An honourable man finds himself in the middle of a complicated drama in the all but lawless old West, a drama where ranchers use guns and patriarchal tradition to muscle their way through life. Considering one of the best things about it is its complexity and psychological layers, it's a little disappointing there are only two kinds of women in 1947's Ramrod. Well, only two women--a good boring one and a bad muddled one. But Joel McCrea delivers an engaging performance and there're a lot of beautiful compositions.
This film reunites the stars of Sullivan's Travels, Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. Lake is the bad girl though only according to the film's moral stance on women. She plays Connie Dickason whose father wants to force her into a marriage with Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), a cut-throat, ambitious rancher.
Connie wants to marry another rancher but, when he flees town after Frank and his gang threaten him, Connie ends up deciding to run his abandoned ranch on her own despite Frank's determination to take all the grazing land for his cattle.
McCrea plays Dave Nash, a hired hand and drifter with a deep sense of justice. He's torn because he hates the underhanded and vicious Frank but he understands why ranchers would be upset with Connie's initial plan to have sheep on the land which ruins it for cattle.
It's in its portrayal of Connie that Ramrod feels sort of like two completely different creative voices are working on the film. In some scenes, particularly the ones where Lake's hair is down and looking very 1940s, it feels like we're meant to sympathise with her desire to run her own life. In others, particularly where her hair is up in a more truly late nineteenth century American style, it seems like we're supposed to regard her schemes as a horrible cold-blooded ambition.
Bill Schell (Don DeFore), a hired gun Dave brings on as part of a group of men to work and protect Connie's ranch, is an illuminating counterpart to Connie and forms a crucial part of the film's moral philosophy. When Connie learns Bill picked a fight with a man just to shoot him dead, she lets him in on her plan to stampede her own cattle and make it look like Frank did it so the doggedly law abiding Dave is finally pushed into taking the law into his own hands against Frank. Bill, who hates Frank too, is all for the plan.
Bill's introduced in a shot dangerously close to violating the Hays Code, in bed with another man's wife, but I guess the shot passed because the actress had her feet on the floor.
Moral transgressions by Bill are shown to be charming and there's an implicit affection between him and Dave even though the law abiding Dave knows full well the sort of things Bill is up to. But Connie stampeding her own cattle is a horrifying betrayal of everything good and holy in Dave's book. So the movie finds him leaning towards the good girl, Rose (Arleen Whelan), who, sixth billed, spends the movie tending wounds and looking supportively concerned.
Dave's struggle between adhering to the law and doing what's right is the best part of the film. The elderly sheriff played by Donald Crisp is friends with Dave and at one point Dave is forced to sadly realise, in a good line, that he'd made a mistake leaning on the law when really the law was, "just an old man." It's a shame women aren't allowed in the moral ambiguity club.