Friday, April 03, 2009

The Lawless Frontier

The Lawless Frontier posterThe Lawless Frontier (1934) tells the story of John Tobin, played by John Wayne, as he brings a crafty outlaw named Pedro Zanti to justice for killing his family and threatening the lives of frontier settlers. In some ways The Lawless Frontier seems like a straightforward Western of the white hat versus black hat variety (whereby the moral make-up of characters is denoted by their hat colour), but the fact that the villain is an ethnic mish-mash gives this story a strange twist. Zanti is half white and half Native American, but he disguises himself as a Mexican and speaks Spanish (unconvincingly).

The film begins with John Tobin discovering his dead parents after a raid led by Pedro Zanti, an outlaw wanted for cattle rustling and murder. Subsequently, Zanti is shown surveying a ranch for a future raid; he rides down to talk to its owner, an old man named Dusty, and Dusty introduces him to his attractive daughter Ruby. Zanti, decked out in a flamboyant costume and appraising Ruby with bulging eyes, is meant to be a sinister and lecherous character, but comes off as comical to the modern viewer. When Zanti reconvenes with his posse he states his plans to raid the ranch and seize Ruby as his prize; little does he know that Ruby overhears this and immediately warns her father. Dusty attempts to smuggle Ruby off the ranch, wrapped in heavy cloth and slung over a horse, but the horse falters at a river crossing. Luckily for the fast drowning Ruby, Tobin is present and dives off the river bank to save her. Zanti watches this, infuriated that the pair tried to trick him, and sends his gang to pursue them on horseback. They escape after a desert chase scene, thanks to Tobin diverting the gang and loosing them when he takes a spectacular plunge, still on horseback, from a cliff into the river.

When Tobin discovers that Zanti was the pursuer, the hunt for him becomes personal. Tobin returns with Dusty to his house, followed by the dubious sheriff who is obstinate that Tobin and Zanti are in league. Tobin succeeds in isolating Zanti from his gang, and a second desert chase scene ensues which ends in Tobin socking Zanti into an unconscious heap with one theatrical swing. Back at the ranch, the sheriff handcuffs Zanti to a bed, but within minutes Dusty crashes to the floor with a knife lodged in his back. Tobin and the sheriff investigate, but upon finding Tobin’s initials on the knife, the sheriff triumphantly handcuffs the dismayed hero alongside Zanti. Zanti squirms loose from his shackles, kills the guard, and is about to shoot Tobin when Dusty miraculously appears and shoots Zanti. In the Old West back-stabbings apparently count as minor flesh wounds. Zanti rides off with Tobin in hot pursuit, initiating the third desert chase scene. This one however involves Tobin luging down a man-made river, then pursuing a hobbling Zanti on foot until he collapses to drink from a poisoned watering-hole, then dies with terrible grimaces. In the penultimate scene, Zanti’s gang attempts to enter Dusty’s house via an obsolete mine-shaft, but Tobin detonates one end, trapping them inside so that they can be delivered into the hands of the law. In the end, heroism is duly rewarded as Ruby becomes Mrs. Tobin and Tobin becomes the new sheriff.

The Lawless Frontier does not take place in any precise geographical location, but on the imagined fringes of a nation where the rule of law is weak and decent folk must defend themselves from a myriad of enemies. However, exactly what constitutes the enemy is surprisingly uncertain for an otherwise straightforward movie. The archetypal good characters have nothing ambiguous about them: the damsel in distress, her devoted and jovial father, the brave and dashing cowboy. On the other hand, the bad characters of the sheriff and Zanti are more problematic. The sheriff is by no means evil, nor does he ever break the law. However, he has upheld a position of authority despite being inept at enforcing the law, a poor decision-maker and over-eager to exercise his power. The fault seems to lie not in this mediocre individual but the institution that bestows authority upon him. Even more intriguing is the character Zanti, who could just as well been a Mexican bandit, but the filmmaker stresses multiple times that Zanti is not Mexican. This film was produced in the years when Hollywood, committed to the Good Neighbour Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was cleaning up its projections of Mexico. In The Lawless Frontier the imagery of the Mexican bandit is still employed to denote threat, but it is only superficial.

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