Starring: Ronald Reagan, Preston Foster, Chubby Johnson, Dorothy Malone
Director: Nathan Juran
Mood: If you’ve been feeling stressed and a bit jaded and need a Western story that’s familiar enough that it won’t get you riled up but will still leave you impressed in the end.
Law and Order is a Western starring the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. That’s literally why I bought it – straight up curiosity about what he could do.
Being a Canadian, and one who can’t seem to absorb anything about U.S. history or politics, I knew NOTHING about Reagan’s actions as president or as a human being in general. Technically, I still don’t. Five minutes ago I told my fiancé, who grew up in Iowa, that I was reviewing a Ronald Reagan Western. He said Reagan did something bad, but I’ve already forgotten what it was.
- Fun Fact #1: Reagan was known as the “Law and Order president” partly because of this movie.
So please keep in mind that my review is completely blind to Reagan’s politics, and I’m not saying he was a good person or president. But damn, was he a good Western lead.
Law and Order is a perfect little bundle of Western viewing pleasure. The runtime is 80 minutes, which is basically a season premiere of Yellowstone. And in that time, it delivers a well-rounded story filled with action, romance, tragedy, and danger.
You get hooked from the first scene, in which marshal Frame Johnson (Reagan) chases and captures The Durango Kid. But when he gets back to Tombstone, the residents want a lynching. Frame has to fend off an angry mob that includes his kid brother, and calmly shoots the first man who dares approach.
From there it’s pretty much nonstop action that follows a comfortable, familiar storyline:
- Rich, powerful bad man and his unruly posse control Tombstone, and the local law
- Reputable sharpshooter marshal and his family are implored to stand up to him, but only do so when it impacts them and on their own terms
- Diabolical cattle baron amps up the bad deeds, trying to drive the good guys out of town and causing a tragedy that hits too close to home and forces retaliation
The more I think about it, the more it sounds like it’s kinda-sorta loosely based on the Earps. The key difference between this and one of the many ’50s movies about the shootout at the O.K. Corral is that the lawman’s best ally is a cheeky old undertaker – not someone on death’s door.
But what’s cool about Law and Order is that there are enough other twists on the usual “bad man controlling a weak town” plot to make it different, and a standout for its time.
I said Reagan was a solid lead, and I meant it. He’s kind of a John Wayne type; barrel-chested and stern, but wholly Western in every way.
- Fun Fact #2: Reagan was a natural cowboy on film because of his love of horses and riding – although he rode English at home. The Secret Service struggled with his hobby because they couldn’t keep up (and bones were broken while attempting to protect him), until they found the right horseman for the job. Here’s a clip of Reagan riding with Queen Elizabeth II, who became queen at the same time Law and Order was being shot. Two cool facts for the price of one.
I was prepared to be mildly unimpressed with his performance, if not outright laugh at it. But Reagan acted effortlessly with both male and female co-stars, and even though all ‘50s Westerns feel at least a little cheesy because of the costumes and dialogue, he radiates that Old West lawman vibe.
Preston Foster (Kurt Durling) makes a seriously formidable foe. Most of the actors playing the good and bad guy gangs feel like what they are: young men of the ‘50s. They look and sound too modern. But you can feel Foster’s Broadway background in his performance, like he’s bigger than everything else on the screen.
Honestly though, some of the best moments are those with Chubby Johnson as coroner Denver Cahoon. From his very first scene, you get this sweet, funny character that will remind new Western fans of Deadwood’s Charlie Utter, or almost every role ever played by Barry Corbin.
- Fun Fact #3: At one point Frame (Reagan) says “I’ll be back,” which is a line another actor-turned-politician, Schwarzenegger, is famous for saying.
This being the ‘50s, the leading ladies mostly smile and flutter their eyelashes. We wouldn’t want to draw attention away from those high-and-pointy boobs!
I do like that Dorothy Malone’s character is the owner of a saloon, and calls her own shots. But they really didn’t put much effort into writing her part, she mostly just smiles a lot and is pretty arm candy. She fills the role well, and that’s about all I can say. Susan Cabot, who played Maria, was literally plucked out of a Miss Universe contest put on by Universal Studios and doesn’t seem to know what’s going on – which works for her vapid character.
Law and Order has a great mix of fist fights and shootouts, and lots of characters who may not be the most authentic, but are definitely interesting enough to keep you glued to the screen. I was even surprised by the ending. It handily delivers more than you’d expect from a ‘50s movie, and the perfect amount of Western storytelling for a weeknight after work.
If you like your Westerns oldschool, but appreciate the ones that put in more effort, Law and Order is definitely worth adding to your collection.