The Big Trees (1952)

Kirk Douglas made this ordinary Western for no pay in order to wind up a Warner Brothers contract, the same year as he made a more committed effort in The Big Sky. It has an unusual plot hook, a piece of 1900 legislation that became a claim-jumpers' charter by invalidating the long-held titles of settlers in forest areas. Douglas plays a sharpie who sees a chance to chisel a fortune by usurping the land of a community of poor religious folk who live among giant California redwoods and don't want their homes taken away. However, the development is conventional - Kirk falls for a winsome widow (Eve Miller) and is disgusted by the rapaciousness of other loggers (including his own ex-sidekick). When the heroine's father is killed under a tree felled onto his homestead and a voice-of-conscience marshal (Edgar Buchanan) gets shot, Kirk reforms and sides with the settlers, though he still plans to bring a more capitalist, less tree-hugging approach to the business and does the usual 1950s bit of despising even well-intentioned pacifism and inspiring the Christians to take up violence against the oppressor.

Though Buchanan has the most interesting part, a washed-up prospector who mistakenly thinks Kirk is an honest man and then forces him to become one, he's still a low-wattage support, and the general level of commitment to the film can be judged from the use of nonentity womenfolk (Patrice Wymore is the saloon singer, who belts out an Irving Berlin song, 'You Can See Me in the Police Gazette') and a scattering of villains (John Archer is chief rat) who can't stand up to even a sleepwalking Kirk (who is more animated than many another full-out star). It doesn't even make the Warnercolor scenery as striking as it might be, despite logging and railroads (some footage comes from a similar 1938 movie, Valley of the Giants). The climax is a stop-the-train-before-it-careens-off-the- bridge-just-collapsed-through-sabotage gambit that might have been used circa 1910, followed by the dynamiting of a dam. Directed by Felix Feist.

First published in this form here.

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