directly to U.S. President James A. Garfield, but in a hand-written reply claims he can do nothing. In response, the Three Mesquiteers don KKK-like masks and white robes, and as the "Los Capoqueros" ("the Kapok trees") begin robbing from the tax collectors, giving the stolen money to the poor evictees. Why they're called Los Capoqueros I have no idea.
One of the best Mesquiteers movies, The Night Riders features a clever, amusing screenplay by Betty Burbridge, a former silent era actress-turned-prolific B-Western scribe, and a much younger Stanley Roberts, whose alarmingly diverse credits include the Abbott & Costello comedy Who Done It? (1942), adaptations of Death of a Salesman (1951) and The Caine Mutiny (1954), and, his final credit, an episode of TV's Hart to Hart (1980). Modest triumphs here include using Lullaby's ventriloquism as a means of escaping Jackson and his thugs, and their ingenious incorporation of President Garfield's real-life assassination into the very exciting climax (!).
The script also wisely sidesteps any hint of xenophobia/anti-Hispanic racism by making the villain white, though their illegal accumulation of great wealth on the backs of hard-working ranchers and settlers is amusingly effective. When nouveau riche Soledad shops for pricey velvet she whines, "This will not do! It is not soft enough!" as the 99% look on, aghast.
This was apparently the very first of just a handful of movies to depict President Garfield (Francis Sayles) in a feature film. The Mesquiteers, fleeing from Jackson and his henchmen, stumble upon the President, quietly reading in bed. Unaware of his identity at first the Mesquiteers bellyache about Garfield's inaction. Hearing the commotion, a handler knocks on the President's door to see if he's okay. "I'm quite all right, Jameson," he says, as three strangers with guns hover over him. Such lax security, no wonder he was assassinated!
Video & Audio
The Night Riders is presented in its original 1.37:1 full frame format, with the word "re-release" superimposed over the credits, suggesting this was sourced from reissue film elements. Regardless, the image is dazzlingly sharp and pristine throughout, a real revelatory viewing experience. The mono audio (English only, no subtitles) is likewise terrific. No Extra Features.
Highly Recommended for B-Western fans and more adventurous moviegoers, The Night Riders is a real hoot, and the outstanding high-def transfer makes this a special treat.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.