If I had to name my favourite Western star, it would not be John Wayne, as hard as that may be to believe. Instead, I believe I would choose Randolph Scott. He did not begin his career as a Western star. In fact, he played a rather wide variety of roles. But after World War II he would become the Western star par excellence, Most often he played the lone, hard bitten hero who lived by a code all his own.
Among the best Western movies Randolph Scott ever made were those directed by Budd Boetticher. And among the finest Westerns Scott made with Boetticher was Ride Lonesome. Directed by Boetticher from a script by Burt Kennedy, it is a movie that is often overlooked in the annals of Western films.
In fact, describing the plot of Ride Lonesome hardly does it justice. In some respects its plot even sounds somewhat typical. Randolph Scott plays ageing lawman Ben Brigade, who must protect a recently widowed woman (Karen Steele) as he transports a prisoner (James Best) to Santa Cruz to be hanged. Along the way he must contend with outlaw Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts), who wants the reward money for the prisoner for himself, and Boone's sidekick Whit (James Coburn). To make matters worse, the small group is pursued by the prisoner's brother (Lee Van Cleef) and his gang.
What sets Ride Lonesome apart is the strength of essentially a character study spiced up with plenty of action. It features some of the richest dialogue and some excellent characterisation. Ride Lonesome is very much a psychological Western. Kennedy's script is given life by one of the best casts of any of the Boetticher/Scott collaborations. In fact, Ride Lonesome is interesting to watch as a historical document alone. Pernell Roberts received third billing in this film to Randolph Scott and Karen Steele, appearing in it only a year before he would assume the role of Adam on Bonanza. James Coburn appeared in his first feature film role, only a few years before he would be a major star. James Best played in a number of movie Westerns and television Westerns, this well before he would become familiar to audiences as Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard. Finally, there is Lee Van Cleef in one of his earliest roles as a Western villain.
Adding to the high quality of both the script and cast is Boetticher's use of the camera. He used CinemaScope to its full advantage here, with travelling shots and long takes. Ride Lonesome was shot entirely outdoors, and Boetticher uses the wide landscapes to give the film the feel of existing well outside of civilisation. It is almost as if the film takes place in a world all its own, a world to which Ben Brigade has been condemned.
Ultimately, Ride Lonesome is a Western at its most basic. Unlike High Noon or The Searchers, there is no social commentary to be had here. Instead it is simply a riveting look at dangerous men living in a dangerous land at a dangerous time. Strangely enough, in creating a very basic Western on a low budget, Boetticher and Scott succeeded in making a film that in many respects truly epic.